In the fall of 2000, lower-priced competitors forced Bob and JoAnn Shirilla of Poland, Ohio, to shut down their two mall-based brick-and-mortar gift stores. But they had a large, leftover inventory of items, including close to 200 woven throw blankets with a popular video game character embroidered on them.
To recoup the money they'd spent on the blankets and other gift items, the Shirillas set up a makeshift e-commerce site to see if they could unload their stock. What came next was something of a holiday miracle: Hundreds of orders for the blankets began flooding in to the site in November and December. They ended up not only selling the blankets they had on hand but ordering more from the weaver in order to fulfill the huge demand.
“It was unbelievable,” Bob says. “On Monday morning, the [package delivery] guy would come, and our garage would be piled high full of boxes.”
The 2000 holiday season remains the Shirillas’ most memorable one, and it helped convince the couple they might have a bright future in e-commerce. Thanks to that winning season, they decided to turn their makeshift e-commerce site into what’s now a full-blown online gift store, Keepsakes Etc. (They set up a second site in 2007, Simply Bags, to sell personalized tote bags.)
Though overall company sales are higher today than they were back in 2000, Keepsakes Etc has never seen the same outrageous demand for a single product. But the experience taught the Shirillas the importance of selecting “hot ticket” items and giving shoppers something they can’t find elsewhere.
“If it weren’t for those ... blankets," Bob says, "we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today.”
The holiday season can bring huge success for both online and brick-and-mortar retailers, but no two seasons are alike. Success depends on a variety of factors, including consumer spending habits that particular year, product trends, inventory, marketing—and sometimes just pure luck.
We spoke with several independent retailers about their most successful holiday seasons ever and what made them so great.
The Appeal of Gift Sets
For Scrubz Natural Skin Care Products, an all-natural bath and body products retailer with a storefront in downtown Bethpage, New York, 2013 delivered the store's best holiday season yet.
The store, which opened in 2011, originally did little around the holidays beyond putting up a few decorations. But in 2013, co-owners Roberta Perry and her sister, Michelle Tucker, decided to take sample-sized, two-ounce jars of the store’s body scrubs and package them into gift sets decorated like snowmen. They also wrapped four different flavors of their lip balm into rolls they called “Lipz-Savers.” Shoppers could also custom-create their own body-scrub sets, and the store would wrap them up for free. Mini holiday cards with various messages and themes were also available for free to shoppers so they could personalize their gifts in the store.
The pre-packaged gift sets were a hit with shoppers and helped the store nearly double its holiday sales over the previous year, Perry says. Perry and Tucker made sure to set a reasonable price for all the sets—less than $20—recognizing that many holiday shoppers don’t want to spend more than that on any one gift.
“We really tried to make it a one-stop shopping experience,” Perry says. Previously, the store had charged 50 cents for gift wrapping, but the partners realized that shoppers were more likely to buy something if gift wrapping was free.
This year, Perry says they plan to expand on the popularity of the gift sets. They'll package body scrubs in small decorative sleds, as well as have metal buckets holding bath and body products for men. They also plan to put the free gift wrapping station in the store—rather than in a backroom—so shoppers can easily see that free wrapping is available.
Getting Huge Holiday PR Buzz
For AlwaysFits.com, a Beverly, Massachusetts-based online retailer that sells “whimsical and unique gifts," the holiday season comprises nearly half the company’s annual sales. In 2011, the store got a special holiday gift of its own.
Over the summer, store founder and owner Ashley Judge reached out to the editors of numerous national magazines who oversee the holiday gift guides, pitching her store's fun products. After sending out lengthy pitch emails, four major magazines featured AlwaysFits.com products in their holiday guides. Glamour magazine featured the site's crocheted headphones as a gift item recommended by TV actress Whitney Port; Redbook featured a "Godfather" talking bobblehead (based on the movie The Godfather) as a “best gift for under $20”; Woman’s World featured mints in a box decorated with an illustrations of Marilyn Monroe; and First For Women included a Little Green Lantern baby onesie.
