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[19 comments]

Support your local merchant

July 3, 2014

July is Independent Retailer Month. This is a period of time when consumers across the country are encouraged to shop at the small guys in recognition of the positive social and economic contributions they make to local communities and beyond.

Independent Retailer Month was first launched in the U.S. and the U.K. in 2011, with Canada following a year later. The program started as a collaboration between Tom Shay, who created National Independent Retailer Week in 2003, and Kerry Bannigan, co-founder of Nolcha Fashion Week, who launched Independent Retail Week in 2009.

The pitch for why consumers should patronize independents is pretty well known at this point. Dollars spent at local merchants help the communities they serve.

According to the Independent Retailer Month website, "A dollar spent at an independent retailer is usually spent six to 15 times before it leaves the community. From $1, you create $5 to $14 in value within that community. Shopping with an independent retailer supports local traders, their suppliers and the people they depend on to run their businesses. Buying from an independent retailer boosts your local economy, rebuilding confidence in the community, enabling local businesses to prosper and grow."

ShopIndieRetail.com, a new online shopping guide, has launched to help highlight local shop owners as part of Independent Retailer Month. The site provides consumers with photos, business details and reviews as well as information on special events and savings.

Among the retailers participating are Tema Contemporary Furniture (NM), Bartons Toys (SC) and The Chocolaterie (GA). Local business organizations such as Chambers of Commerce are also supporting the effort.

Discussion Questions:

What is the state of independent retailers where you live and work? Are there any stand-out independents that you hope others will support this month and beyond? What strategies and/or tactics can you recommend for small merchants looking to compete against chain stores?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

What is the state of business for independent retailers where you live and work?

Comments:

The state of independents in my area is like anywhere else. As long as they are providing the consumer with a compelling reason to shop they are successful. I don't care what the economic formulas say, I totally detest mediocrity. My dollars reward excellence and punish mediocrity. I'm going to go buy gas in a bit and pay three cents more per gallon. The lady at the gas station is pretty, she talks with me and gives me a free cup of coffee. That's worth paying an extra 30 cents per fill-up on my Prius. The station across the street is three cents per gallon cheaper but they employ a rude crew of Walmart-esque type employees. The best strategy is to make customers want to shop at your store, make them feel good about coming in and feel even better about themselves when they leave. If your business can't do that, good luck in staying in business.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

Here in San Francisco, there are certain neighborhoods that independents thrive in, especially in the fashion category and more recently in the food category. For independent clothing makers like West Coast Leather or Beta Brand, or boutiques such as those on the Indie 38 list, the key is differentiated products, personal service and apt use of social media to maintain their base and communicate to shoppers who are looking for something different.

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Kenneth Leung, Director of Enterprise Industry Marketing, Avaya

There are still too many empty storefronts in the suburbs of Los Angeles as a result of the Great Recession. The surviving indie retailers have learned how to market using online and other hyper-local tools. Small merchants can compete by reminding the community of their roots, by offering products that the chains don't usually carry and through superior customer service.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

We have a cautiously-healthy group of independents around south Denver. Restaurants do better by far, and drive enough traffic for the independent toy store, book store, flower shop, board/bicycle shop and jewelry shop to stay afloat.

But I would contrast that with up-and-coming neighborhoods in Denver like the Highlands or Five Points, where the streets are lined with craft distillers and infusion bars, highly curated collections of second-hand merchandise, yes, the occasional retail marijuana shop, and small-format furniture and storage stores, all designed to feed the growing numbers of condo-dwellers looking for the "near city" life.

There is a life to be had for independent retailers, but they have to be even more careful about their offering and their strategy. Consumers don't tend to excuse not having technology to keep your inventory or ring the sale, and maybe July is the exception, but without a prime location, consumers aren't really going to go out of their way to find you.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Indies are struggling, no denying it. I just wish many would understand I shouldn't have to put up with "Bitter Betty" behind the counter, or their determination to keep a cat because it's cute (when I'm allergic) or their often oblivious attitude to someone in their shop.

I've been in some great independent retailers lately who are indeed a better experience; with a more curated selection and refreshingly interesting and well-trained employees.

The way you compete against anyone is your people.

It's always your people.

