Retailers are pulling out the wreaths and ornaments early this year in hopes of ringing up more holiday sales. But the sales climate isn't looking particularly jolly right now.
Many analysts have predicted that sales will grow only modestly this holiday season. Shopper Trak, a research firm, estimates that November and December sales will grow a mild 2.4 percent year-over-year. For one thing, the official holiday shopping season—the days between Thanksgiving and New Year's—will only be 26 days this year, six days shorter than last year’s generous 32 days. Moreover, the government shutdown, gridlock in Congress over the debt ceiling and overall economic prospects will likely put a damper on shoppers’ holiday spirit.
“The economy is growing marginally,” says Jan Kniffen, a retail analyst based in New York. Many consumers have seen their take-home pay fall this year due to the disappearance of the 2 percent payroll tax, and many are planning to focus more on big-ticket spending in coming months. “If you’re selling to the masses, they just don’t have the disposable income right now.”
If sales are indeed tepid this year, it could be especially rough on small retailers who face stiff competition from major retailers like Target, Macy’s and Amazon. Many big retailers will likely mark down prices and roll out special promotions and sales in order to appeal to price-sensitive consumers. Internet sales are also expected to rise to 15 percent of all holiday sales, further dinging brick-and-mortar stores.
All that means is that retailers will have to work even harder to get shoppers into their stores, says Alison Jatlow Levy, a retail consultant with global management firm Kurt Salmon in New York. “When you walk into a large retail format, you walk into a big space with a ton of product,” she says. “When you walk into a small boutique, the shop owners really have the ability to make you feel like you’ve come into a different world. They’re able to create an experience and a vibe.”
Small retailers looking to gain an edge this holiday season can follow these three tips:
Cynthia Sutton-Stolle, co-owner of The Silver Barn, a home decor store in Columbus, Texas, plans to host several events between Thanksgiving and Christmas to help increase holiday sales. She plans to participate for the third year in American Express’ Small Business Saturday, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving; host a “ladies’ night” shopping event with wine and appetizers the first Thursday of December; and throw a “Thank God It’s Over” party the Sunday before Christmas.
The events, Sutton-Stolle says, are a way to create a festive mood and make her store into a holiday destination for people from Houston looking for an all-out holiday shopping experience (her store is housed in an 28,000-square-foot historic department store building). “Houstonites want to come out to our store and be inundated with Christmas,” she says.
Beyond the events, she also plans to use the store’s Facebook page, which now has more than 2,000 followers, to highlight unique products the store sells that shoppers won’t be able to find at major retailers. She also plans to host contests on Facebook, where winners receive prizes that encourage them to come to the store.
Sell Products That Make Great Gifts
Justin Gibson, U.S. master franchisee of Vom Fass, a Germany-based oil, vinegar and spirits retailer, says his store in Madison, Wisconsin, puts together sampler gift sets around the holidays that sell for $20 to $60—a steal compared to the $100 or $200-plus bottles that shoppers might buy for themselves. Shoppers at the store can taste all the oils and vinegars and select between an array of decorative gift bottles, and write a personalized message to the gift recipient using paint pens. “It gives them the feeling that they're getting a really unique gift that comes from the heart,” Gibson says, adding, “one of the keys for us has been creating a more-exclusive product line.”
The store also gives its customers holiday recipes and explains how the company hand-picks the products it sells in the stores.
Every year, the store chooses a theme to promote around the holidays. This year, it's “the flavor of health and happiness,” which encourages shoppers to teach their loved ones the benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet so they can live a longer, healthier life.
Offer Rewards To Loyal Customers
Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, co-founder of Retail Minded, a Chicago company that hosts conferences and provides other resources for independent retailers, says creating loyalty programs can be an effective tool for generating business around the holidays. A store might create a VIP program that provides special events for members or gives them an extra gift, such as an ornament, or a two-for-one discount when they shop on certain days. It might host an employee appreciation night and ask employees to bring two or three of their friends.
The goal, she says, is to make customers feel valued—something many big retailers aren’t very good at. “I think retailers are starting to accept the reality that consumers want incentives,” she adds. "They want to feel like they're getting something special when they shop with you."
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