With the Thanksgiving weekend behind them and the big final rush of holiday shopping still to come, independent retailers have to get creative to bring customers in during the slowest part of the season.
The Shirt Box, a men's clothing store in Farmington Hills, Mich., is holding events like bourbon tastings and giving lessons on tying bow ties on weekends. The retailer also uses giveaways — co-owner Rod Brown is planning to offer free cuff links when shoppers buy shirts with French cuffs, or scarves if they buy outerwear.
Brown tries to be innovative to get his customers to shop at his store on slower days.
"It's make or break time for the independent retailers," Brown says.
Small and independent stores usually can't offer deep discounts like the national chain stores because the smaller players don't have the big sales volume that would allow them to absorb thinner margins from the come-ons. But they can offer customers something most of the large stores like discounters and big-box retailers can't: a warmer, more emotional shopping experience.
"A lot of the independent and smaller retailers actually have an advantage if they really leverage their strengths," says Randy Allen, a lecturer in management at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Many smaller retailers are well acquainted with their regular customers, which gives them the ability to create a more personal atmosphere, Allen says. Those who serve shoppers mulled cider or other seasonal drinks or use cinnamon-scented candles give their stores a holiday feel. That gets customers in the mood to spend, Allen says.
Smaller stores that provide gift boxes and free gift wrap, saving their customers time and money, are also going to get more business.
"That personal touch can make a big difference," Allen says.
Batch Nashville, which sells food, clothing and other products made in the South, is getting through the slow time with Breakfast with Santa, extended shopping hours one evening and weekend tasting events that let customer sample different products. The Nashville-based company, which also has a big online business, is promoting in-store-only special items via e-mail and social media, CEO Sam Davidson says.
"We're making them feel like this is an experience," Davidson says.
Events like these were so successful last year that Davidson anticipates Batch Nashville won't need to discount merchandise to draw shoppers later in the season. He's also optimistic that higher-priced items like leather goods and jewelry stocked for the holidays will sell well because the special events are bringing shoppers in. The company also lures shoppers with services like free gift wrap and packing and shipping gift boxes.
Rastelli Market Fresh, which operates food stores and caterers in Deptford and Marlton, N.J., has a lull in business between Thanksgiving and the last 10 days of the season, spokeswoman Andrea Carr says.
"You have to calculate and calibrate for that," she says.
The company has offered special prices after Thanksgiving, and plans to taper them off as the season progresses. If customers know prices will be going up, they have a sense of urgency that encourages them to buy, Carr says. It also has product tastings and offers entertaining tips like how to pair wine with holiday dishes — motivating customers to do their shopping before the final days of the season. The strategy helps Rastelli keep its sales coming in throughout the season.
"You can't just have a spike (in business) every now and then," Carr says.
Joyce Rosenberg is a business reporter for the Associated Press.