Small retailers aim for emotional ties big chains may lack


NEW YORK — Some smaller retailers will tug at shoppers’ heartstrings during the holidays, trying to create an emotional experience or connection that a big national chain might not provide.

Store owners are going well beyond the usual holiday decorations and music. Among their plans: Parties where the focus is fundraising rather than profits, events with other stores to encourage shoppers to visit them all, and personal services like merchandise deliveries. The retailers are betting that their efforts — which for some are a year-round strategy — will keep customers shopping long after the holiday season.

John Dudas, who co-owns Carol & John’s Comic Book Shop in Cleveland, participated Saturday in Local Comic Shop Day, which he calls the comic book industry’s equivalent of Black Friday. People lined up outside the store for limited-edition comics, and had a great time while they waited.

“They get to hang out with like-minded people,” says Dudas, who estimates he made one-and-a-half times the sales he would see on a good Saturday.

Creating experiences and an emotional connection will help customers feel like they’re getting more value from a retailer — and that they’re being valued and appreciated in return, says Syama Meagher, CEO of the Los Angeles-based consulting firm Scaling Retail. Small and independent retailers have a greater ability to create a bond with shoppers than larger competitors, she says.

Meagher’s advice for store owners: “Don’t think about your customer as someone who’s going to buy something.”

Dudas has more events planned, including a sale starting on Black Friday during which he expects to sell 80,000 comic books at $1 each. And on Dec. 16, he’ll hold a party with artists drawing pictures of comic book fans. But Dudas won’t look for a profit that day — he’ll be raising funds for a local charity, something he does periodically. In September, the store had a fundraiser in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America. These events help Dudas to expand his customer base.

“Put yourself into the community more and the money will come back to you,” he says.

Independent retailers in Portland, Oregon, take part in Little Boxes, an annual alternative to shopping at big-box national chains that offer big discounts during the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Started in 2011, Little Boxes gives shoppers the chance to win raffle prizes according to how many purchases they make at participating stores. In its first year, there were 90 stores; this year there will be about 250.

Debbe Hamada, whose gift shop Tilde is participating, sees shoppers making an expedition out of going to Little Box stores, using an app to help them find as many as possible. Many people want to support local retailers — the event overlaps with Small Business Saturday — and aim to visit as many as 10 or 20 in a day, she says.

“It’s a real experience — people are really happy that day,” says Hamada, whose Black Friday sales have risen between 5 percent and 20 percent each year since Little Boxes began. The day after Thanksgiving has gone from one of the slowest days to one of biggest days of the season, she says.

Diane Roth uses service all year long to create a connection with customers. The owner of clothing boutique L’Armoire in New Canaan, Connecticut, Roth acts as much a concierge as a retailer. She’ll allow customers to take several garments home to try on — or she’ll send the clothes to their houses. She’ll open as early as 5 a.m. so people can drop off unwanted items on their way to the nearby commuter train station. Customers send her photos of something they like, and ask her to find something similar.

“I have a lot of executive women customers who don’t have time,” Roth says. “I’m like a personal assistant.”

These services have helped Roth be less dependent on holiday shopping — unlike many retailers who expect to make up to half their annual revenue between Thanksgiving and Dec. 31. But Roth will have some events for the holidays, including bringing in a jeweler to help customers learn more about pieces they own, what they’re worth and how they should be worn. She’s also creating a gift section with collectibles and other merchandise she doesn’t usually carry.

“It gives people another reason to shop,” Roth says.

Pigment, a gift shop in San Diego, provides activities for its shoppers — some tied to its merchandise, and some just for the fun of it, operations manager Tiffany Moore says. It starts outside the store, where a wall painted in graduated shades of pink is a favorite spot for people to take photos of themselves. Inside Pigment, there’s a photo booth where shoppers can take pictures to immediately post online. People are having a good time, and the photos help increase the store’s social media presence, Moore says.

“People who are shopping already notice the photo booth and say, ‘This is cool,’” she says. “Others know it exists because a friend posts a photo on Instagram and they say, ‘I want to go to that store.”

On some Saturdays, as many as 100 people might get photos taken, Moore says. Meanwhile, other shoppers might be potting plants — the store’s merchandise includes a large selection of plants, and customers can select their own and a container, get free potting soil and a trowel and create their own arrangements. Pigment also holds workshops to teach calligraphy, wreath-making and other skills.

Some online retailers look for ways to create an emotional experience even without a physical location. Love Your Melon advertises on its website that it donates half the profits from its sales of woolen beanies and other clothing, and gives surprise gifts to its big shoppers. The company donated more than $400,000 from last year’s Thanksgiving weekend, and this year’s goal is $1 million, including Cyber Monday sales, to be given to pediatric cancer research, owner Zachary Quinn says.

People posting comments on the Minneapolis-based company’s Facebook page mention that helping children with cancer is one reason why they’ve bought from Love Your Melon.

“Customers feel like they’re part of the story,” Quinn says.

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