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

I'm up here in Canada (Toronto area) and the state of independent retail is about the same as always; some great, some just OK and too many completely uninspiring. Sounds an awful lot like how you would describe the state of chain retail.

While I like the general idea of Shop Local, I always say you should only support those merchants who deserve your purchase. In my local downtown (Oakville) that means there are about 12 merchants who would get money from me, and about 80 that wouldn't.

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Kevin Graff, President, Graff Retail

I'm not sure if my city counts, because tourist destinations always seem to foster more independent retailers, mostly selling local stuff. But overall it's not terrible.

The biggest challenge they have here is that when the chains move in, the rents go up and they have to go elsewhere. So Lincoln Road, which used to have a pretty cool variety of shops is now just another mall.

But there are some lovely independents that I really enjoy shopping at. There's a local market that makes you feel like you're in France. That's a good thing. And the independent bookstore is definitely resurgent.

Overall, my recommendation is to present a curated assortment and make use of social media and email to announce sales and other special events.

I could ask why "Independent Retailer Month" occurs in the slowest shopping month of the year—but I won't.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

I'm not sure that having July as "Independent Retailer Month" is smart branding. That is all about helping retailers make more money.

Compare that to the Local First program that is on fire across Arizona. Led by Kimber Lanning, a retail dynamo (she owns a vinyl record shop that's a destination) and future U.S. President, Local First is adding 70 members a month across the state. The difference is the focus is on the prosperity of the community as a whole. In other words the branding is about what is good for all of us who live here.

Nor is this about "competing against chain stores," that's a losing proposition. The buying public is not likely eager to get involved in that futile fight. The secret sauce is the degree to which retail is engaged in helping the community to be more exciting, innovative, healthy, prosperous and so on.

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

Seattle metro is a city of neighborhoods, many of which were incorporated towns before joining Seattle or Bellevue.

In Seattle, clothing and accessories shops thrive in Ballard and Fremont, supported by a loyal base. In Bellevue, Main Street and Kirkland draw crowds. National big box chains have relatively low penetration.

The big news in local shopping? Recreational marijuana shops. A store with the ambitious name of Cannabis City will open Tuesday as the first pot retailer in the region. Another 15-to-20 are likely to be approved next week.

Care to guess where Cannabis City's glass display cases came from? A failed Sears. Out with the old, in with the new.

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Dan Frechtling, Vice President, Global Product Management, hibu, PLC

Like anywhere else around the country; if the independent gives a good product and service is above average, they are doing well. I can think of a local independent restaurant that follows the above and has lines waiting almost every night. Given my preferences I would go to the independent whenever possible to support their efforts in the local community. One good hand deserves another.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Here in Ann Arbor, independent retailers are doing well overall. The area benefits from a vibrant and visible Think Local First organization whose message of a community's character and financial health being dependent on locally-owned businesses resonates with the city's residents.

Independent retailers in this area seem to have a strong awareness and understanding of the relationship between offering a more genuine customer experience, desirable, unique products/merchandise/services and the sustainability of their businesses.

In the words of author Michael Shulman, "Going local does not mean walling off the outside world. It means nurturing locally-owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages and serve primarily local customers. It means becoming more self-sufficient and less dependent on imports. Control moves from the boardrooms of distant corporations back into the community where it belongs."

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Jeff Hall, President, Second To None

Our company is working with an independent retailer who owns a bagelry and restaurant. The place has been in business for 20 years and has a dedicated customer base that is aging. We're expanding our client's marketing efforts within the local community through three channels—email, social media and disruptive retail, most likely a food truck.

For small merchants, it's not enough to have a great shop with wonderful products. In order to compete with the chain stores, small merchants need to be visible in the community, have an authentic presence on social channels and take their products into the community to engage with consumers.

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Karen S. Herman, Founder & Design Director, Gustie Creative LLC

Differentiate or Die! This retail maxim applies to all retailers, but especially the smaller independents.

Many previous comments have highlighted the power and potential of independents to use their people to differentiate service.

The future health of independents will require even more proactive creativity in an omni-channel marketplace. Small retailers simply can't wait for traffic to walk in their doors. They must proactively engage their core customers and communities beyond their stores using social media, mobility marketing, customer advocacy, etc.

Winning is all about the quality of ongoing relationships with customers, not the size of the store.

