It is that time of the year again when businesses across the world celebrate the Independent Retailers Month. This campaign runs annually throughout July to highlight the important role smaller, local, independent retailers play in the communities they serve, the local economy they contribute to, and in the retail sector as a whole.
Following the success of last year’s posts on how to survive as an independent retailer, the tools you need for best retail results and the importance of choosing the right system, we decided to give it a second go.
In this article, we asked successful retailers and experts to share their secrets of how they succeed in keeping up with the big stores and sometimes surpass them in acquiring customers with a refined taste.
Some of the tips might be well-known to some of you but keep scrolling down because we have received some pretty unique responses that will surprise you!
Alternatively, just pick the subject the interest you from the list below:
Investing time and resources on branding is not only something for corporations with large marketing teams. Having a clear distinctive look and mission can help you differentiate your business from the competition and help you attract new customers with sophisticated preferences.
“Competition is brought into play when shoppers can easily compare relevant items” explains, Rick Steele, Founder & CMO of SelectBlinds. “The spirit of being an entrepreneur (or at least smaller than the big guys) is your immediate ability to make changes, pivot when needed, and iterate your way to success quicker than the big trees! Big trees fall hard, and if you’re willing to view your independent status as a major advantage and live this mindset, you’ve already won”.
“It’s important for small businesses to analyze competitor sites and industry trends, but not to get too caught up in the competition” warns Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com. “Instead, focus on how you can differentiate and provide your audience with what they want. Listen to and encourage feedback from fans on how you can improve their overall customer experience and form strategic partnerships with like-minded companies”.
“Our goal is to continually build a loyal following”, says Dylan Peters, PR coordinator of JAM Paper & Envelope. “We do this by appealing to our target audience and consistently delivering the quality of products and services they have come to expect. We believe that a combination of branding and marketing (especially to the local market) puts us in competition with the big fish”.
2. Go Niche
As big stores get very broad trying to serve every need, sometimes they can be chaotic and tiresome for the customer who is looking for one thing specifically.
“The key to small shops competing with big-box retailers is changing the narrative”, says Kyle Golding, CEO and Chief Strategic Idealist of The Golding Group. “Take what is perceived as your weakness (your smaller size versus theirs) and make it a strength. Focus on your target audience in a very specific way that the big-box retailer can’t or aren’t willing to do. If their advantage is inventory, selection, price or product availability make your competitive advantage being market nimble, responsive to your audience and customer service focused.
“Focus on shoppers willing to pay more, have fewer options or willing to wait for you to order products on demand, continues Kyle. “Match your offering to market subset wishes and ignore what the competition is doing. You should let anyone looking for low cost, huge selection or other big-box retail benefit shop elsewhere. No reason to pursue those who do not value your business the way you are capable of running it”.
3. Customer Experience
“As the owner of a local comic book and toy store, we feel the pressure from large stores and online outlets to step up our game to compete,” says Stacey Giulianti, owner of Lauderdale Comics and Bubble Tea Lounge in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “We compete – and win – by giving our customers an ‘experience’. People come into our store and not only shop but play arcade machines, sit with a Bubble Tea, and read a comic book in a comfortable chair. You can’t survive by merely selling; you must create a memorable experience each and every time they walk through your doors”.
“As people get more deeply imprisoned by their techno-powered lives”, explains Pam Danziger of Unity Marketing, “they increasingly crave that personal connection that only specialty retailers who are authentically part of the local community can deliver. When time allows or they simply want to get out of the house and mingle, people will increasingly want to shop with their neighbors, not with impersonal big business conglomerates or at the malls. In the new retail environment, success is less about WHAT retailers sell, and more about HOW they sell it. That is where specialty retailers can find their leverage. This gives new opportunities for independent specialty retailers, as long as they keep their focus on what their customers really want – a personal connection and shopping experience they can’t get anywhere else”.
4. Invest Time in Customer Support
Offering a good product is not enough if you don’t accompany it with high-quality customer support. Being there when your customers need you and showing them that their concerns are valid is crucial and will drive customers to keep doing business with you again.
