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Using social media to better communicate with customers

By 2014, half of the people in the United States will have a smartphone. That means access to the web, email, social media and custom apps from anywhere at anytime.

You've seen them in your store, reading their shopping list from their smartphone, suggesting dinner ideas to the person on the other end of a Bluetooth headset — all the while checking their Facebook newsfeed.

With that in mind, is it time to bring social media into your in-store experience? Most of you probably have a Facebook business page where you post links to the online version of your weekly ad and announce special promotions, but I want to challenge you to listen to customers, provide value and communicate via social media while they're shopping.

Here are a few ideas to try in the upcoming weeks:

Put up Foursquare or Facebook window clings that encourage shoppers to check-in when they arrive at your store. That will show up on their newsfeed letting all their friends know they are shopping at your store.

Wander around the store with your own smartphone and ask shoppers if you can take a picture of them for the store's Facebook page? Find a family that's shopping together — mom, dad and the kids — take them back to the bakery, give the kids a cookie, snap the picture and post it on your store's Facebook page (you can do this directly from the new PagesManager app). Encourage the family to go online and share it with their friends and family. That will be a grocery shopping experience they won't forget.

Put a FrontFlip QR code at your bakery. It can be set up to randomly award people with a bakery item after they scan the QR code.

Run a Facebook photo contest for the best picture of your produce displays. Do you make beautiful produce displays? Encourage your customers to take a picture and post it to a photo contest app on your store's Facebook page. These contest apps allow other page members to vote for the photo they like the best. Award a grocery gift card to the winner.

Make checking in a charitable endeavor. Each time a shopper checks in on Foursquare or Facebook or tweets with a particular hashtag (e.g. #ABCMarketCancerCures), pledge a nickel or dime to a particular charity. This highlights your store's community involvement and allows your customers to feel like they're having a part in it.

Leverage the social media efforts of the companies who provide the products you sell. For example, I buy cage-free brown eggs at my local grocers. On the carton, there's a QR code that links me to a live video feed of the hens that lay those eggs so I can watch them "at work."

You could reproduce that QR code on a poster above the egg display or you could even set up a small monitor showing the live video feed in the store. Four or five of those displays around the store featuring the pedigree of meat or produce sold in the store makes for a unique shopping experience and draws attention to the quality products available to your customers.

These ideas are inexpensive, but pay off big in customer involvement. However, there's one big idea I want you to consider: a mobile app.

Research shows that customers would rather have a smartphone app than a mobile version of your website. Your smartphone app could feed customers your weekly ad including coupons, allow them to share store content directly to their social sites and more.

In the United States alone, over 180 million people use Facebook. Twitter has more than 200 million active users worldwide. This is a wave you can't afford to miss.

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FreshXpertise from the FreshPanel is sponsored by FreshXperts, the "Supergroup For The Profitable Growth of the Fresh Industry." FreshXperts provides business development, marketing, cool chain, quality assurance, e-commerce/web, social media/CRM, training, produce intelligence, retail merchandising, strategic planning, organizational governance, and team development services.