Back in 1984, when Brent Barkin's father opened the independent retailer Shoe Station, he and his siblings spent many hours in the store, including playing hide-and-seek during off hours. Growing up in the store grew on the younger Barkin, who today runs the independent retail company that has 21 locations in five states and employs 500.
"America was built by independent retailers like my father, who took chances on their ideas and invested in their cities," says Barkin, who today serves as president and CEO of Shoe Station. "Budding independent retailers make those initial cold calls to secure financing and put personal credit on the line to obtain leases and merchandise."
It was for businesses like Shoe Station that Independent Retailer Month was created. This annual month-long celebration each July encourages consumers to shop local at independent retailers.
Independent Retailers Support Local Economies
"Independent local retailers contribute much of their income to the local economy," says Willy van Dooijeweert, CEO, founder and president of URBAN Traveler Store, which is located in Minnesota and sells travel goods. "The independent retailer benefits schools, road construction, fire and safety and much more," he says.
Supporting the local economy is critical to preserving communities, adds Andy Curry, who has owned Lamar Building Material Supply in Colorado for 30 years.
—Diane Lloyde Roth, owner, L'Armoire
"The benefits of supporting local economies means keeping money in the community, which employs people, creates more economic opportunity and generates tax revenue for city services," says Curry. "When we buy outside the community, the local merchants lose money that would pay their rent, property taxes, employees and themselves."
Challenges of Independent Retail
In this day and age of online retail and consumers being able to order merchandise with free delivery at the click of a button, it can be challenging to stay afloat as an independent retailer.
"Large companies [...] have complex and robust websites and the money to hire people to work on those websites," says Curry. "Indie retailers have to create their own websites and often don't have the expertise to create sites that sell products or rank high on Google. Typically, the independent retailer also has fewer dollars to spend for marketing, expansion and store upkeep."
There are definite challenges to being an independent retailer, agrees van Dooijeweert. "A lack of negotiating power and group discounts for merchandise is one drawback to being independent, although our company has found that being a member of the National Luggage Dealers Association (NLDA) does provide for some special perks regarding terms, discounts and free freight."
For van Dooijeweert, since priority shipping is generally given to large orders, his company may also lose out on best-selling items. "Because we're smaller, we're lower priority," he says.
Benefits of Being an Independent Retailer
There are benefits and advantages to running an independent retail business that you just can't get in a bigger operation.
Owning an independent retail company gives you freedoms that you wouldn't get otherwise, according to Diane Lloyde Roth, owner of L'Armoire, a women's fashion boutique in Canaan, Connecticut.
"You get to create your own unique space and be super creative, as well as choose with whom you want to work and set your own hours," says Lloyde Roth. "You can also be a positive influence in your community and with your clients."
Agility is another major benefit of owning an independent retail operation, adds van Dooijeweert.
"Our company can react quickly to local trends, including weather conditions," he says. "Our offices are open for local customers to communicate with us and share concerns. We're therefore keenly aware of their wants and needs. At the same time, we can coach our staff on a daily, if not hourly basis, in order to customize our individualized customer approach."
Lloyde Roth agrees. "The independent retailer is the racing sloop of the world, and the big stores are the aircraft carriers. Independent retailers can tack in and out of the waves and quickly adjust if the retail climate changes, while larger retailers can't easily do that, but may instead end up in dead water."
Secrets to Independent Retailer Success
Those independent retailers that stay in business and thrive operate with a few key principles. Here are four tips to help stay successful as an independent retailer.
- Evolve with the times. "It's important as an independent retailer to stay on your toes and embrace change," says Lloyde Roth. "Always be on the lookout for new vendors, work to broaden your client base and constantly train and retrain staff."
- Focus on impeccable customer service. "Excellent customer service leads to success and longevity," says Lloyde Roth. "You must be the authority on all things related to your field, so that you can advise your customers. At the same time, if you don't have an answer, always be honest," she says. Customers will respect you being truthful, which will help you gain more trust and ultimately business.
- Take educated risks. Keep learning and evolving and try out new ideas in a prudent manner, advises Lloyde Roth. "Always think long-term, not short-term when experimenting, and keep an eye on your cash flow."
- Aim for exclusivity. "Try to get as many exclusive lines of merchandise in your store as possible," suggests van Dooijeweert. Customers may increase when they know that your products are unique.
Barkin has ensured exclusivity by relying on the expertise of his buyers. "A regional mix of merchandise appeals to consumers, and a good buyer who tracks what sells is worth his or her weight in gold," he says.