Successful Small Retail
What small retailers are doing to meet the latest challenges.
By year’s end, it’s estimated that Amazon’s retail sales will top $288 billion, according to experts.
Walmart’s net revenue in the U.S. for 2017 will total $318.5 billion.
The “smaller” of the big players—Best Buy, Home Depot, Walgreens—stand to rake in double-digit billions. Target run, anyone?
How on earth can Southwest Florida’s small businesses—the backbone of the region’s economy—compete with those kinds of returns?
By doing the things the online and big-box retailers can’t do: Offering personalized services, providing top-notch customer service, and turning on a dime when industry trends shift and consumers demand something else.
“Small business is much more customer-focused,” says Suzanne Specht, assistant director of the Florida Small Business Development Center at FGCU. “They know who their customer is, who their market is. With big businesses, sometimes you’re just a number.”
She continues: “Small businesses can take advantage of opportunities quickly. If they want a certain kind of product, they can order things fast, while a manager of a larger business may even wonder who to talk to at the company to order something new.”
That’s not to say it’s easy. Aside from the obvious challenges small-business owners face when competing with the big guys, there are lesser-known hardships, too. Finding good help is among the biggest headaches in the small-business sector, and if these owners can’t recruit dependable, skilled staff, they risk losing the very attributes that give their small businesses a competitive edge.
“You want to have great customer service and [hire] a very well-trained staff that really knows how to assist and help a customer, not just with one transaction,” says Specht, adding that a successful business will nurture that customer relationship for a very long time.
“Whatever you do as a small business, you have to take away the annoyance factor,” Specht says. “What are the barriers between the business and the customer?” Barriers may be unanswered phone calls or emails. They may be long wait times for orders. They may be customers’ need to explain the nature of their landscaping problems or footwear issues to new people every time they enter the store.
Eliminating these obstacles has helped plenty of local small businesses succeed. In this holiday season, with shopping top of mind, small retailers share how they stay competitive in a big box, e-commerce kind of a world.
SNYDERMAN SHOES: CUSTOMER SERVICE SPANS GENERATIONS
The satisfied customer treated to personal service can lead to generations of satisfied customers—perhaps patronizing a store in its third generation of family ownership.
Like Snyderman Shoes in Fort Myers.
In a charming small-business way, Snyderman Shoes began in Lakewood, New Jersey, in 1952, when current store owner/partner Rick Snyderman’s grandfather borrowed money from his neighbors to buy a shoe store that had gone out of business. “And we’ve been tying shoes ever since,” Snyderman says.
The family and the store relocated to Fort Myers in 1977, and by that time, Rick’s father, Jerry Snyderman, was running the business. “Somebody from our hometown asked my dad to visit,” he says. “And there were no shoe stores here at the time, and definitely no kids’ shoe stores at the time.”
Rick is technically company vice president today, but like many small-business proprietors, he says, “I wear many hats.”
Since 2001 he has been the company’s pedorthist, an allied health professional trained to fit and modify footwear and use supportive devices to address foot problems. Small businesses have an advantage if they can offer a niche service or product, like Snyderman’s does. It’s the go-to place for people with diabetes to find shoes and inserts that are covered by Medicare. Plenty of doctors recommend the store to patients, who often spread the word among their friends.
Plenty of grandparents also bring in grandchildren for shoes, Snyderman says, although rarely does he see the middle generation—the parents.
“Although we sell shoes from cradle to retirement, a lot of our customers are in retirement,” he says. “And they still read the newspaper.” For that reason, Snyderman’s maintains traditional advertising strategies, including a listing in the Yellow Pages.
“But to stay relevant, we do some social media,” Snyderman says. It’s also required for the store as a dealer of New Balance lines.
Running a small business allows Snyderman to stay nimble. He doesn’t have to comb through layers of authority and approval in order to switch up products as consumer tastes change. “For example, because we sell a lot of shoes to help people with sore feet ... Everybody’s wearing sneakers that look like they have soft fiber uppers, or mesh, or sweater uppers, and we can get them in faster.”
Once the wearers arrive, they can be fitted by a staff of six with a combined 170 years in shoe fitting. “You’ll see the same [staff] faces here all the time. Elsewhere you go, you won’t see the same faces again.”
