What it Takes to Reach Retail Superstardom

Discussion
May 26, 2009
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

In Retail Superstars,
George Whalin, president
and CEO of Retail Management Consultants and RetailWire BrainTrust
panelist, profiles
and celebrates 25 smaller, often-quirky stores that have flourished in
the face of competition from bigger rivals.

In a Wall Street Journal book review, Paul Carroll
wrote, “Even
if Mr. Whalin is more of a cheerleader than dispassionate observer, he
does toss out a nugget or two of wisdom that might help independent retailers
who aspire to superstardom.”

Among the stores featured:

  • Archie McPhee, a Seattle-based
    novelty store, that has built its rabid following by selling bacon-flavored
    toothpicks, bandages that look like fried eggs and “The World’s
    Largest Underpants”;
  • Estes Ark, a stuffed-animal
    shop in Estes Park, Colo., that has become a
    “customer magnet” by housing itself in a building shaped like
    Noah’s Ark;
  • In Houston, Bering’s first
    morphed from a lumberyard into a hardware store and then began selling
    gourmet coffee and housewares such as Baccarat crystal and Spode china
    after seeing the neighborhood go upscale. Nearly half of the inventory
    at Bering’s is still hardware;
  • Renowned for its customer service
    and huge inventory, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., has had
    two of its customers asked to have their ashes placed there;
  • At Jungle Jim’s International
    Market in Fairfield, Ohio, 300,000 square feet of space allows the store
    to carry everything from $8,000 bottles of wine to hogs’ heads. Restroom
    doors “are designed so that customers think they’re going into Porta
    Potties, only to find beautifully appointed restrooms inside;”
  • At Abt Electronics in Glenview,
    Ill, restrooms are “designed like those you might find in a five-star
    hotel,” include marble floors and counters;
  • In Scottsdale, Ariz., the restrooms
    in A Celebration of Golf are replicas of those at Augusta National, the
    Georgia home of the Masters golf tournament. Salesmen wear white jumpsuits
    like Augusta’s caddies;
  • A Southern Season, a gourmet
    retailer in Chapel Hill, N.C., opens five minutes before its stated hours
    begin to please “both early birds and potentially annoyed customers
    whose watches don’t show the correct time;”
  • Ron Jon Surf Shop, in Cocoa
    Beach, Fla., advertises so extensively that Floridians play “the
    Ron Jon billboard game.” People guess how many miles they’ll drive
    before seeing another of the store’s huge ads.

Mr.
Carroll concluded with
a few tenets to “superstar” success found in the book: “Be
a showman. Have a huge selection. Take care of your customers. And pay
attention to those restrooms.”

Discussion question:
What would be your keys to “superstar”
success for smaller retailers? Of some of the underlying themes mentioned
in Retail Superstar – customer service, marketing, selection,
etc. – which stands out as the most critical differentiator against bigger
chains?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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15 Comments on "What it Takes to Reach Retail Superstardom"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 11 months ago

The stores profiled by Mr. Whalin show such variety that it’s hard to point to one “secret formula” for their success. Some of them depend on intense customer service, others on unique store design or location strategies, still others on clever marketing. You can make a case that all of these are important for the store that wants to stand out as relevant to its target customer; these principles apply equally to small and large stores. The one common element is merchandising: Each of the stores highlighted appears to focus sharply on unique product offerings (Archie McPhee), breadth and depth of assortment (Powell’s Books) or some other content-related strategy.

Max Goldberg
Guest
11 years 11 months ago

Small retailers can stand out if they offer engaging retail-tainment and outstanding customer service. A huge selection is not always necessary. Retain-tainment engages consumers and allows them to enjoy their shopping experience, rather than rush to get into and out of the store. The entertaining experience should reinforce the core story of the business. Great customer service differentiates them from most larger chain stores. This must be ingrained from management to stock person. Both of these are unexpected and welcomed by consumers.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
11 years 11 months ago

Consumers today live busy lives consisting of many dull, hurried moments. Thus any kind of acceptable thrill when shopping is a definite plus. Any good retailer who can offer them a moment of respite from routine, a unique experience, a sense of theater, a moment of happiness together with their purchase has a head start toward winning a second trip to their store. Never ration innovation and imagination.

Bill Robinson
Guest
Bill Robinson
11 years 11 months ago

We are in the early stages of a great renaissance for independent stores. Consumers have tired of the sameness and predictability of big box stores and the malls. They are looking for a connection that is hard to make at the industry giants.

In my region around Baltimore, I could easily add to Whalin’s list of Superstars. There’s a fantastic pet store that offers do-it-yourself washing and grooming and a pool for dogs. There is a small chain of day spas with an extremely loyal clientele. I think of the great running store that sponsors local races. Then there is the quirky store that sells costumes and ballet slippers.

In each case, these stores have really established a community of loyal followers. Shopping is fun at these stores. The workplace is welcoming to visitors.

Kenneth A. Grady
Guest
Kenneth A. Grady
11 years 11 months ago

Succeeding at retail can be very misleading. What may work for the local store or even a small chain does not always (or better yet, almost always does not) translate into success on a large scale. The quirky, irreverent, community-based themes and gimmicks that we all love when they involve the store around the corner that appeals to us just aren’t scalable. There are, of course, exceptions (Build-A-Bear?).