“The stars were aligned,” Judge says of the fact that her pitches connected with the editors of four different magazines. The publicity led to a huge spike in sales for those four gift items that holiday season, Judge adds, noting that she's sold 500 to 1,000 units of AlwaysFit.com products that have been featured in holiday guides during the holiday season compared to the 50 to 100 units she sells of non-publicized items.
“Nothing packs the same punch as an editorial mention in a national magazine with 3 million readers,” Judge says. “Those magazines sit in nail salons all year round, so they have a long impact, too.”
While AlwaysFits.com and its products continue to get mentioned in national magazines, 2011 was a particularly big year for the site. For one thing, the timing of the pitches couldn't have been better—because most magazines’ holiday gift guides, which are featured in their December issues, are usually wrapped up by early fall, editors look for holiday gift item pitches in the summer months. Moreover, small retailers and business owners would be wise to subscribe to databases sold by companies like Gift List Media to get current names and contact information for the holiday gift guide editors at major publications, as well as details about what the editors are looking for in product pitches.
If a magazine editor is interested in a product, they'll often call the product retailer in advance to let them know one of their products is being featured in the gift guides and to make sure they have enough inventory on hand to fulfill an expected spike in demand. “They want to make sure you have 1,000 or more of the featured gift item," Judge says. “They don’t want to tell their readers about things they can’t buy—it hurts the credibility of their gift guide.”
Judge says she’s already heard from several major magazines about products of hers being featured in the publications' 2014 holiday gift guides, so she’s hopeful this year may be even better than 2011. “I think we’re in some big [magazines],” she says, “but I don’t like to count my chickens before they hatch.”
Fine-Tuning the Holiday Shopping Experience
Last year, HighStreet Cincinnati, an upscale design and urban lifestyle store in downtown Cincinnati, hosted its 10th annual Black Friday/White Russian Holiday Party, an annual Black Friday event where shoppers dress up in fancy clothes, drink cocktails, eat gourmet cookies and shop (usually with a special discount).
The event was a nice preview to what ultimately led to what co-owner Leah Spurrier calls the store’s best holiday season yet. Spurrier adds that many factors helped the store boost its holiday sales by nearly 20 percent last year, including the continuing economic recovery and the fact that luxury consumers seem to be opening their wallets again.
But the store has also taken many steps on its own over the years to improve the customer experience and train its 10-person staff on how to create the best possible shopping experience around the holidays. For example, several sales-floor staff are now “seasoned,” Spurrier says, "and know how to identify better-selling items and restock them.” If a hot-selling item runs any risk of selling out, staff members are trained to get on the phone immediately and place orders to restock the store’s inventory.
Last holiday season, the store also began putting more shopping baskets around the store, making it easier for customers to find them. It also stocked more small, lower-priced holiday gift items, including Christmas ornaments and stationery—things that shoppers might pick up as stocking stuffers or as small host gifts.
“The holiday season is really interesting because so much of your numbers are done with little things,” Spurrier says. “We just went really deep into little things last year.”
This year, Spurrier and co-owner, Matt Knotts, are confident that sales will be even better than last year, as they continue to make the customer experience even more rewarding and as effortless as possible. The partners recently renovated the store and doubled its footprint to 17,000 square feet. They're also expanding the store's selection of the smaller gift items that people can easily grab while they’re shopping. The store owners will likely host more holiday-themed events this year, including a jewelry trunk show a week before the Black Friday/White Russian Holiday Party. They're also hosting private holiday parties for local companies that want to give their employees a unique shopping experience.
Overall, Spurrier says the secret to successful retail is uncovering what customers want and then giving it to them. The Black Friday party, for example, is a good chance for the partners to discover which items will likely be the hottest sellers over the season. They can then showcase those items and watch to ensure they don’t run low throughout the holiday season.
“After our Black Friday event, we reflect on what went well—what were people fighting over?” she notes. “Retail is a tough business. There are a lot of subtleties. You can’t just buy stuff and set it out and hope it sells.”
Read more articles on holiday tips.
Photos: Getty Images, Scrubz, AlwaysFits, Ross Van Pelt