With their vast product offerings, extensive marketing budgets, and established brand identities, big box retailers often make independent shop owners feel like they can’t compete. And come holiday time, national retailers’ deeply discounted merchandise and real estate in high-traffic locales would suggest that there’s no contest. But size shouldn’t matter. In fact, according to Susan Reda, executive editor of STORES Media, the publishing arm of the National Retail Federation, the time is ripe for small retailers to snap up their piece of the market share.
“Five years from now, it’s a safe bet that many stores will be smaller and their operators more nimble. Expect that transition to begin in earnest next year,” Reda says, adding that smaller stores that offer “experiences” will be the ones that are most likely to grow.
Daniel Butler, vice president of Retail Operations for the National Retail Federation, points out that this “buyer experience” is where owners of small stores have a big advantage over their chain-store counterparts. “They can actually be in touch with their customers and make a personal connection.”
Butler says that owners of specialty shops need to take regular inventory -- not just of stock, but of their space, prices, and policies -- to make sure they’re in line with their customers’ needs. “If you don’t know what they think, just ask,” he says. Online surveys or feedback cards are often the best way to garner honest feedback -- the anonymity offers a way for even loyal customers to air grievances and suggest better ways of doing business.
While paying attention to customers is an undisputed must for independent store owners, several retailers who’ve come out of the recession swinging agree that there are three other important moves that business owners must make to keep those sales coming.
Moving merchandise can make magic
Greenville, SC's award-winning Main Street is unique in that the city makes a concerted effort to promote locally owned businesses. That’s why you won’t see any chain restaurants or big box retailers in this town. But this doesn’t mean there’s no competition for Liz Daly’s art studio and shop. In fact, it’s just the opposite: Liz Daly Designs sits smack in the middle of dozens of specialty shops, art galleries, and chic boutiques.
To stand out from this plethora of purveyors, Daly works to reorganize and restock her 2,850-square-foot space frequently. “In a tiny space, you have to refresh the mix often so people will think it’s new all the time,” she explains.
That can be as simple as rotating product every other week. Earring displays might get moved to another counter, pottery shifted to create a different vignette on a center table, paintings and photographs moved to opposite walls. Daly points out that she switches the physical displays around two to four times a year and changes the entire shop’s layout annually. “Even if we’ve had something for a while, just moving something across the floor will make shoppers see it in a new way.”
Butler agrees that newness drives sales and also advises business owners to remember the importance of lighting. He recommends doing an audit several times a year. “Make sure you replace any broken bulbs and direct them to highlight the merchandise. You don’t need pools of light on the carpet,” he adds.
Along with rearranging displays, Daly says she makes an effort to introduce the work of four new artists a week. In addition to featuring local talent and the 65 different product lines, she and her staff create on site, Daly says, “I always ask other store owners if they are carrying a particular artist so we don’t sell the same thing.”
Introduce brand new brands
Rebecca Pike doesn’t have to worry about other retailers crowding out her shop. Salon 864 and Boutique is far from the major shopping corridors in Greenville, SC. But she’s still vulnerable to competition from department stores and national apparel chains.
Pike says she recently stopped carrying a brand that was a personal and customer favorite because she spied it in one of the mall department stores. “If my customers can find those items at a big department store, there’s less reason for them to buy it here. I can’t compete with their prices,” says Pike.
What does keep women eagerly coming back to shop at her 1,000-square-foot space, explains Pike, is a constantly changing assortment of apparel and accessories “you just won’t find anywhere else in town.”
An avid reader of fashion blogs, Pike says she frequently cyber hunts for new brands and independent designers like Lesley Tamaev. The two met online and Pike immediately fell in love with Tamaev’s Just Like Honey Clothing. The garments are crafted from new, vintage, and recycled fabrics, which Pike says are a perfect complement to many of the other handmade items she stocks.
Butler says Pike’s methods are a great way to stay relevant, however, stresses that communication around such changes is a key way to strike up sales opportunities with customers. Pike does this via the shop’s Facebook page and her blog, as well as at special events.
Think out of the box (or the store!)
In a tiny space of just over 1,500 square feet, Jill Hendrix’s Fiction Addiction can only carry a limited amount of book titles (she manages to squeeze in around 12,000). That hasn’t hindered her from providing special experiences for her customers. Hendrix just moves them out of the store.
Her “Book Your Lunch” program, which takes place at local bistros, allows customers to do one better than stand in line to get an autograph. For $25, bookworms can eat a gourmet lunch with their favorite authors. This up-close and personal approach racks up big sales, and not just on event day. Lunch with Nicholas Sparks, author of The Last Song, Dear John and others, rang in $25,000., but, Hendrix notes, “The publicity generated by our Book Your Lunch program has probably gotten us our most valuable repeat customers.”
As with in-store customer service, Hendrix says, “Retail has to be about creating a great customer experience. We try to give people a wonderful experience so that they have good connotations when they think about our store and [that they] think about us first when they’re in the market for a good book.”
The bottom line, says Butler: “Never lose focus on the customer and what they are asking for, versus your personal preference.” The retail playing field is changing, he maintains, but small retailers still have the advantage of direct contact with their customers. “Introduce yourself and begin to build a long-term relationship. Make sure everyone feels like a welcome guest.”
Image credit: Slack12