Indie retailers can survive – even thrive – during the holidays

Discussion
Photo: Small Business Saturday/American Express
Nov 17, 2017
Karen S. Herman

For independent retailers, the 800-pound gorilla again this holiday season is Amazon.com. Just when you think the onslaught of online shopping tactics Amazon uses may be starting to slow down, they roll out new ways to shop — offline. A prime example is Amazon’s pop-up stores in Whole Foods.  

Independent brick and mortar retailers are hoping to survive, especially during the holiday season. Here are three tactics that I recommend:   

  1. Join a community. FromShop Small Saturday to Independent We Stand to the local Chamber of Commerce, join the community that resonates best with your values. Interact on social media, sign up for newsletters, make the most of free resources offered. As an independent retailer, many times your business demands more than you can handle and marketing gets pushed to the side. This is where Shop Small Saturday can work to your advantage. With free marketing materials available online at shopsmall.com and an active group of Neighborhood Champions to support you offline on Shop Small Saturday, become an active participant in the Shop Small movement.  
  2. Use a QR codeQR codes are starting to be used for augmented reality and are called AR codes.Get a QR code for your business at a free online site. Place it on your marketing materials. Make it easy for a shopper with a smartphone to learn about you and your products or services. Getting traction on your QR code is important and sets you up to expand your marketing with AR in the future.  
  3. Viewshowrooming and webrooming as your allies“Technology may be changing the surface of the game, but the underlying strategies to win remain the same,” according to the National Retail Federation’s “2017 Holiday Planning Playbook.” It’s a simple fact that shoppers use their smartphones for both online and offline shopping. Be sure to leverage the smartphone to your advantage with an active online presence and outstanding offline customer experience.  

These are just a few ways to use online to enhance the offline shopping experience and increase your opportunity to survive this holiday season.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Which of the suggestions in the article do you see as most important for small retailer success during the holidays? What would you add to this list?

Braintrust
"To be successful this holiday season, independent/small retailers should focus on delivering a personalized shopping experience."
"My father was [an independent retailer], and he kept changing his specialties to reflect the changing times and neighborhood."
"In an ideal world, staying in touch with the customer post-purchase would be the capstone of a successful personal service experience."

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27 Comments on "Indie retailers can survive – even thrive – during the holidays"

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Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust
I do think the pendulum is swinging, but my advice would be slightly different: Stay close on price. You can’t beat ’em, but you have to be close. Provide exemplary customer service. Definitely become part of the fabric of your community (as described in the article). Tailor your assortments to the community you serve. Narrow and deep assortments also show a personal touch that’s important. Find your niche and be the absolute best at it. Have a web presence and offer your product on the Amazon Marketplace as well. No harm there. Amazon is becoming the king of product search,… Read more »
Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

The suggestion that’s missing is, provide unbeatable personal service and a unique in-store experience. Small retailers can do this better than chain or online stores. Provide the human touch that shoppers crave during the holidays.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
BrainTrust

Agreed Max. Play to the strengths of easier shopping and a personal touch. A smile, hello and “how is it going” go a long way in differentiation. Focus on conversion.

Benjamin Grabow
Guest
24 days 22 hours ago

Agreed Max and Lyle. Communication with the customer, especially post-purchase, seems to be valuable to consumers. Max, shifting gears a bit to e-commerce as opposed to brick-and-mortar, would you say that staying in touch with the customer post-purchase is also very beneficial to provide unbeatable personal service?

