Luck Of The Draw

Everyone wants to be a winner. This universal ambition applies to your customers, too. So why not accommodate them. Hold an in-store contest that rewards shoppers with appealing prizes. The result will be happy customers and busy cash registers.

If you think that sounds like a winwin situation, you're not alone. Store contests are time-honored vehicles for building customer loyalty. Careful, though: Pulling off a successful one means more than stacking a pile of entry blanks next to a shoe box. You want to design an event that captures as many customer names as possible, then add them to your mailing list for future promotions.

How's it done? Here's what the experts say.


"If you offer only one or two big prizes many people will figure they have little chance to win and will hesitate to enter your contest," says Murray Raphel, president of Raphel Marketing, Atlantic City, N.J. "But if you offer an additional 25 smaller prizes people will say, 'Hey, I have a shot at this.'" Be sure, though, that the small prizes are desirable ones.

Bonus tip: Maximize participation by announcing in advance that everyone who enters will be a winner of a 5 or 10 percent discount coupon.


A contest is great on its own, but your customers will be even more enthused if you tie it in with another special event such as your store's anniversary or a holiday.

Whatever it is, make it a party! "The most successful contests are part of a larger promotion that includes not only a special sale, but also supporting activities such as performing musicians, mimes, magicians or other entertainers," says Edgar A. Falk, a New York City-based advertising consultant and author of 1001 Ideas to Create Retail Excitement. "These create real excitement that attracts more participants."

Bonus tip: Coordinate the event with your Chamber of Commerce to avoid conflict with other happenings such as local parades, which can distract shoppers and reduce your traffic.


Newspapers, flyers, radio spots, the Internet — they're all great vehicles for your contest message. "Use media that work together to build excitement," says Larry Mullins, a 30-year retailing veteran who runs UltraSales, a Boulder, Colo.-based consultancy. "A powerful media mix is print, radio and direct mail. Coordinate them to send the same message."

Here are other promotional tips:

  • Create a celebratory atmosphere with print ads that feature balloons, clowns, musical instruments and other common party symbols.
  • Consider dominating your local radio station with a series of commercials promoting your special day. Says Mullins: "Even smaller retailers can dominate on a local radio station for a certain period of time. It's a great technique for getting your message across because people tend to listen to their favorite radio stations continuously. That's not the case with television, where viewers tend to surf channels to watch different programs."
  • Consider postcards for your direct-mail invitations. They can get more attention than sealed envelopes and are cheaper to print and mail.

Bonus tip: Update your Web site to promote the contest. Invite people to complete an online entry form to bring to the store.


Advertising brings shoppers to your store; good in-store follow-through encourages them to enter your contest. Try these ideas from Mullins:

  • Prime your salespeople. Make sure they hear your radio commercials and see copies of your print and direct-mail ads.
  • Use silent salesmen. Post colorful signs throughout the store reminding shoppers to enter your contest. Inside the entrance post a large sign with pictures of the prizes. Prepare a handout so customers who leave your store without buying will have information about your contest.
  • Get interactive. Encourage customers at checkout to enter your contest. Hand them an entry blank and say something like, "We want to make sure all of our best customers enter."

Bonus tip: Set an easily identified entry box at the back of the store to encourage customers to walk by all of your merchandise displays.


Capture all participant names and addresses for future mailings. Your entry blank should include space for names, surface and e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

"Contest participants are like gold for your mailing list because they are already enthusiastic about your store,” says Mullins. “Remember, it costs six times as much to get a new customer as it does to keep a currentone.” Appoint someone to keep your mailing list maintained. Use it at least six times a year.

Bonus tip: Include a spot on your entry blank for comments and merchandise or service wish lists.


Announce the winners of your top two or three prizes. That gives them a good feeling about your store and encourages other people to enter your contest next time. "One of my pet peeves about contests is that no one ever tells you who the winners are," says Raphel. "Eventually people start thinking, 'I don't remember anyone ever winning this contest. What is the sense of entering it?'"

One technique is to post the photos of winners on a display board at the front of your store. "With digital technology the cost is nearly zero for a great photograph," says Dr. William Rupp, dean of Stephens College of Business at the University of Montevallo (Ala.). "The images can be used in a continuous picture show of positive and satisfied customers. A picture is worth a thousands words and a thousand sales."

Bonus tip: Your winners may be more comfortable if you just post their initials and hometowns rather than their full names.


You learn something new each time you hold a contest. Use that to your advantage.

Hold a staff meeting and discuss the experience: What was done right and wrong. How did shoppers react to the contest. Anything special they liked or disliked. How about the prizes. Were people looking for something that wasn't offered. What can be done better next time.

Bonus tip: Assign a staff member to take notes during these post-contest reviews and write up the best ideas.


Remember that you must allow anyone to enter your contest; you may not restrict entrants to people who purchase merchandise. Consult with an attorney to make sure you comply with all state and local laws regarding contests and sweepstakes.

Use these tips to design an in-store contest that spreads goodwill, sparks sales, and captures the names and addresses of your best customers for your mailing list.

Build up a following by hosting a series of contests. Shoppers will get excited about entering your next one. Remember: Everybody loves a winner and every winner will love your store!

Plan A Successful Contest

Want shoppers to get excited about your contest. Here are some tips for turning "hohum" to "humdinger":

  • Decorate your store. Banners, streamers, balloons and colorful signs position your contest as part of a celebration.
  • Dress your staff. Use fun costumes or party hats to create a happy mood.
  • Use effective tags. For the duration of the contest, attach brightly colored price tags with special prices to select merchandise. The best tags show both list price and sale price.
  • Send "preferred-customer letters" to people already on your mailing list, inviting them to participate in the contest.
  • Ask your best vendors to supply some prizes in exchange for publicity. Explore similar cooperative agreements with local printers and party goods stores.
  • Announce winners. Hold drawings periodically throughout the day. Ring a bell and announce the winner over the public address system: "Britt Wortman just won a $50 gift certificate.

Let's hear it for Britt!" —P.P.

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