So are there any themes or scalable points we can pull from the small and successful retailers? Entertainment that speaks to the customer and ties into sales. Having an environment that your customers appreciate (clean, nice restrooms). In any retail economy, understanding the customer and directing everything about the store to focus on that customer’s needs and desires differentiates the successful from simply another retailer.

Warren Thayer
Guest
11 years 11 months ago

Sounds like all the entrepreneurs bring passion and a sense of fun to their enterprises. I’ve seen that common thread often. It is so often lacking, or is smothered, in larger companies with layers.

Anne Bieler
Guest
Anne Bieler
11 years 11 months ago

For small retailers to star in the community, they need a compelling reason to bring shoppers to the door. Selection has to reflect local needs and wants while the store provides a shopping experience that makes it memorable. Checking for the new, outrageous, entertaining, truly fun items at a superstar store–wouldn’t you drop in? Small retailers can depend on word of mouth to bring them in–shopper experience will keep bringing them back.

Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 11 months ago

A great shopping experience. Period. Sounds simple, but obviously isn’t based on seeing how many small (and large) retailers fail to even provide a neutral experience. Mr. Whalin profiles retailers who surprise, engage, anticipate,and ‘play’ with their customers. Yet, don’t forget that each of them sell products customers actually want. Note however that its no longer good enough to just have a great product selection. Bring it to life…that’s the edge independents have every time.

Phil Rubin
Guest
11 years 11 months ago

Small merchants are, and should always be, infinitely more nimble than large ones. They should be better able to serve customers and to really know them on a personal basis. More than anything, they can be different and as the article and book eloquently point out, there are limitless ways to do this. Part of this comes down to concept and part execution. These retailers create a genuine personality and this alone is often enough of a difference to win versus the big box, mass production, one-size-fits-all (or mostly all) of the big chains.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 11 months ago
All of the above is just starting blocks for retail superstars. Now comes the vague part. How are you differentiating yourself from all the other people selling the same stuff as you? Home Depot’s success was applying a do-it-yourself culture to mass merchandise. Very different at the time (of course they have lost touch with that and are suffering because of it). You need to deliver in all aspects of the customer experience. The Apple Store is a great example of differentiating service and product. My suggestion to anyone in retail is to look at what you sell and how you sell it and see if there is a way do something radically different than your competition. Trader Joe’s exemplifies this by offering something more than just unique products. It’s an experience. Where else can you find out the correct amount of flax seed needed to maintain healthy ‘movements?’ Or what if I want to have a dinner party with a vegan? Am I going to Walmart for that? Customer experience is where retailers can… Read more »
Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
11 years 11 months ago
Sam Walton was pestered continually to write his autobiography and to reveal the “secret formula” to Walmart’s huge success. Mr. Walton was reluctant to do so for a number of reasons, one primarily being his sense of humility and the second was for reasons that became obvious to anyone who read the autobiography that was ultimately published just prior to his death. There was no “secret formula,” no “oh my Gosh, why didn’t I think of that” revealed in his book. What was revealed was very simple, but its simplicity is largely unachievable by most retailers, which is why there are so few really good big retailers. Mr. Walton knew it was all about meeting the needs of the customer in that specific store in which they were shopping. It was about empowering and exciting those who work in those stores into taking care of their customers and their company, it was about sharing knowledge and sharing success. So simple and yet so elusive…so hard to build and so easy to lose. The companies that… Read more »
Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 11 months ago

The common thread is passion. Each of these retailers have a passion that translates into enormous energy and buzz that naturally draws customers to them. Passion is the great differentiator for smaller retailers. It enables them to take their niche and carve out a unique and compelling position for themselves. They are memorable, their customers become their best ambassadors, and the buzz is viral.

Also, kudos to George for highlighting these retailers. It’s all too easy to overlook the incredible success stories all around us, and they truly are all around us, as we focus on the comings and goings in the corporate retail world.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
11 years 11 months ago

Whalin’s list references great examples of merchants that have managed to create destination stores that clearly stand out from the pack. Without knowing the full story on each cited merchant, it’s a good bet that what makes them superstars is that they each have leaders at the helm who love retail, who actually want to serve consumers and do so in a fun, unique, innovative and creative manner. Quite simply, they’ve succeeded in creating a completely pleasing shopping experience. Therein lies the key to success and the key differentiator that separates the retail superstars from the also-rans.

Mark Lilien
Guest
11 years 11 months ago

Retail Superstars aren’t copycats. They have the vision and the guts to be different. Most retail stores are the same as their competitors: the same suppliers, the same assortments, the same systems, the same procedures, the same HR policies, the same advertising, the same hours, etc. They usually say they’re different, but neutral observers don’t think the differences are significant. Retail Superstars don’t just proclaim their uniqueness. They ARE unique.

Kai Clarke
Guest
11 years 11 months ago

Customer service, customer service, customer service. These are smaller examples that have memorable shopping experiences because they are unique, but what keeps their customers (and all customers) coming back is customer service. Whether it is defined as clean bathrooms (i.e. McDonald’s), low prices (Wal-Mart, Target) or knowledgeable staff anticipating your every need (4 Season’s Hotels), the true mark to attain retail superstardom lies in customer service. Your store doesn’t just have to be shaped like an Ark, or still have the look of the original hardware store after 50 years, but it has to give the customer what they are looking for (customer service). It is marked on the tombstone of every failed business, and is the first rule of business.

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