PARADISE BICYCLES: “A NICE, SOCIAL THING”
Of course, the choice and success of marketing tactics depend on a store’s customer base.
“When we bought this store [in 2005], the owners were spending $12,000 a year advertising in the Yellow Pages,” says Jonathen Sharp (pictured) of Paradise Bicycles. “On the bloody Yellow Pages! Now I wouldn’t spend 12 bucks.”
Once part of a family-owned advertising agency near Birmingham, England, Sharp and his wife, Lynne, between them own four cycling specialty stores—two Paradise Bicycles in Fort Myers and one in Cape Coral, plus the 4-year-old Go Girl Cycling in Fort Myers.
To attract customer attention these days, they depend on store websites and some social media via Instagram and Facebook, where they encourage the community to join store-sponsored rides many weekends.
Social media and word-of-mouth bring customers to Paradise Bicycles, where they discover one of the shop’s biggest selling points: a robust selection of specialty products.
Paradise sells high-end Giant and Specialized bicycles, which can cost anywhere from $500 to $10,000 or more. “They’re two of the top three brands in the U.S.,” Sharp says. “Those brands are restricted in distribution, and there’s no way to buy them online because of the fittings and servicing needed.”
Staffing is the biggest challenge he faces today. It wasn’t difficult at first, when he bought the business, he says. But it’s got- ten harder in the past four years or so. “I don’t think young people go to work anymore,” Sharp says. “They don’t feel obliged to get part-time jobs anymore. Businesses like mine survive with part- time people. ... I can’t even remember the last time somebody came in and says, ‘Are you hiring?’”
Even if someone did, the bicycles he sells are highly technical and require some skill to do justice to the customer.
“Because as the Amazons of this world slowly nibble away at every business, what have you got left?” Sharp says. “Customer service.”
That’s actually a very enjoyable part of the business to Sharp. Reached at the end of a work day, Sharp says, “The people who came in today ... there were an awful lot of really nice people. It’s all a nice, social thing in here.”
BRODEUR CARVELL: NETWORKING AS MARKETING
About 15 years ago, Ron Brodeur (pictured right) and Rob Carvell (pictured left) combined forces—and plenty of customers—to become Brodeur Carvell Fine Apparel in the Bell Tower Shops in Fort Myers.
Carvell had been working for 18 years at Jacobson’s in the Bell Tower until it closed in 2002; Brodeur didn’t have a retail space and for a decade exclusively visited clients at their offices. A mutual customer suggested that the two meet and consider an alliance.
A retailer who calls on clients may be the ultimate in customer service. Today, the two men take a similar approach to cultivating a client base. It’s built around networking, says Carvell. Brodeur is a member of Rotary, and both attend chamber of commerce functions when possible. “A small business has limited marketing, so we have to be creative in how we introduce ourselves,” Carvell added.
The two believe that involvement in community charity functions has given them an edge as well. They hold two or three events a year in their store, and support efforts like Loveybear Quilts 4 Tots, which gives hospitalized children stuffed bears with quilts. They support Arts for ACT, the American Heart Association, Bobby Nichols- Fiddlesticks Charity Foundation and Madisen’s Match, a local charity for children with cancer.
Direct mail also seems to work for Brodeur Carvell. “We’re probably one of the few in retail who still do it,” Brodeur says. They sometimes send email blasts as well.
DRIFTWOOD: WORD-OF-MOUTH AND CIVIC INTERACTION
A company shuttering planted the seed that grew into a new business enterprise when Craig Hazelett’s father became jobless with the closing of an International Harvester in Indiana.
“We had vacationed here for many years, and when they were closing up the plant there, we moved to Southwest Florida,” says Hazelett, president of Driftwood Garden Center in Naples and Estero. The family looked for motels on Fort Myers Beach but ended up buying the Garden Exchange in 1984.
Hazelett and his brother, Brad, finished high school and college and became the principals at Driftwood.
“We’ve served a lot of families,” Hazelett says. Being in business for many years means hearing a lot of family stories, “and they know ours. We’ve always been professional but we’ve earned a lot of friendships here over time.
