The Independent Retailer Lives On
Two weeks ago I attended the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition (IRCE) in Chicago. One undercurrent I felt very strongly was the presence and predicament of the small, independent retailer.
Sure there were technology providers that can scale up to tier 1 and tier 2 proportions, but there was a notable focus on the small retailer as well; rightfully, and necessarily so. As most of you know, I’m the daughter of an independent retailer, and while technology has changed and evolved, the independent retailer still works far more than the 40 hour week (or even 50 hour week) of his larger brethren. It’s a competitive and challenging world out there, and independent retailers have to work hard to survive, even without store fronts.
I saw tools available to improve marketing to new and existing customers. It took me back to my childhood, when my father would get postcards pre-printed when he’d run a sale. He’d address them by hand, and my job would be to fill in the zip code on the front of the postcard. We’d mail them to all his existing customers, whose names he gathered by hand from sales receipts. Today, we have all kinds of email programs to send targeted (and all-too-often untargeted) emails with the offer of the day. If you buy online, the retailer automatically gets your name, address and email address. The customer database is made for you. Challenges now are more about having a single customer list for all the channels where business is conducted.
My father would also run small ROP ads in local newspapers from time-to-time in hopes of attracting new shoppers. The independent internet retailer doesn’t do that so often. Instead, he focuses on search engine optimization (SEO). I have a client who built a business from zero to a $300,000/year run rate in eighteen months by spending 70-80 hours a week working on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). That’s right, 70-80 hours of his own time to go along with the money he spent on SEO providers. It takes some kind of passion and determination to do something like that!
Of course, with unlimited funds, you can pay Google to get you to the top of the page, but that’s an expensive form of customer acquisition. The art form, borne of sweat equity, is to organically get yourself “above the fold” on the first page of search results. We don’t think about this so often, but for certain categories of merchandise, this is harder than it seems. After all, products commoditize so quickly.
I’m sure in my father’s day the challenge would have been to have his store pop up if someone searched for “camp outfitters.” I just ran a google search on the term, just for fun, and sure enough, the third name on the page has been in business since 1959. No doubt he got his start catering to the parents of Boomers like me who went off to summer camp.
Like my father’s business, the Camp Spot’s claim to fame is making it easy to get all the disparate products needed from one place. I can tell you from my childhood experience, getting those products was a not-so-easy job, and at least back in the day, required Sundays in Manhattan to make it happen. Of course, times have changed, and on this day, there were no Google ads for camp outfitters. Most sleepaway camps don’t force anyone to wear uniforms anymore.
Children of independent retailers are typically fascinated by their friends’ parents, who magically have every Saturday and Sunday off. That’s not retail. That’s not even LARGE retail, what to speak about independent retail.
The long and the short of it is that the Independent Retailer still works really, really hard. Sure, there are some challenges that have been solved by technology. But those same technologies create shiny new challenges that require hours of work, thought and effort. I, for one, am appreciative of their efforts and make every attempt I can to support them whenever possible. I hope you will too!