You’ve worked diligently to prepare your retail store’s grand opening. You’ve decorated the sales floor, promoted on social media, and ordered treats. But as your potential customers start to arrive and shop, a long queue begins to form at checkout. You realize your staff lack experience using the registers and are unable to keep up with the growing line.
The reality is that many new businesses can do with a bit of practice before the big day. Cue the soft opening—a way to work out the kinks before the real customers arrive. Here’s what you need to know.
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What is a soft opening?
A soft opening is when a business opens its doors—or unveils its website—to a limited group of people before its official grand opening (also called a hard opening). A soft opening serves as a trial run where you can test your products and operations on a small, low-stakes audience—often friends and family. This way, you can gather feedback and make improvements before the official launch when you are open to the public and there’s more on the line.
What is the goal of a retail soft opening?
The central purpose of a soft opening at a new retail location is to evaluate your operations and procedures and smooth out any snags before your big event.
Your soft opening is a practice round where you and your staff can test floor organization, sales techniques, register operations, and transactions. If you notice issues—like long lines at checkout or customers asking the same questions—you can make tweaks to improve your sales flow and ensure the public doesn’t experience these issues.
How does a soft opening differ from a grand opening?
A soft opening isn’t just a smaller-scale event than a grand opening. Here’s how soft and grand openings differ in size and purpose:
Soft openings are meant to be smaller in attendance than grand openings, which are usually open to everyone. Soft openings are often invitation-only, open to just friends, family, local press, and other local business owners.
Soft openings are about improving. The primary focus is gathering (and implementing) feedback. The primary focus of grand openings, on the other hand, is attracting and earning new customers. While you may gain useful feedback at your grand opening, your energy will more likely be spent socializing.
Soft openings can last several days or even weeks—however long it takes to gather feedback and make changes. On the other hand, grand opening events are typically one-day or one-week affairs designed to build buzz and draw in loyal customers before settling into normal operations.
What are the benefits of having a soft opening?
A soft opening can offer various benefits for retail stores, from product polishing to improved business processes. Here are a few key advantages:
Get feedback on your product
Even after rounds of product testing, a soft launch is a chance to test your product in a semi-public setting. Suggestions can lead to refinements, while praise can become the first testimonials on your website.
Polish your operations
Long lines or point-of-sale (POS) issues can dampen the mood on your grand opening day. A soft opening can reveal these issues and ways to fix them, preventing them from arising when the general public arrives.
Prepare your staff
A soft launch gives your employees—from sales staff to online customer service reps—a chance to practice their skills and get used to the sales process in a lower-stakes setting. With practice, they can avoid mistakes and be their best on your official opening date.
Establish community connections
You can use your soft opening to form relationships with community members by inviting local press or other small business owners. This can open the doors for partnerships, word-of-mouth recommendations, and other forms of support and networking.
Like a grand opening, a soft launch can generate buzz around your business. If guests enjoy their experience, they’ll likely recommend your business and help attract customers.
How to plan a soft opening
- Create a budget
- Determine the scope
- Schedule your opening
- Decide the length of your event
- Compile your invitation list
- Capture feedback
- Analyze the results of your soft opening
- Organize feedback into categories
- Look for patterns
- Prioritize essential improvements
Ready to open your doors? Here’s a guide for planning and executing an effective soft opening for your retail store:
1. Create a budget
The first step is to decide how much money you want to allocate to your opening. There’s no ideal figure for a soft-opening budget. It varies significantly by location, guest list, and industry. Costs may include refreshments, decorations, product giveaways, staff, live musicians, and other entertainment.
Soft store openings usually feature discounted prices, coupons, demos, and promotions on your products to allow attendees to try them out at a lower price. As you decide how much to spend on your soft opening, consider how many people you want to invite, the kind of discounts you wish to offer, and your target customer acquisition cost.
