July is Independent Retailer Month. To remain competitive against retail giants, today's independent retailers draw from a toolbox of techniques for attracting customers and keeping them.
"As an independent retailer, I find it challenging to compete on variables such as price in order to attract customers," says Francois Mathieu, co-owner of the online retail tea purveyor Hojicha Co. "To compete, we have no choice but to operate our business differently than big retailers. This means focusing on providing more value to our customers."
Mathieu and seven other indie merchants share their top tips for success as independent retailers.
Carrying Quality Products
When it comes to succeeding as an independent retailer and attracting customers, your product must be superior, believes Vasudha Tekriwal, founder and owner of Mosquito-B-off, an independent retailer of all-natural mosquito repellant incense sticks.
"In my experience with attracting customers and remaining competitive, I've realized that there is no alternative to good quality and products that work," says Tekriwal. "No matter how much money and effort independent retailers put into marketing and other customer acquisition tools, if your product is not good, your company usually won't survive."
Consulting Your Customers
"Your customers are your most valuable source for market research," says Jason McCann, CEO of VARIDESK, an active workspace company. "Attracting customers can be done by soliciting their honest feedback. Analyze it and use it to inform your next round of products or services."
McCann successfully used this method to develop VARIDESK and the company's standing desk product.
"We realized early on that if you find a small group of people who love your product, there's a large group who will like it," says McCann. "Tap that group of brand loyalists, then hone in on their feedback to keep improving."
They take the same approach at Chella, a cosmetics company focused on eyebrows and eyes.
"We routinely ask our customers to share their honest feedback about our products and provide their reviews," says Chris Kolodziejski, CEO of Chella.
“We then work with a company to curate this user-generated content and post it on our website," says Kolodziejski. "This makes our current customers feel valued and does a good job of attracting new customer. Conversion rates have risen more than 300 percent since our customers have interacted with user-generated content."
Creating a Customer Experience
Independent retailers interested in attracting customers have a leg up over retail giants in their ability to create memorable customer experiences. As a matter of fact, it's unique experiences that can lure customers to your business.
"As a large independent antique dealer, we aim to make shopping pleasant and exploratory," says Mike Rivkin, owner of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. To do this, he provides food and drink to shoppers, freebies for kids, ample customer service employees and free and convenient parking.
"We also feature a rotating series of special items that won't sell quickly but that our customers won't see anywhere else," says Rivkin.
Allow your employees the flexibility to augment the customer experience, adds Mathieu.
"Employees at large chains often have to follow strict processes and policies that don't leave much room for creativity," says Mathieu. "Independent retailers should go off-script to provide additional value to customers, or to simply make their life easier. This goes a long way toward attracting customers."
"Maintaining the customer focus and offering them flexibility is key," says Ujay Zaveri, founder and CEO of DiamondStuds.com. "We are the direct source, so we offer a wide selection of products at competitive prices and give customers the ability to custom create their unique items."
Developing a Talented Team of Employees
"Success for independent retailers is also about investing in people at all levels of the business," says Joe Fisch, CEO/CFO of Wine Access, an online direct-to-consumer retailer.
"We've put a lot of energy into assembling a talented wine team that tastes and approves every single wine we offer," Fisch says. "We also invest in wine education for employees."
This focus on superior employees applies to everyone in Fisch's employ.
"Every person we've hired on our customer service team is topnotch," says Fisch. "It's important that our customers have the comfort of knowing that whenever they need to get in touch with our team, they're going to get quick and thoughtful help. The quality of our employees helps us build strong relationships with our customers."
"For independent retailers interested in attracting customers, it's important to build a team of innovative people at the onset who are unafraid to fail and have entrepreneurship in their DNA," he says. "As our company has evolved, I've relied heavily on those who have been with me since the beginning. They've welcomed the shifts in our direction."
Providing Added Value When Attracting Customers
"The savvy retailer serving either an online or a brick-and-mortar audience knows that attracting and keeping customers and maintaining an edge over the competition means adding value, rather than lowering prices," says John Moss, CEO of English Blinds, an online window blind company.
Independent retailers should go off-script to provide additional value to customers, or to simply make their life easier. This goes a long way toward attracting customers.
—Francois Mathieu, co-owner, Hojicha Co.
"What constitutes adding value for any given business or niche relies upon understanding two factors," says Moss. "What your competitors are doing—or not doing—and what your customers want, or can be persuaded to want."
Moss gives an example for attracting customers.
"If you operate online and none of your competitors offer free shipping, doing so gives you an immediate edge," he says. "For brick-and-mortar independent retailers, offering bonuses such as free tasters and samples or small unexpected gifts with purchases can go a long way."
Offering New Products Regularly
Today's dynamic retail environment requires that independent retailers continually offer up new products. That means adding new inventory regularly—or repositioning inventory for better sale.
"We ensure that our inventory is constantly moved around in order to provide the perception of new stock," says Rivkin. "Items that won't sell on the top shelf will fly out the door when placed at eye level, and sometimes the reverse. For stores like us with many regular customers, it has to be a new store every time they walk in."
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