How Can Local Merchants Ensure That Digital Searchers Know They’re Open?

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Businessman looking at the watch on the wall

What are your hours of operation? I’m not so sure all businesses know the answer judging from what they publish online.

On New Year’s Day, I had a problem that is pretty common during the holiday shopping season: I needed to return a gift my wife bought for me (a catcher’s mitt to warm up the Little League team I coach). When I Googled the retailer’s nearest location, my search return included a notice from Google that the store’s hours of operation, published online, might be affected by the holiday season. The notice was caused by the store failing to update Google with its holiday shopping hours, and it created doubt. And doubt can turn away a customer. Had the store kept Google up to date, I could have completed my visit without having to call the store to verify its hours.

Imagine if I’d been shopping instead of doing a return. I might have simply moved on to a competitor rather than deal with a phone tree.

Knowing your hours of operation is one of the first, if possibly the first, searches that customers undertake as they navigate their options when they look for things to do and places to go. Being available to potential customers means managing your store hours as a dynamic and scale-able data asset distributed where “near me” moments of need occur — including your store locator, location pages, Google My Business, Facebook, Foursquare, your app, and any other place where location data lives.

But doing so is not as easy as it might seem.

As enterprises ranging from retailers to healthcare systems offer a wider variety of services and adapt their hours of operation to seasonal shopping habits, managing business hours can be a tricky proposition. Consider the rise of retailers such as Target and Walmart, which offer several businesses within their four walls. I call these types of enterprises “container stores.” A large retailer might offer multiple services such as a walk-in clinic, a bank, a gas station, tire and oil change, a vision center, and a pharmacy. Although the store itself might be open until 10:00 p.m. daily, the pharmacy might be open until 8:00 p.m., the car service might be open until 6:00 p.m., and the gas station, 24 hours. A consumer’s motivation for visiting their local retailer might be radically different from one day to the next: needing a prescription filled on Tuesday, and wanting to buy groceries on Wednesday. The retailer needs to make sure its hours of operation are clear for all its services to satisfy its customers’ many needs.

But even single-business locations such as restaurants or smaller retailers that offer a single product or service don’t have it easy. It’s an annual ritual for businesses to expand their hours for the holiday shopping season, which now extends well before Thanksgiving and past Christmas Day to accommodate the post-season of returns and exchanges. And the November-to-January shopping blitz isn’t the only time businesses vary their hours. In 2015, Google reported that at least 25 percent of businesses adapt their hours for the summer, but that only 1 percent had updated their hours on Google My Business. Finally, many businesses must adapt their hours for special events, such as the many movie theaters practically keeping round-the-clock hours for the launch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Major content publishers such as Apple and Google have also underscored the importance of store hours as a variable asset requiring ongoing management:

  • On the consumer side: Apple’s iOS 9 operating system proactively offers information about places to visit, and responds to search queries, with results that vary by time of day. Apple gives preference to businesses that are open at the very moment a consumer conducts a search, depending on whether it’s 11:00 a.m. or 11:00 p.m.

Clearly, brands no longer have an excuse for posting inaccurate store hours, and they’ll only lose business to those that take advantage of tools such as those that Google offers. I suggest that businesses take a few crucial steps to treat store hours as a valuable asset:

  • Take stock of all your data and organize it. Identify all the touchpoints where you need to manage store hours. Doing so might be more complicated than it seems, depending on what kind of business you are or how many locations you manage. As noted, container stores require multiple tiers of data management. Healthcare systems must manage for multiple services scattered at different locations.
  • Unleash your data where it matters. Maintaining accurate store hours on your local listings is essential, but you also need to share store hour data with the data aggregators such as Neustar Localeze and publishers such as Apple and Facebook that share your data where near me searches occur. (I call aggregators and publishers amplifiers). As you update your essential location data with amplifiers, make sure you include store hours.

How well a business manages its location data will separate leaders from also-rans in 2016. Consumers, especially those empowered with mobile devices, are conducting split-second near me searches that require a business to be present with accurate data. If your business fails to be there during those near me moments of need, you might as well not exist. You must be present to win. Providing accurate store hours is crucial to being present.

Gib OlanderGib Olander is vice president of product at Chicago-based SIM Partners.