5 tips to surprise and delight customers during the holidays
Running a business

5 tips to surprise and delight customers during the holidays

There’s an old marketing strategy every business strives to employ at least once: surprise and delight. Some businesses are hands-down better at it than others.

Chewy, for instance, an online retailer of pet food and products, has been known to send flowers to bereaved pet owners. In the past, they’ve also asked customers to donate unwanted pet food to their local animal shelter instead of shipping it back — while still issuing a refund.

Many small businesses may not have the profit margins needed to support that level of surprise-and-delight marketing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put their own twist on the sentiment. A few personal touches can go a long way toward providing the best-in-class shopping experience your customers crave.

Michelle Bruce, owner of Lake of the Woods Wax & Soap Co., is one small business owner striving to surprise and delight each customer who places an order. She’s owned her own soap and candle company since the late ‘90s, though her current shop has only been in business since 2015.

Lake of the Woods beeswax candles

Now she’s sharing her two decades of business experience in the hopes it will help small businesses everywhere thrive and delight this holiday season.

Tip 1: Treat your product like a present, and package it like a gift

Lake of the Woods Wax & Soap Co. offers customers proprietary blended aromas presented in the form of wax melts, candles, soaps, and more. Scents range from Cabin Fever (a blend of forest, snowy lake, citrus, and cashmere sweater) to Blueberry Fig.

Her selection is unique and lovely, but the market is crowded with major competitors like Scentsy and Amazon. To stand out, Bruce has to provide not only top-quality products but an unboxing experience that goes above and beyond standard shipping.

To do this, she surprises and delights her customers with a visual and olfactory experience, which starts the moment her product is delivered.

“I want my customers to have an element of excitement when they get a package from me,” says Bruce. “So when I wrap up my packages, I like to make them look like a present.”

Packages from Lake of the Woods Wax & Soap Co. are wrapped in seasonal-inspired tissue paper and matching crinkle paper, and sealed with a personalized label. For the holidays, Bruce uses red and black buffalo plaid.

Lake of the Woods donuts

“I want them to open it up and feel like they ordered themselves something special,” says Bruce. “They’re spending their money with my company — with my small business. I think it is so disappointing when you order something, and you've spent your hard-earned money, and it comes damaged or just plain boring in the mail. It's really important to me that my customers have an experience and are very excited about what I send them.”

But beautiful wrapping is only one component of Bruce’s overall shipping strategy. There’s also the surprise she puts inside.

Tip 2: Always leave them wanting more by giving them … something more

There’s an inherent wow factor that comes from shipping goods with delectable scents. When they show up at their destination, they make an immediate impact.

“A lot of my customers tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, I knew it was in there when I opened the mailbox,’” says Bruce. “The minute they open the door, they get a whiff of what's in there.”

But tantalizing smells are just the beginning. An extra surprise inside every box helps ensure that the excitement doesn’t end when the paper comes off.

Lake of the Woods wax candles

“I like to include samples in every order,” says Bruce, who caters those samples to suit the tastes of each client. “I try to include things they haven’t already ordered, just to give them a little extra gift — a thank-you for ordering with my company.”

Bruce treats her customers to free wax melts, body butter, and in some cases, homemade lip balm. What’s more, each free sample is hand-selected with an eye toward the customer’s preferences, so it’s a gift they’re sure to love … and perhaps return to buy.

“If they like masculine scents, I'll include something they didn't get that they might want to order next time,” explains Bruce. “Or if they order from my bakery line, then I know that's the kind of scent they like. I try to put in one or two samples of something else I carry, so they can try a different scent in that same line.”

Tip 3: Invest in your customers’ online shopping experience

The most important quality an e-commerce business can have is a quick and easy checkout, or so says the 2022 QuickBooks holiday shopping survey. Also important is knowing when an item is out of stock and receiving orders on time.

For Bruce, whose business is largely conducted online, it was especially important that her customers’ shopping experience was as delightful as possible.

“When I was ready to do my website, I was also ready to make the investment required to do it well,” says Bruce. “It was worth it for me to hire a professional to take care of all of that. I didn't want to worry about anything on the financial side of things.”

Bruce’s website does make purchasing a breeze. Small details like auto-filling the customer’s shipping address; a section to add notes, such as a request for gift-wrapping (something Bruce offers for free); and several payment options make all the difference.

Before they get to their cart, customers are also able to see what’s out of stock and what’s on sale — something Lake of the Woods Wax & Soap Co. social media followers already know.

“Communication with customers is definitely key,” says Bruce. “People have their favorites — things they like and things they are used to having.”

Bruce understands that discontinuing a beloved scent can be detrimental to a customer’s good opinion. “I always let people know beforehand when something is out of stock and not coming back,” she says. “Just having that communication with them has made things a lot easier for me.”

Another way to turn that frown upside down? Bruce also uses social media to share good news, such as letting folks know when a holiday scent is about to go live. “Last year, I did kind of an ‘80s song theme for Valentine's Day,” she laughs. “Like ‘Heartbreaker’ by Pat Benatar. I didn't do too many, but I like to do little themes here and there.”

Tip 4: Make partnerships that can spread delight

While Bruce sells most of her products directly through her website, it is possible to get some of her items in person via one of her retail partners. When she can, Bruce likes to enhance those partnerships with special product offerings.

“One of the wholesalers who sell my products does Facebook Live videos once a month to promote the things she sells in-store. Sometimes she'll do specials on certain things she's selling, and oftentimes she'll include a special on my wax melts or candles or whatever it happens to be,” says Bruce. “This month, I’m making a special wax melt specific to her store — something I don't normally carry — that she can include in her bundles. I'm giving her those for free to include in however many bundles she sells.”

For Bruce, part of operating a small business successfully means making the most of her partnerships. Finding creative ways to promote her products in a partner’s store is good for both businesses. It also offers the kind of surprise-and-delight experience small business shoppers expect, particularly around the holidays.

Tip 5: Stay true to what makes your small business special

Small businesses have the benefit of being part of a community. Certainly, there are some larger companies out there that have managed to create a cult following — Taco Bell, Nike, and Apple, to name a few — but when it comes to building special relationships and customer loyalty, small businesses are blessed with boundless opportunities.

All year long, but particularly during the holidays, small businesses should embrace their own unique qualities. For Bruce, that means pulling inspiration from her location.

“We live right on Lake of the Woods, here in Warroad, Minnesota,” she says. “We have an amazing, vibrant local culture up here in the rural community and beautiful natural resources. It's very rugged and very remote. And we have a lot of pride up here — a lot of pride. So it’s very, very easy to be inspired just by being up here where I live.”

That pride comes through in Bruce’s products and in her products’ names as well. Scents like North Shore Drive, Minnesota Night, Flag Island, and Beltrami Forest all take inspiration from Bruce’s community. Ordering a Lake of the Woods product is like bringing a piece of Minnesota into your home — a visit to the Land of 10,000 Lakes without the travel fees.

Lake of the Woods body scrub

During the holidays, it’s easy to get busy with the hustle and bustle of the season. But the busiest time of the year is also an opportunity. This is your time to make brand-new shoppers into lifelong customers. Surprise-and-delight marketing might be a strategy as old as commerce itself, but like a good holiday movie, there’s a reason it’s a classic.

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