C-Store explores how creative retailers are adding some in-store theatre and boosting promotions to keep their stores vibrant

The fanfare sounds, the balloons fall, and the lucky thousandth customer is rewarded with a gift hamper. This technique might sound more suited to our American cousins, but UK retailers could also benefit from taking a bolder approach to promotions.

Going the extra mile by using in-store theatre and giving promotions quirky themes is a great way to increase sales and generate repeat custom. "The economic downturn has radically affected in-store promotion tactics," says Krishan Rama, communications officer at food and grocery research group IGD. "Retailers are devoting considerable time and effort to this. We've found they are using greater innovation with their standard promotions, going deeper with their campaigns, and using a greater number."

Rav Garcha, who owns three Nisa stores and one independent in the Midlands, believes that a constant flow of innovative, in-your-face themed promotions is a sure-fire way to capture customers' attention.

He claims that updating offers constantly ensures that customers are kept interested. "Promotions generally run for three weeks, but some customers are in three times a day and are bored by the second time they enter the store. It's important to put something in their way to catch their eye."

Following the success of his existing meal deals, he came up with the idea of themed promotional nights. "We're intending to have an Indian Night, a Mexican night, an English night and a Chinese night and so on. For example, the Italian night could involve an offer on a multi-pack of Peroni and two pizzas for a tenner."

Rav states that any initiative that evokes a reaction and gets customers talking has to be good. "You can get the staff to dress up even if customers are thinking 'What are you idiots playing at?' it's still worthwhile and keeps the shop ticking over in terms of morale."

Jimmy Dhaliwal, who owns a Thorougoods in Atherstone, Warwickshire, agrees that giving customers something to talk about can really lift sales. "I want people to be excited when they come into my store I want them to feel that they're special," he says. Jimmy has been boosting his sales by linking drinks with food to create a theme. "At the moment, we're running a Beer Feast theme," he says. "We provide leaflets showing which beers complement which foods. For example, we might recommend an Italian beer with pasta, or an English beer with a steak & ale pie."

He explains that many of the pairing suggestions come from customers. "Everything we needed was in front of us your customers are your database."

The idea came out of one of the staff meetings Jimmy holds every six weeks to brainstorm new ideas. He offers a £100 incentive for the best ideas. "Some people might think that's a lot, but the idea will generate £1,200 over a six-weekly period, so you have to think of it like that," says Jimmy. "Everyone who comes into the store is now buying beer."

The Beer Feast is supported by a glass promotion whereby customers receive two glasses for every 12 cans they buy. "Our beer suppliers are happy because the theme is bringing in customers," he adds.

He encourages others to explore different themes. "You never know until you try it you have to speculate to accumulate."

Another retailer who has been livening up his in-store promotions is Belfast's Andrew Porter. "Throughout spring we have Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Shrove Tuesday and Easter, so there's plenty to celebrate," says the retailer, who owns Eurospar store Creightons of Finaghy. "But we wanted to look at other events outside of this, so we launched a Customer Appreciation Week. We held the first in June last year and it was so good that we ran it again in September. We're now planning a couple more this year."

Andrew encourages local suppliers to man stalls in the store throughout the week to hand out samples of their wares, which are on promotion. "People are very keen to support local and shop local where they can," he says. "Local sampling means you have the actual person who has made the product on the stand, which provides a much more authentic experience for the customer. But we always team a very strong promotion with sampled product because this has the best effect. That is what will tempt the customer to actually buy."

But Andrew hasn't stopped there. He has also latched on to the idea of celebrating lesser-known national events, including National Cheese, Chocolate, Sausage and Curry Weeks. The events are supported by a mix of local and national suppliers who set up stands on different days of the week offering food samples.

Andrew claims that the experience has been quite a learning curve. Curry Week created plenty of in-store excitement, but this did not translate into sales because of the complexity of preparing curry and rice samples. However, Cheese Week was a great success, with sales up 54% during the week itself, and up 15% throughout the rest of the year. "If you are able to promote the product you are sampling you can really guarantee an uplift," he says. "We had Kraft offering samples, and at the same time were selling two new Philadelphia lines on offer at £1 each."

Creating in-store theatre really boosts promotions, agrees Costcutter trading director Angela Barber. "Savvy retailers are opting to carry out in-store sampling activity and are creating more of a buzz around a specific promotional event or product," she says.

So if you think that brazen initiatives might deter serious shoppers, think again. This kind of bold activity is exactly what consumers are looking for. And research from IGD shows that 21% of shoppers like promotions which 'make shopping more interesting'.

So aim for bold and original activities which inject some fun, and keep those offers coming. Because once you start up the promotional rollercoaster, your customers won't want to get off.