Small retailers capitalized on strengths for holiday season

Posted December 27, 2017 1:07 p.m. EST
Updated December 27, 2017 6:51 p.m. EST

— Independent retailers who've had a successful holiday season say they took advantage of the fact that there are strengths in not being huge.

Store owners report they were able to change pricing and other strategies quickly. Many offered customers more personal service and a warmer atmosphere. And they said they used social media tools designed for smaller companies, including inexpensive ads on Facebook.

How successful the season was for the retail industry as a whole won't be known until estimates from market researchers like ShopperTrak and a tally from the Commerce Department arrive in January. And after-Christmas business, when consumers are redeeming gift cards and looking for clearance sale bargains, can make the difference. But individual retailers including small and independent merchants already have a sense of how they've done, and what worked for them.

Kendra Leonard, owner of The Art of Style boutique in downtown Raleigh, said she can already project her store will do double what it did over last holiday season once it's all said and done.

"The holiday season is everything for small businesses," Leonard said Wednesday. "There is a huge network of people in downtown Raleigh that are all about supporting the local businesses."

Jon Abt says his appliance and furniture store held its own this holiday season against competition like Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and more by capitalizing on advantages it has over the big guys.

Abt offers free technical support for the life of a product and some free delivery. The store, in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, is designed to be entertaining — it offers chocolate chip cookies, a Santa every weekend during the holidays and an aquarium in the store year-round that give customers and their families an experience that goes beyond shopping for a TV.

"You've got to have a good price, but you've also got to present some compelling reasons for why someone should buy from you," says Abt, who says sales were up about 15 percent from the 2016 holiday season.

Nationwide, sales for the Christmas season jumped 4.9 percent this year – the greatest increase since 2011.

Bekka Palmer's baskets, tote bags and jewelry sold better than she expected because she made sure she got publicity. Palmer, owner of the online retailer Closed Mondays, met an editor of Domino, a magazine and website that publishes a holiday gift guide, and that bit of networking led to several of her creations being featured on Domino. She also approached New York magazine and a website called Design Milk and got mentions.

People browsing the online gift guides and then deciding to buy gave Palmer nearly a quarter of her sales from mid-November until mid-December, when she processed her last orders before Christmas.

"I was so much busier than I was last year," says Palmer, who lives and runs her business in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Palmer timed her outreach to gift guides better this year. In 2016, she contacted websites too late to be included. This year, she got in touch with them sooner. She also sold at pop-up markets where shoppers gave her feedback that let Palmer know she's on the right track.

"Many of our customers this year were specifically looking for things made in the U.S.A.," she says.

This was the first holiday season for Garrett Ryan and Clark Passino, who started their online men's underwear company, Mr & Muse, in January. Sales have been better than expected after the partners used social media throughout the year to build their customer base. As they launched the Clarendon Hills, Ill.-based business, they began advertising on Facebook where they could inexpensively test their marketing campaign.

"We literally spent $20 a week on five different ads, picked one or two that worked, and the next week spent $30 on five different ads with that image," Ryan says. "We continued pouring more money into ad types, copy and images that work."

They also invested in tracking the products potential customers look at, and then showing them the same products in other websites or apps, helping some shoppers decide to buy.

The partners increased their brand's visibility by selling on sites including Amazon and eBay, but 95 percent of Mr & Muse's sales came from its own website, Ryan says. The plan now is to keep using social media to increase sales throughout the year.

"Small businesses have become pretty savvy in particularly using the internet, using other ways to compete against big businesses," said Mike Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University. "I think that they have a product to sell in terms of being a place where you can get more personalized service."

Joe Taylor's 18 hardware stores in the Hampton Roads and Richmond, Va., areas have had a good season, although they also have competition from Home Depot and Lowe's. Much of its appeal comes from the fact that it's not one of the big-box stores says Taylor, the company's chief executive.

"Being the locally owned and known family business, located down the street from home, certainly helps drive business to our stores during the holiday season," says Taylor, who estimates sales were up about 15 percent from a year earlier.

A location in the middle of a community helps a retailer build relationships that keeps customers returning, Taylor says. The stores contribute to local organizations like churches and schools. They also have a rewards program, which gives customers a 5 percent rebate for every $250 they spend.

"That creates loyalty. Our customers are thinking, 'They're taking care of us, so let's shop with them,'" Taylor says.