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Chris Petersen, PhD, President, Integrated Marketing Solutions

There are certain pockets of the U.S. where independent retailers are quite strong and there are regions where you barely notice 'em.

It all starts with the personality of the independent store's brand. If they don't offer anything unique, have exemplary service, remain focused and very visible within the community, AND provide a WOW experience, then their odds of success are greatly reduced.

I believe there is a strong place in the market for independent merchants, but they must stand out from the crowd. Assuming they can do this effectively, Millennial shoppers will support these community-based operators and the retailers' futures can be hopeful.

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Dave Wendland, Vice President, Hamacher Resource Group

I have spoken on this subject many times, and independent retailers must first be customer-focused. It starts with amazingly friendly employees who know the products they sell and are great listeners. If this is not the case, the rest doesn't matter, as failure is inevitable.

The town and the economy has a huge impact on the growth and success of your business, as competition is brutal, and even moreso when it comes to staples (food, gasoline, office supplies). Having the signature items available for your customers is also one way to make some profit, and keeping expenses at a minimum for the basic stuff will help the bottom line.

I prefer locally-owned restaurants that get good reviews from Yelp when I travel with my friends, and have enjoyed almost all the places we have dined in.

As a supermarket owner in our community, the Aldi just reopened after a huge remodel, making it even bigger. This opened on June 30, and I already have seen the difference in traffic, which will make for a down 4th of July holiday, as the Aldi zombies are swarming the place. Add in the Walmart Supercenter, and you have to really up your game to stay in business.

Loyalty is at an all time low, and it takes an enormous effort to grow and stay profitable, as the increased mandates, along with higher costs, are making it very difficult for some small businesses to stay open. We just had three restaurants shut down in the last two weeks, and one more is closing today.

Bottom line is this—make sure you have the ability to get through the difficult periods in your business, and make money when the good times are here. Offer really unique products to sell, and price them fairly, plus incredible customer service. If you can do these things consistently well, then you have a chance to stick around, and if not, it could get real tough.

One other thing is to stay involved with the community in a very sincere way, through Chambers of Commerce, business expos and local events, where you can make your business visible to the community.

Have a great and prosperous holiday to all my fellow retailers!

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

Plain and simple: customer service has always been and still is a true differentiator. It doesn't cost anything. It just has to be genuine and part of your store's culture. People want to shop at local stores and feel appreciated. Train your staff that nothing comes ahead of customer satisfaction. This seems like such an obvious statement, however, few merchants large or small master this challenge.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

There are few independent retailers in my community. The ones surviving and thriving have differentiated themselves with specialized products, unparalleled customer service, and clever marketing. Even when chain retailers in the same category open nearby, they can't measure up on product offering and customer service.

A great example are the sporting good stores that have built relationships with the local high schools and coaches. They have guaranteed themselves a steady stream of referrals and loyal customers.

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Carlos Arámbula, Managing Partner, MarcasUSA LLC

I see a lot of restaurant comments here. In Cleveland, we have a great theater and dinner district. We have many award winning chef's with great restaurants. But I think most cities have local restaurants that do well.

As far as consumer goods outlets go, I think they are suffering everywhere. It seems like every month another local establishment is closing. Either they sold out, were put out of business by the big retailers or the owners are simply retiring and giving up the fight.

However, in Cleveland's tourist area, near the Ohio Islands and Cedar Point Amusement park, there are a lot of local establishments that do well. But they tend to sell items you can't just pick up at Walmart. It also helps that on the Ohio Islands of Put-In-Bay, Kelly's Island and Middle Bass, they have local ordinances that prevent national establishments. Yes, you heard me right. Ohio has islands. We call them the "Key West of the North." And in the summer months you won't find a more fun-filled boating and amusement area than you will here. So come to Cleveland and spend your money at our local establishments! Cleveland Rocks!

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Janet Dorenkott, VP & Co-owner, Relational Solutions, Inc.

Most independents are doing very poorly in our town. As for ourselves, the government took our police away a few years ago, so there was no surveillance and our shop was robbed of every bit of merchandise. We are fighting our way back but cannot keep a lot of stock for fear of being robbed again — not doing too well as of yet. We are in Saint-Lazare, Quebec, Canada.

Lin Month, Owner, Jerrilin Tack Shop

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