It’s one thing to consider the results of national opinion polls – but every state, every community, every shopping district and even every retail store is slightly different from all the others.  The best source of information about what your customers want is your customers.  They “vote” every time that they’re in the store with their dollars, and an alert shopkeeper tracks what consumers are buying – and saying – in order to base the shop’s products, services and policies on this information.

This year has made it much more difficult to get the personalized information we all need, since the majority of independent retailers have not had face-to-face experiences with customers during the pandemic.  About three weeks ago our shop decided to use our email list to conduct on online survey in order to determine how people in our area felt about the return to in-person shopping.  We also wanted to alert them to the fact that we had increased our website offerings from two shoppable items (gift cards, and my book on retailing) to 100 times that number, all available for curbside pickup.

I was familiar with SurveyMonkey, having written about this platform in the past, and found it very simple to put a questionnaire together.  We made it short – the average completion time, according to Survey Monkey, was 2 minutes – and included mostly multiple choice questions that could easily be tabulated.  

It turned out that 438 customers were willing to share their opinions with us, and we are grateful to them for doing so (we did not use the incentive of winning a gift card, which might have increased the number even more).  The only open-ended question that we asked was “what would you like to see on our website that isn’t already there?”  Of course we did want to know the answer to this, but we also hoped that some customers might visit the site for the first time and place an order.  Over 125 people listed items that they would be interested in buying for curbside pickup, and although some of these goods were indeed already available, the list was a great help in prioritizing what to add next.

Our survey asked about shoppers’ plans regarding in-person shopping in general terms:  “Stores like ours are now allowed to have a limited number of customers come in to shop. Do you think you’ll go into any non-essential stores during the next few weeks?”   The responses to this provided meaningful data that I was able to share with my fellow retailers on Monroe Street, and elsewhere in Madison.  

I had always thought of SurveyMonkey as a free program, but it turns out that you can only ask 10 questions and get 100 responses without a paid subscription.  We had so many customers respond that we ended up paying for a subscription ($25 a month, billed annually) – so we are going to send out another survey soon.  This time I’m going to follow SurveyMonkey’s 10 best practices for creating effective surveys:

1. Define a clear, attainable goal for your survey.

2. Keep the more personal questions to the end.

3. Don’t let your survey get too long.

4. Focus on using closed-ended questions.

5. Consider including a survey incentive.

6. Don’t ask leading questions.

7. Keep your answer choices balanced.

8. Absolutes can absolutely hurt the quality of your responses.

9. Stay away from asking double-barreled questions.

10. Preview your survey before you send it.

There are of course other online survey platforms available, including Google Forms and the numerous companies listed in this PC Magazine article. But I will say that I was impressed by the way that SurveyMonkey compiled the results for me in a user-friendly way.  Since we sent the survey out as a link in an email blast, it was also an advantage that the company is familiar to many customers. I hope that we get as strong a response to our second survey as we did to the first!

Happy Retailing, 

Carol “Orange” Schroeder

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