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

In an ideal world, staying in touch with the customer post-purchase would be the capstone of a successful personal service experience, but few small retailers have the time and resources to accomplish this.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Yes, the human touch! Personal and meaningful.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust
I don’t see any of these suggestions as viable. Independents can only win business by offering a USP (unique selling proposition) that adds value where others, including Amazon, cannot. We’ve discussed this a lot at RetailWire, but service offerings and knowledgeable associates are a big start. Local reputation is important too but takes time to build. Local chambers typically offer nothing but lip service. I predicted the death of the QR code even before the press started hyping it and I now officially do the same for AR codes — they will be a non-starter. Showrooming is alive and well… Read more »
Mark Ryski
BrainTrust
To be successful this holiday season, independent/small retailers should focus on delivering a personalized shopping experience. All retailers, and small ones in particular, need to realize that every shopper that enters the store has expressed an intent to buy. Small retailers should make an extra effort to personalize the visit by thanking visitors for stopping by and then engaging the shopper to understand her needs/interests. A more personal connection creates a sense of obligation — this is something most shoppers won’t get online or in big box stores. And finally, execute the basics: have ample inventory of the items you… Read more »
Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust
I have no problem with Karen Herman’s suggestions, all are sound advice. For those indies that are store-based, the key is getting customers to visit the store to experience outstanding customer service. There are a number of strategies that indies can test during the holiday season: Special offers based upon a deal that requires a store visit; Offers of a service with a purchase; Potential home delivery and/or set up based on qualified purchase; Offers that are online- or mobile-redeemable in-store; Offer a special event that is unique with local talent that draws attention. However, the key to long-term indie… Read more »
Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Indies can indeed survive the holidays with creativity, commitment and customer care. I’m definitely a fan of showrooming and turning that approach into an opportunity rather than an obstacle. “Personal shopping” may be another way to help separate independent operators from their less-connected rivals. Finally, consider offering curation services with other independents in the community to cross-sell, cross-promote and build a better holiday shopping basket. Amazon is not the only one who should be making recommendations, indies can do this too based on personal knowledge rather than algorithms.

Kate Munro
Guest
I agree — the most important tactic for small retailers to succeed during the holidays is definitely to leverage digital showroom technology. The retail industry has been slow to adopt innovative backend digital technologies, which is holding them back from being able to compete with e-commerce giants like Amazon. By leveraging the right retail tech, retailers can use virtual showrooms to save time and money on overseas buying trips and compare product options and pricing across multiple suppliers to find the best deal. Communication and community integrations are also important — retailers need social, connected and collaborative approaches to product… Read more »
Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust
Community is one of the greatest strengths of indie retailers. Building your network year-round is so important for success. But I’m going to say out of the three suggestions in the article, having an active online presence to handle showrooming and webrooming will be most critical to an indie’s financial success. For many time-strapped customers, if they can’t check your website ahead of time to find out what you have in stock, that could be a lost sale. I would add that having an effective digital marketing strategy is critical for all indie retailers. For brick-and-mortar retailers, an engaging social… Read more »
Ed Dunn
Guest
25 days 3 minutes ago

The one I would add is create a Facebook livestream shopping channel. This accommodates tactic number one, joining a group and tactic number two, placing a QR code in the background of the livestreaming session. Hold an iPad to read the chat questions coming in and paste the link to purchase in the chat session.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

All of the ideas in the article are great. Online commerce is the one way indies can “punch above their weight” versus the giants in the biz. Shoppers have no idea how big or small your organization is if you create the right presence online.

Benjamin Grabow
Guest
24 days 22 hours ago

Well said, Ralph. Online is a great way for smaller retailers to create an impressive experience for their customers and compete with the larger players. Also, there are so many third-party tools out there that smaller retailers can leverage to streamline the online experience for their customers. Would you agree?

Joanna Rutter
BrainTrust
24 days 23 hours ago
Karen, great list and topic! Independent retailers have much to gain this holiday season. I agree most heartily with your third point on embracing webrooming and showrooming. Shoppers of any flavor, even those who prefer to shop small, want to compare and consider before making a purchase. The more welcoming your store is to those folks, and the more streamlined your website is to offer online purchases, the more business you retain. Speaking of websites — I have to cordially and passionately disagree with your recommendation of QR codes! Despite their recent comeback, at least in the U.S. I believe… Read more »
Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I agree that independent retailers can do well. However, my advice would simply be to be different.

If an independent retailer isn’t adding any unique value — whether it be great service, interesting products, special community events or something else — then it will be forced to compete on price. When you’re up against the giant chains, that’s a slippery slope.