Smaller online retailers can compete with the big chain stores by offering a better knowledge base and a more dedicated, personalized customer service, said Jay Labelle, Owner of The Cover Guy. “Especially when it comes to making big, costly purchases online, people want to know that if anything goes wrong, or they change their mind on the purchase that there is somewhere they can call or message and get in touch with a member of the team for help. They want to know there will be someone on the other side of the line that actually cares about their problems and knows about their product – not just a 9-5 staffer at a call center that fields call for various companies across different industries. Offering this dedicated, personalized approach is your key differentiator as a small business in a big pond”.
5. Build Personal Relationships
Apart from the occasional customer support when something goes bad, building personal relationships with your customers can be your everyday goal. While large chain stores have an advantage in terms of budget and prices, “small retail operators have the ability to spend more time with each customer“, says Neil Mclaren, owner and founder of Vaping.com, and they are able “to personalize their individual experience, and to ensure that they exceed the expectation of every customer. This level of personal service builds the retailer’s reputation and rapport, while developing a sense of trust and loyalty amongst their customers”.
“Keep as much of the interaction with customers as personal as possible” is the advice of Bob Ellis, owner of Bavarian Clockworks. “Most of the big e-commerce stores have their customer service automated. Instead, keep it personalized and get to know your customers. Respond promptly to their emails, phone calls, and questions on social media. Address them by their first name rather than “Dear customer”. Follow-up after the sale to make sure they are happy with their purchase and thank them for their business. The personal touch can make all the difference”.
6. Support your local community
In the millennials age, vivid causes have replaced the broad buckets from which donors would once have chosen, and greater emphasis is placed on a gift’s impact on the local community. Being an active member of the community by sponsoring local events is a key strategy to win your customer’s hearts and more.
“Smaller stores must become the authority in their trading area in order to become the first call of news channels and PR events”, says Marc Joseph, CEO & President, DollarDays. “So if you own a toy store, make sure everyone in town knows you know what the hottest trends are in toys for the upcoming season. If you own a clothing store, brag about the upcoming fashions. If you own a coffee store, make sure your community knows you can talk about the latest blends and trends. Being visible and part of your community in sponsorship and non-profit involvement helps your business get noticed. Chain stores are not set up to become intimately involved in their communities”.
7. Educate your customers
“In a world of big box stores, we have to be creative to bring customers into our store”, shares her experience Cindy Jones, Ph.D., Formulator of Colorado Aromatics Cultivated Skin Care. “Sometimes it’s more about the experience. We sell our own line of skin care products as well as a few other gift and spa items. Customers know that they can come to our store and get good information about how to take care of their specific skin needs. So, education is a big component of shopping our store. We strive to make our store comfortable and beautiful, so customers feel welcomed and relaxed when they visit. We also have events at the store where customers can come relax, network and learn something new“.
8. Blog your way up to top results
For small retail businesses with a limited budget and usually none for AdWords, showing up in search results’ first page is difficult. Great content, though, goes a long way and you can actually blog your way up to top results. Especially if your business is niche it might be that no one has really posted anything about the subject.
“Have an active blog that covers topics and trends in your industry” is the advice of Charles Dugan, President & Owner of American Image Display. “Big retailers usually aren’t specialized. They generally are selling a wider variety of products and may even be involved in multiple industries. By blogging, you can carve out a niche and establish yourself as an expert in your field. Your passion and knowledge should come through in your writing. A blog makes it easier for prospective customers to find your website and select your business over larger competitors”.
9. Start a podcast or a vlog
“YouTube is the second largest search engine on the planet but is seriously undervalued by retail owners”, says Chris McCarron of GoGoChimp. “Seasoned digital marketers and big brand stores don’t understand YouTube SEO or Watch Time algorithms, but it’s actually really easy to shoot straight to top of YouTube’s search results and suggested videos.
If you want your content to get hundreds of thousands of views, then spend a little time looking into best practices. You’ll soon discover that it’s incredibly simple and quick to dominate top rankings.
