Trade Show Planner: Independent Strategies

NEW YORK — Sure, times are tough, but some retailers are finding success with inventive promotions and strategic partnerships. Here, four independent retailers share their methods for navigating the tough times and how they plan to tackle fall and spring.

Sassy of Margate

Though sales have suffered at Sassy of Margate, a women’s shoes and accessory boutique in Margate, N.J., owner Stacy Kastel said her fun-loving approach to retail has helped keep her business alive. “We don’t discuss the economy. People are tired of it. We’re all about our promotions right now and having fun,” said Kastel. “We’re certainly off [in sales], but we’re still doing business. An $800 or $900 day this year was more like a $1,200 day last year. So you just don’t look at last year.”

In addition to scaling back for spring and buying sure-fire styles, Kastel has relied on in-store parties to keep the shop atmosphere inviting to consumers. “We make them laugh, we have a good time in here,” she said. “You need something upbeat to motivate consumers and entertain them while they shop.”

Kastel recently invited an airbrush artist into the shop to customize Ugg boots, which are a big draw for the store. And following the success of a fashion show she threw last summer for 500 customers, which raised $10,000 for a local charity, Kastel hopes to host a similar event this fall. “We sold a nice chunk of change the next day. Everyone had a blast,” she said.

Heading into fall, Kastel is betting on her strong Ugg business, as well as key trends from vendors that consistently sell at the store, including Donald J Pliner and Stuart Weitzman. “Stuart Weitzman’s peep-toe styles are looking strong for fall, and Cole Haan has these adorable cherry-red-and-purple rain boots for less than $100,” she said. “The boots with hardware will be big, and we’re looking to jump on any trend that our customers really want.”

While she’s hoping to remain at full price, Kastel said she’d likely introduce fall sales at some point. “Women who can spend $800 or $900 are spending in the $300 range this year,” she said. “We just have to work with it.”

Shoes N Feet

Chris Bentvelzen, owner of two Shoes N Feet stores in San Francisco and Belmont, Calif., said his business has remained fairly steady, thanks to referrals from the medical community. “A large percentage of our business comes from doctor and podiatrist referrals, and that’s always been the most profitable part of our business,” he said. “We buy our inventory [for] that community.”

Bentvelzen, who stocks brands including Merrell, Aetrex, Brooks and Rockport, has seen traction with small in-store events this year. Beginning June 22, his stores will launch a customer appreciation week featuring a guest physical therapist who will perform spinal evaluations for customers.

The retailer also has experienced a traffic boom as a result of a local marketing initiative. “We’ve been advertising on, putting announcements and pictures up, and we’re getting a good return on investment there,” he said. “And we always try to look at how we can reconnect with the customer we already have.”

One of the best ways to do that, he explained, is through reminder postcards to customers who have recently purchased items that will eventually need to be replaced. For shoppers who buy athletic shoes, for instance, the store will send a postcard six months out to let them know their shoes may be close to wearing out. When customers buy inserts for their shoes, they get a note a month later informing them of other available inserts, followed by a reminder a year after the purchase date, informing them it’s time to replace the insert.

Looking ahead, Bentvelzen said he believes consumer confidence is picking up and that fall should be a better season, with multipurpose shoes particularly strong for fall into spring ’10. “Customers were worried about whether they were going to have a job next week or next month,” Bentvelzen said, “I see that changing. Some of our stores are down a little bit, but as a company, we’re up from last year.”

Big & Elegant

Business for Amy Tricoche-McFarlane, owner of the Big & Elegant shoe boutique in Tampa, Fla., has been tough, even though her shop tends to be a destination spot for women looking for large sizes and widths. “It’s been slow, but I’ve been participating in networking events, which is helping to get my name out there,” said Tricoche-McFarlane, who stocks brands including Bellini, J. Reneé and Easy Street.

Partnering with different nonprofit organizations has helped her connect with customers and even drive sales over the past few months. In particular, Tricoche-McFarlane has been involved with the Dress for Success organization since she opened her boutique last year, serving as a drop-off location for donations. She said it has helped her business because women often browse her shoes after they donate their items.

In addition, on June 27, her store will sponsor a local “Rock the Runway” fashion show, which she hopes will drive interest in the store and help appeal to potential customers.

And while she said upcoming fall sales will be slow — mainly because her customers still wear open-toe shoes throughout most of the season — for spring ’10, she plans to remain at full price. “Our shoes are very reasonable, and I cater to a niche [market], so people come here looking to buy.”

Zelaya Shoes

At Zelaya Shoes in Bethesda, Md., owner Tony Zelaya is finding that interacting with his customers through social networking sites is a great way to keep them within reach. “The main objective is to make customers your friend and to create loyalty,” he said.

Zelaya has been extremely active on, creating fan groups for certain brands, such as FitFlop, and amassing 2,651 friends. “The more things you have out there, the more people will find you,” he said.

Zelaya also gives customers a 10 percent discount on store purchases if they are a Facebook friend, which has been successful in driving traffic.

The Internet also has made it easier to plan and advertise promotions. “I did a Founders’ Day sale for my birthday, which I came up with out of the blue,” he said. “That is something you can do within hours. It’s just so much easier than having to print out banners and all that.”

And the reaction is usually immediate as well, Zelaya noted. “I can write something on my Facebook page and see people in the store within two hours,” he said.

The retailer will continue offering the Facebook discount into fall and spring and plans to hold seasonal sales if he needs to move merchandise, but he hopes that superior customer service will help him keep the store at full price. “Customer service is what works for us,” he said. “It has to be genuine, and that is key to business.”

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