Adam herman
Guest
24 days 21 hours ago

I think Karen Herman’s three suggestions are spot on. Most importantly, they are the type of low cost/high yield marketing ideas that nearly any small to mid-size indie can easily implement. They range from tech-driven to old school community involvement. While extremely difficult to compete with big box retailers and Amazon, indies have an advantage of being niche, community retailers that people still enjoying shopping. AmEx has recognized this through their Shop Small Saturday initiative and these indie retailers would benefit greatly by taking advantage of this opportunity.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust
Good afternoon. While many of these ideas for survival hold true, it still comes down to the economic circumstances of the community you are in. Our area has lost over 25K jobs in the past 30 years, and what we have left are poor retired folks and a lot of government assisted families who moved here for the benefits. The Walmart Super Center and Aldi absolutely dominate our county and have managed to shutter six independent stores in the last 15 years. Price is king in our town, and unless you are able to provide amazing giveaways, your chances of… Read more »
Karen S. Herman
BrainTrust

Tony, I really appreciate your comments here. The scenario you describe exists in many parts of the US and is an important discussion to have. With this article, I focused on community and free marketing resources for independent retailers. Reach out to me if you want to discuss in detail.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust
Thanks Karen. I’m speaking honestly about the circumstances being in these types of towns, and have been doing this for many years. I know all the proper marketing tactics and am involved heavily in my community. Unless someone actually is on the ground floor of this scenario, it is difficult to explain how it affects independents, especially in my business, as food margins are being shredded to pieces. Either way, it is my fight, and after winning the NGA best deli/prepared foods this year, which I’m proud of, it simply doesn’t resonate much here, as it would in a different… Read more »
Georganne Bender
Guest
Let’s expand this list to include things that not only attract shoppers to the store, but thrill them while they are there. In an indie retailer’s store, the experience is so important. So how about hosting in-store events and promotions like a Holiday Open House, Create Your Own Coupon Sale, Guy’s Night Out, and more? We have our clients host a different event each week of the holiday season. They do and they are successful. Offer a “Top 10 List of Holiday Gifts” by gender and age. Do one for grandparents to make it easy for them to find gifts… Read more »
Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

My recommendations would be slightly different (although all the ones mentioned are good, except maybe QR codes!):

Be unique and be relevant! An independent store may not be able to win on price, but absolutely has to win on great service and that’s an enviable experience to differentiate. That keeps customers loyal and coming back to the store. You need knowledgeable associates to accomplish that. Then, find the unique products consumers in your community want that they’ll be interested in coming to the store to shop rather than search on Amazon.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust
Small businesses should “band together” to create a larger reach. Cross marketing/promoting through other retailers will extend reach and introduce new customers to the retailer. The best thing a small retailer can do is blow the customer away with an amazing and personalized customer experience. That’s two separate areas. Amazing service is one. Deliver service that only can’t be matched by a big box store or online retailer. Then personalize the experience. Ask questions, make suggestions … get to know your customer, in a way that (again) can’t be matched by a big box store or online retailer. Recognize that… Read more »
Todd Trombley
Guest
Success for small retailers is driven primarily by what happens from the sidewalk in. Their windows and sidewalk displays have to look inviting and compelling. Next, they must think about what the customer will see as they stand in your doorway. This is the threshold of their engagement with the customers. What impression will the customer be forming as they look about? Now the proprietor and staff must have the engagement skills to connect with that customer. That customer wants to shop; they probably would prefer to shop local with this type of small retailer. Be nice, be friendly; start… Read more »
Mike Olson
Guest
24 days 18 hours ago
One thing I don’t understand is why some people want to put down QR codes even before trying to use them. QR Codes and AR codes are not really related. If you look at what’s happening in mobile today, QR codes provide the bridge between the offline and the world of content online. Using QR codes can be a good way to provide easy access to lots of online info and offers which can be used as a way to get shoppers to bring the codes in-store after they buy online and want to pick-up purchases in store, rather than… Read more »
Karen S. Herman
BrainTrust

So true, Mike. I’m an Android fan and my Samsung S8 QR code reader is lightning fast and gives me options to browse the site, share or send content with one click. I work with a company that creates AR Codes and the potential for certain retailers is significant. Thanks for commenting.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"To be successful this holiday season, independent/small retailers should focus on delivering a personalized shopping experience."
"My father was [an independent retailer], and he kept changing his specialties to reflect the changing times and neighborhood."
"In an ideal world, staying in touch with the customer post-purchase would be the capstone of a successful personal service experience."

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