“The fortunate thing about Naples and Southwest Florida is that word-of-mouth and civic interaction work. We have a lot of charities we give to and we work that into our marketing budget,” he added.
Driftwood supports the Wounded Warrior Project, the American Cancer Society, NAMI and other causes. Like other locally owned businesses, Southwest Florida communities and neighborhood associations find Driftwood approachable when they plan charity projects that might be difficult to sell to a large corporation.
“We stay focused on customer service, on special care and going above and beyond,” Hazelett says. “We’re always trying to change our products and also to stay competitive with [large company] pricing and give them much more service than a big box can.
Cathy and Ralph Sangiovanni, owners of Razzle Dazzle in Cape Coral.
RAZZLE DAZZLE: FOCUS ON THE INDIVIDUAL
Offering unique items is a tactic that has yielded longevity for Razzle Dazzle, a women’s clothing store in Cape Coral that specializes in cruise and resortwear.
“One of our mottos is, ‘If it’s in our store, you’ll never see it in the mall; and if it’s in the mall, you’ll never see it in our store,’” says Ralph Sangiovanni, who owns Razzle Dazzle along with his wife, Cathy.
The Sangiovannis offer garments that they usually find in New York and Las Vegas, and last year, in Italy.
Razzle Dazzle has been a fixture in Cape Coral for 28 years. Even so, its website declares it is “Southwest Florida’s Best-Kept Fashion Secret,” which is both true and false, really.
The boutique’s stock in trade is its fashion shows, and among communities and organizations that have hosted their shows, it’s not a secret at all. It’s also no surprise to those who have attended a monthly fashion show and buffet lunch at Big Blue Brewery, which is four blocks away.
“The biggest [customer] contact for us is fashion shows, fashion shows, fashion shows,” Sangiovanni says. “I have a disc jockey background, and with that when we do fashion shows we bring all of the equipment in. And they’re totally different than any others that you’ll probably go to. They’re energy-packed.
“We’re there to have fun, to showcase who we are, what we represent, a boutique in the community ... we get everybody involved.” He recalled a particular show for about 300 women a year ago at the Jamaica Bay com- munity in Fort Myers. “I got each and every single one of them up on the dance floor dancing during the fashion show,” he says.
Razzle Dazzle doesn’t charge for the shows. Experience has taught the Sangiovannis that the models, who come from the community hosting the show, and the audience members end up buying clothes that day and then visit the shop later.
When they do visit the shop, they get plenty of attention. The Sangiovannis have used their own experience as shoppers to set Razzle Dazzle apart.
“I’ve gone into many stores, and you can be there for hours and nobody will come up and say ‘hi’ to you,” Sangiovanni says. “And if you have a question about a product or something there’s nobody to ask. In our store, within 30 seconds you’ll be greeted and asked if there’s anything specific you’re looking for. You’ll be asked if you have been in the store before. And we’ll tell you what the specials are and tell you to let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.
“One of the things we will never ever do: We will never say to a customer, ‘Wow, that really looks good on you’ when it doesn’t. A sale is important. A satisfied customer is by far more important.”
THE VALUE OF A CATCHY PHRASE
Yet there is still more a small business can do to set itself apart, to be seen as unique, says Norman Stern, who was a business owner/entrepreneur and marketing director for an international textiles company, as well as an adjunct member of the FGCU business school for 17 years. He’s now a volunteer advisor with SCORE Naples.
Small businesses can boost themselves with something as simple as a great choice of words.
“In today’s highly competitive world, [a business] has to tell prospective customers why they should select him or her,” he says. “This competitive edge is often expressed as a unique selling proposition (USP). For example, in the ’90s, the U.S. Army had one of the best USPs I had ever seen: ‘Be All That You
Can Be.’ Who doesn't want that?” Other great USPs, says Stern, have included Geico’s “15-minute phone call,” “DeBeers: Diamonds Are Forever,” and “LensCrafters: Glasses in About an Hour.”
“Note how each of these USPs offers customers a promise,” Stern says. “The unique aspect of the promise creates the necessary competitive edge. Most small businesses never do any of this.”