“That Accounts for a Good Deal,” said Eeyore gloomily. “It Explains Everything. No Wonder.”
I just heard on the news that retail sales were up this past quarter. It almost made me nostalgic for the days when my little store on Main Street was open, a tiny crumb of the vast retail pie in this country. Maybe my store could have been part of the Great Resurgence that is going to follow the Great Recession! But the news of the uptick in retail sales only almost made me nostalgic. Because, readers, retail is really, really hard.
I had a shop for 8 years, and if I had a nickel for every time someone asked me how I did it, because they’ve always wanted to open a shop — or something along those lines — I would be rich-ish today. At the very least I would have made more money answering that question than I did selling stuff. No, not really. Clearly, I exaggerate. But I’m not exaggerating the fact that retail is really, really tough. (Have I already said that? I plan on saying it several more times before I’m through with this topic.)
A few things For Your Consideration:
1. Very few small shops sell items anyone actually needs.
Your needs (plus a whole bunch of wants) are covered by chain big box stores, chain grocery stores, and chain drug stores. Besides, the people who “dream of opening a shop” don’t usually envision stocking toilet paper and toothbrushes. No, we impractical types fantasize about selling a $45 candle hand-poured by monks who refine beeswax harvested from tiny bees who have taken a vow of silence. Or — if you insist on functionality — we will sell you scissors. But as we can’t compete with Wal-mart’s orange-handled scissors that sell for $4.99, we will carry a selection of hand-hammered scissors crafted from metal forged in volcanic ash. Our scissors range in price from $95 to $445. Because we have no choice. Besides being suckers for a great backstory behind the products we sell, the small retailer’s only option is carving a niche carrying unique, small-scale production items. It’s the only strategy left to us, as a broad & deep inventory, distribution and low prices are all strategies that the chain stores have claimed as their own, with the marketing dollars to back their approach up. Yes, small retailers could stock more conventional items, but they are competing with behemoths who have drilled it into the American public that the only value a decent person should ever have starts with the price and ends with the price, and you are a fool if you shop in stores that can’t be measured in acreage. So a small retailer is stuck between a rock and a hard place. People come in to your store and exclaim that they love everything! Everything! But the store is viewed as a Museum of Stuff, not a place to actually buy, because the tiny retailer doesn’t offer a blowout Sale four times a year (how can they? they can’t sell their merchandise at a loss and declare bankruptcy and restructure like the giant retailers do) and send weekly inserts that offer up to 95% off of everything (curse you, Kohl’s!).
Just to be clear, I certainly never blamed my customers for having this mentality, because I have the same one myself. I wander through tiny stores in a daze at the beauty of the merchandising, the clever displays, the carefully selected product — before climbing into my car and heading to Target. Oh, Target. No place on earth ever made me want to quit my store, as they say down South, more than that store. Every time I stopped in at the nearest Target it seemed my little shop’s demographic was also there — ladies in their 30s & 40s onto their second, larger house and decorating up a storm — filling up their vast, gleaming shopping carts with cool lamps and mirrors and Method non-toxic cleaning supplies. Not that I sold cleaning supplies but I would have if someone had only asked. And if I had a prayer of actually selling cleaning supplies, priced for 20% more than they were sold at Target (because I paid more for them because I couldn’t buy in volume because…).
2. Selling stuff is not enough.
As a shop owner, my relationship with my customers was personal, and I was nearly always (unless my baby was screaming for attention those last few months I was open) delighted to engage in lengthy conversations with random people, many of whom wanted a little piece of me with purchase. This aspect of having a store I understood, and actually, it is what I miss the most about no longer having a shop on Main Street. But these interactions were based on something transactional, taking place within a framework we both — the customer and myself — understood: the framework of the shop. By which I mean, I opened up in the morning for business, people came in, browsed around, bought something (or not), after which at some point I closed up the shop and went home. To a meal, to my family, to my civic and social life, to something other than the shop and the demands of selling. But now…the world has changed, and with it, the world of retail, which was already strained by the market’s constant demand for low prices, resulting in cheap imports, resulting in endless consumerism. Now selling stuff is truly not enough. Having a store now means that your duties as a shop owner extend far, far beyond buying stuff, arranging it, hanging your sign above the door, and placing the occasional ad in your local newspaper. Or, if you’re feeling enterprising, sweeping the sidewalk in front of your store like Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street circa 1970s. Having a store these days means you must have a website, blog, online store, e-mail newsletters, twitter account, facebook page, in-store events, out-of-store events, a charitable cause, no carbon footprint, et cetera — all of which must be high-profile, not because you are a self-promoting nincompoop but because being a business owner is an all-consuming, ultimately personal act of continuous 24-hour branding. And if you do anything less than this, your potential customer base shrinks and shrinks until all that you are left with is a few grandmotherly types who refuse to use e-mail and are shocked, shocked! at the $45 you are charging for a candle.
I’m tired just writing about it. Because in a small retail venture it is a single person, or an underpaid friend or unpaid intern who must do all of the above, all the time, a round-the-clock To-Do list.
3. Retailing is an art.
Ever wonder why that store you love so much just seemingly closes out of the blue? A little reflection and sleuthing might open your eyes to the demands of the industry. As a consumer, you take for granted the established, store-in-every-mall presence of a retail giant like The Gap, for instance. Then you happen to catch a story in the business section of the venerable New York Times reporting on the trough that The Gap is wallowing in, with revenue dropping in the double digits, executives bailing, angry shareholders, and on and on. And if The Gap — with Designers and Marketing Gurus and Art Directors thick on the ground — can’t figure out how to sell people what they want in a consistent manner, then what chance do you, the infinitesimal shop owner, have? It’s a little frightening to contemplate. Trends come and go, tastes change, the mass of people only buy what they are told to buy, and there you are, clinging to your little corner of sidewalk trying to sell your wares. Not that people don’t figure the game out, at both local and global level — it can be done, sometimes in a shockingly successful fashion. But it is difficult to figure out just what makes it all work, an art really. And once you’re on the treadmill of retail, you don’t get off, not if you want to stay relevant, to stay interesting to your customers, not if you want to make a living.
Theoretically, a small retail establishment can transcend trends. I suppose in some Shangri-la there are wares that are so timeless you can fill a whole store with them and just sit there, cycle after cycle, year after year, and never have your business wane. But I can’t think just what kind of store that would be. If you think of it, please let me know. I’d love to know of a segment of retail that transcends the cyclical nature of this industry, that rises above people’s endless fascination with the latest thing to buy. And if it’s the latest and the cheapest? Retail heaven for Americans.
That’s all for now, folks. My three, long-winded points on what it takes to run a small retail shop (it’s really, really hard). In my next “Let’s Talk Retail” post I’ll focus on something a bit more upbeat in the way of the industry, featuring a Boston shop that is hitting all the right marks, with young shop owners who seem to have an intuitive (or maybe a deeply-researched, MBA-backed) knowledge of what it takes to succeed in today’s retail environment.