2. Determine the scope
Determine your goals. Do you want to focus on product feedback, or are you more concerned about a smooth checkout experience? Do you want your employees to practice a particular part of the sales process, like greeting customers on the sales floor or selling memberships at checkout?
Once you know your soft launch goals, adjust the scope of your event to match your objectives. For instance, limit your selection to a few specific products (the way a restaurant may choose a few signature dishes) or focus your employees on a particular aspect of your sales cycle.
3. Schedule your opening
Decide when you want your soft opening to take place. Scheduling a soft opening far in advance of your grand opening can give you time to make significant changes to your products or sales flow. Having a soft opening only a week or two before your grand opening may be a good time to test all operations at once to make sure you’re ready.
4. Decide the length of your event
A soft opening can run for a single night, a few days, or even weeks. A multi-day soft opening can help accommodate guests’ busy schedules and avoid the challenges of a crowd of customers or a large load on your server. It can also allow you to focus on different aspects each day—like upselling one day and speedy service the next. However, a multi-day soft opening can be more expensive, especially if you offer refreshments, run giveaways, or give discounts.
A single-night soft launch can be more affordable and increase the energy of the event by bringing many people to your store at once. That said, it can be more challenging to gather sufficient feedback in such a short window. If you’re getting useful criticism, you may choose to extend your soft opening and keep making changes until you and your employees feel confident.
5. Compile your invitation list
You can invite friends and family to create a positive, supportive environment. A soft opening is also an opportunity to create relationships with new potential customers.
Find individuals from your target audience and demographics. If you sell high-end tennis gear, for example, conduct local searches for tennis clubs and teams. Consider inviting social media influencers, local or industry-related press, and other small business owners who can lead to word-of-mouth recommendations and future partnerships.
You can also forgo a guest list and simply open your doors without a public announcement, allowing a small amount of organic traffic to trickle in before your publicized opening day.
6. Capture feedback
The most important element of a soft opening is the honest feedback from your target customers, so make a robust plan early on about how to capture it. There are a range of ways to gather constructive feedback, including informal conversation, anonymous feedback surveys, and email surveys after the event. Keep feedback questions simple, neutral, and goal-oriented, with a balance between closed and open-ended questions.
7. Analyze the results of your soft opening
Once your soft opening ends, you’ll have a pile of actionable feedback. To ensure you glean valuable insights from your soft launch and effectively implement adjustments, follow these steps:
8. Organize feedback into categories
You’ll likely receive valuable feedback on various elements, from your products to the colors of your walls or website. To help digest the feedback, organize according to subject matter—for instance, products, sales floor, customer service, and sales cycle.
9. Look for patterns
Not every piece of feedback necessitates an immediate change. When evaluating comments, look for patterns and similarities that suggest a large portion of your customers may be experiencing a similar issue. If one person struggled with their discount code, but 15 people asked where to go to check out, you probably want to focus on checkout signage first.
10. Prioritize essential improvements
With your grand opening approaching, don’t overwhelm yourself and your staff by making last-minute tweaks to nonessential elements. Focus on issues that convert directly to sales (like improving checkout or employee training). Remember, you can keep making changes after your grand opening.
Turn store traffic into sales
With Shopify’s mobile POS, you can serve customers anywhere in your store and banish lineups at the checkout counter. Use any smartphone or tablet to process returns and exchanges, accept payments, and check out customers wherever they are.
Retail soft opening FAQ
How long does a soft opening last?
A soft opening can last anywhere from a single night to several weeks, depending on your goals, your budget, the type of feedback you receive, and how soon you’d like to host your official grand opening.
Do you announce a soft opening?
A typical soft opening is invitation-only, so any announcement you make would be limited to a select number of people. If you choose not to have an invite-only event, you may quietly open your doors without a public announcement to naturally limit attendance.
What role does customer feedback play during a soft opening?
Customer feedback is the primary purpose of a soft opening. You use insights you gain during the event to improve your business model or employee training processes and increase the success of your official grand opening.