You’ll then gain a newly engaged audience that’s heavily invested in you and your brand. This will eventually produce a surge in paying customers”.
10. Create unique visuals
“One way that a small e-commerce business can set themselves apart from the bigger competition is to produce their own imagery for all of the products on their website”, says Sam Williamson, Co-founder of CBDiablo. “By taking the effort to do this, smaller businesses can set themselves apart from larger competitors who will mainly use imagery provided by suppliers, or stock imagery. Although arranging and paying for the photo shoots can be a hassle, the end result is definitely worth it”.
11. Acquire Customer Reviews
“Competing with the more well-established brands can be a challenge for a smaller independent retailer like ourselves” shares his personal experience Gary Murray, eCommerce Manager of Leader Doors. “As we are not as well-established as some of the other bigger DIY retailers, Leader Doors has have had to work tirelessly on our online reputation, which is why we use websites like Trustpilot as a platform for people to share their online experiences shopping with us, and rely heavily on word-of-mouth to spread our brand profile around the country. We have also worked hard to bring in the right product lines to ensure that new customers associate our brand name with both quality and value-for-money”.
12. Be Adaptable
“In order to constantly better ourselves, we are always listening”, says William Forshaw, CEO and Founder of Maxwell – Scott. “This is reflective of our brand ethos; we are ardent, conscientious and committed to providing quality. The basis to which centers around being passionate about every part of the process, from the research into the design to personally visiting the family-run factory in Italy and finally, to the optimisation of the consumer journey. Maxwell Scott has British design and Italian craftsmanship at our heart. Therefore it is because we are specialists at what we do that our products are more reasonably priced than larger competitors. We are improving over short periods of time which means that we are more adaptable than the larger stores which take longer”.
13. Reach out to Competitors
An unlikely but interesting tip is reaching out to your competitors where you may find unlikely allies against the bigger stores.
“Just because you have competition does not mean you can’t find common ground”, says Mike LaTour of Soundwave Art. “You won’t necessarily offer all the same products or services. Recommending a potential customer to a competitor because they are in need of something you can’t offer can go a long way, with both the customer and your competitor. Sometimes it’s just nice to speak to them about your industry and where you think it’s headed. Working together can make you stronger and put you in a better position to take on the big guys”.
14. Know your Numbers
“You have to know your numbers and what everything is costing advises Roberta Thomas of Dosh. “A lot of agencies have hidden fees in their numbers especially for advertising and that eats into the margins for small businesses. With the right tools, you can bring a lot of the agency work in house, obtain more radical transparency and spend on only those things that actually sell. That’s how you compete with the big stores: Know your numbers and control as much of it as you can”.
15. Implement the Right Logistics Systems
Investing in cloud systems to automate processes and eliminate mistakes is a key to compete with the major manufacturers & retailers industry. Cloud technologies offer access to a range of capabilities that typically only larger companies can afford.
“Our #1 tip would be to invest in a cloud based inventory management system“, agrees Huib Maat, in-house perfumer and founder of Pairfum. “In this context, we see the ability of cloud based software to integrate with other cloud platforms as THE key benefit for the foreseeable future. We see SAAS as an interconnection of modules from different companies that are all the best in their field. We do not believe that one system can do everything. Instead, it should connect accountancy software, shopping feed generators, webshops, email newsletters, purchasing, the list is endless. This is how a company like ours can compete with the ability of the big stores to invest in custom-made software systems from large suppliers”.
Cloud computing spares companies the time and money-consuming processes of installation and maintenance, as you just pay for the service, and thus it is life-saver for small businesses and start-ups.
A last word
Being a small retailer in a globalized market is hard. Customers are constantly looking for the lowest price and big box chains can’t be beaten at this. Nevertheless, more and more people are willing to pay the extra cost if the acquired product will is of great quality and produced locally, something big chains can’t do.
Apart from that trend, small retailers that implement the right tools and focusing on solid vendor relations, retailers can make processes more efficient and use their time and money in other parts of their business.
Feel free to share your ideas in the comment section below. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share it with your friends and colleagues!