Whether you’ve owned your summertime hangout for years or you just decided to buy an ice cream shop, you’re eager to learn how to run your business better. Maybe there are big improvements needed, or maybe a few tiny tweaks will make the difference.
The purpose of this article is to briefly cover the most important principles for small business success as they apply to running a popular and profitable ice cream shop.
Always focus on the customer first
No business is going to survive without a steady supply of satisfied customers. That’s why appealing to your customer and making sure they’re consistently delighted is the foundation of small business success.
Let’s call it The Cone.
When you’re building a delicious frozen treat, you have to start with a solid foundation: the vehicle on which all the gooey goodness travels from your hand to your customer’s mouth. That’s what a customer focus is for your ice cream shop: the vehicle that takes you to financial success. So, what’s involved in finding, delighting, and retaining customers?
You can’t run a business no one knows about. If you’re not regularly marketing your business, it’s likely to fail no matter how delicious your ice cream is. After all, it’s a busy world and your customer’s attention is pulled in a thousand directions at once. Without consistent marketing, there’s a good chance they’ll forget about you. And, when they feel like grabbing a chocolate cone or banana split, they’ll visit your competitor on the other side of town who is consistently marketing.
Marketing your ice cream shop can and should include:
- Investing in local print and media ads (assuming there’s still a substantial readership or viewing audience)
- Establishing your shop’s online presence, optimizing it for local search, and keeping it fresh and engaging (while an independent website is generally best, many shops have found success with an active Facebook page as their main online hub)
- Building communities via social media (especially Facebook and Instagram)
- Establishing and fleshing out your shop’s profile on Google My Business and Google Maps (this is how most of your new customers are going to first find you)
- Investing in locally targeted search and social ads
- Running promotions regularly across channels to encourage new customers to come in for the first time and previous customers to come back again
Of course, you’re also not going to last long if every customer your marketing brings in leaves dissatisfied because of the quality or selection of ice cream you offer. A successful shop doesn’t necessarily have to offer a huge selection of different flavors and desserts. But, it does have to offer enough of a selection to appeal to most visitors. And, even more importantly, what you do offer needs to be absolutely delicious.
Maintain the quality of your product by:
- Regularly asking customers if there’s anything they’d like to see on the menu that’s not there now
- Routinely reviewing your sales figures to identify flavors or options that are the most and least popular, and use that to inform marketing and buying decisions
- Monitoring online reviews for any mention of quality issues, and being quick to reply and rectify the situation if possible
- Experiencing it yourself — don’t overlook the value of personally taste-testing new options and having your staff do the same before serving it to customers
Excellent customer service
Finally, customers aren’t going to enjoy their visit or choose to come back if they feel like they were treated poorly at your shop. You can maintain the highest standard for customer service by:
- Training and monitoring staff to make sure they’re providing the best possible service
- Using social media, your website, and paper forms at the shop to gather honest feedback from customers, then applying what you learn
- Monitoring online reviews for any service-related issues, replying professionally, and rectifying the situation when possible
- Setting up the occasional “secret shopper,” such as a friend or family member who poses as a customer, then provides you with a thorough account of how it went
Handle all the background work
While your customers are going to be focused on the “face” of your ice cream shop, you know there’s a lot of work that has to go on in the background in order to keep the business running smoothly. As owner, your job is to make sure all those necessary tasks get accomplished without interfering with or taking away from the customer experience going on in the foreground.
Let’s call this The Ice Cream.
They may not realize it, but all the background work you’re handling is absolutely integral to your customer’s experience. If running your ice cream shop was like serving one cone, all those tasks would be the ice cream itself. Your cones may be delicious, but without the ice cream, it doesn’t matter. So, what sort of background tasks are most important?
The look and feel of the shop
Like any other food establishment, your ice cream shop needs to be clean and tidy. Not just because of health codes, but also for the comfort and enjoyment of your customers. But, it also needs to look and feel bright, clean, and inviting before they even make it in the door. In real estate, this is called curb appeal.
Improving your shop’s curb appeal doesn’t have to cost a lot of time or money. A little effort goes a long way. You can do so by:
- Keeping the parking lot and walkways swept
- Repainting the parking lot lines if necessary
- Making the entrance more attractive (or, the front of the building where customers place their orders) with a fresh coat of paint, power-washed siding, and clean windows
- Keeping any grass or landscaping clean and well-trimmed, removing dying shrubs, and reseeding patchy grass
- Freshening up your signage, both on the building and by the road
- Repairing or replacing lighting fixtures so it’s bright and cheery inside and out
- Refreshing any indoor signage including menus
- Keeping the interior clean, especially the kitchen and restrooms
Smart record keeping
As the business maxim goes, “something that’s measured can be improved.” That’s why, if you want to keep improving how your ice cream shop runs and your customers’ experience, you have to give recordkeeping and analysis its fair time.
Keeping on top of your records will mean your business will get a better value when it finally comes time to sell.
You don’t have to do this all yourself. Relying on a professional bookkeeper, virtual assistant, accountant, or attorney as needed is simply smart business. But, you’ll want to be involved and make sure you’re always up to date on how the business looks “on paper.” Do this by:
- Regularly reviewing your balance sheet, profit and loss statement, and other key financial documents
- Staying on top of agreements and contracts that need to be reviewed, renegotiated, or replaced periodically
- Making the tough decisions regarding staffing to ensure the best customer experience and the shop’s long term profitability
- Constantly seeking out ways to cut costs, streamline processes, incorporate technology, or otherwise create efficiencies so you have more money to invest back into making the shop the best it can be
Go the extra mile
The most successful businesses always have that little extra that pushes them past their competition in the customer’s eyes. There’s no way to guarantee it, of course, but you should always strive to give your ice cream shop patrons a little bit more than they expect.
Let’s call this The Sprinkles
No, it’s not necessary. You can enjoy the ice cream cone without it. But, when you’re out with friends on a beautiful summer night, eating an ice cream cone, don’t you picture that cone with sprinkles? Give your customers “sprinkles” by:
- Keeping up with trends in the industry and offering flavors and presentations your customers can’t get anywhere else nearby
- Offering options for those with food allergies and dietary preferences, such as vegan and lactose-free varieties
- Maintaining a loyalty program that gives customers a valuable reason to return
- Offering special discounts for highly personalized reasons, such as a free cone on your birthday, or free sundae for Father’s Day
As you’ve probably already picked up, running a successful ice cream shop can be challenging. But, with a little creativity, some common sense, and a laser focus on your customer, it can be both fun and rewarding.