Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July 2017 and has been completely revamped and updated in June 2022 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
It’s that time of the year again when independent retailers celebrate #indieretail during Independent Retailer Month. Customers across the world are encouraged to shop locally to support their community and create more sustainable cities. We decided to create another guide following the success of last year’s posts on how to survive as an independent retailer, the 9 tools you need for best retail results, and the importance of choosing the right software solution.
In this article, we asked successful independent retailers and experts to share their secrets on keeping up with big competitors. Find out how they succeed and get a loyal and unique customer base. Keep scrolling and you will find some pretty unique, surprising responses!
Alternatively, just pick the subject that interests you from the list below:
- Create a Strong Brand
- Find Your Niche
- Create a Unique Shopping Experience as an Independent Retailer
- Invest Time in Customer Support
- Build Personal Relationships
- Support Your Local Community
- Educate Your Customers
- Blog Your Way Up to Top Results
- Start a Podcast or a Vlog
- Create Unique Visuals
- Acquire Customer Reviews
- Be Adaptable
- Reach Out to Other Independent Retailers
- Know Your Numbers
- Implement the Right Logistics System
1. Create a Strong Brand
Investing time and resources in branding is not only something for corporations with large marketing teams. Having a consistent look and mission can help you differentiate your business from the competition and attract the right customers. Here’s what our sources say about the importance of branding:
“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”.
Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, warns about the following. “It’s important for small businesses to analyze competitor sites and industry trends but not to get too caught up in the competition. 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 a high quality of products and services. We believe that a combination of branding and marketing (especially to the local market) puts us in competition with the big fish.”
2. Find Your Niche
Big stores get very competitive trying to serve every need. That makes it hard for the customer to find exactly what they’re looking for in the vastness of products.
“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”, Kyle continues. “Match you’re 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 shops elsewhere. No reason to pursue those who do not value your business the way you are capable of running it”.
3. Create a Unique Shopping Experience as an Independent Retailer
“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 will bring customers back to your business again and again.
Smaller independent 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 should be your goal. While large chains have an advantage in terms of budget and prices, “small retail operators can spend more time with each customer”, says Neil Mclaren, Owner, and founder of Vaping.com. 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
Nowadays, specific causes have replaced the broad buckets from which donors would once have chosen. This places a greater emphasis 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 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”, Cindy Jones shares, 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 gifts 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 in 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 local, independent retailers with a limited budget showing up on the first search results 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 in a niche, there might only be a few articles about the subject.
Charles Dugan, President, and Owner of American Image Display advise: “Have an active blog that covers topics and trends in your industry“. “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 the top of YouTube’s search results and suggested videos. If you want your content to get hundreds of thousands of views, 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”.
You can use a tool like Flexclip if you are new to vlogging as it is beginner-friendly and provides video templates.
10. Create Unique Visuals
“One way you can set yourself apart from the competition is to produce your own imagery online.” Sam Williamson, Co-founder of CBDiablo, continues: “By making 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 known brands can be a challenge for small retailers.” Gary Murray shares his personal experience as the 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
“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 centers around being passionate about every part of the process, from research into the design to personally visiting the family-run factory in Italy and finally, to the optimization of the consumer journey. Maxwell Scott has British design and Italian craftsmanship at his heart. Therefore, because we are specialists at what we do, our products are more reasonably priced than larger competitors’. We are improving over short periods which means that we are more adaptable than the larger stores.”
13. Reach Out to Other Independent Retailers
An unlikely, but interesting tip is reaching out to your competitors where you may find 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 need something you can’t offer can go a long way (…). 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 only on the 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
A key for independent retailers to compete against big stores is investing in cloud technology. Firstly, this automates processes and eliminates mistakes. Secondly, they 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“, Huib Maat, in-house perfumer and founder of Pairfum, agrees. “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, and 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-based software, like Megaventory, spares companies the time and money-consuming processes of installation and maintenance, and thus, it is a life-saver for small businesses and start-ups.
A last word for Independent Retailers
Finally, small businesses can have a hard time competing in a globalized market. Customers are constantly looking for the lowest price and big-box chains are hard to defeat. However, people are increasingly willing to pay more if a product is high-quality and produced locally.
Apart from that, independent retailers who implement the right tools and focus on vendor relations can make processes more efficient. This allows them to use their time and money in other parts of their business.
Svea Schüler is a Digital Marketer for Megaventory, the online inventory management system that can help medium-sized companies synchronize stock over multiple stores. She believes content and social media marketing are the best solutions to create awareness and secure long-term customer satisfaction.