How Small Shops Can Thrive in a Retail Downturn

Even as major retailers lose business, your small shop can flourish by catering to its customers and offering them something different.
As a small business, you have the upper hand when it comes to customer experience. Use it to compete during an economic downturn. (Photo:

Now may be the best time of all to be a small retailer, if you know how to leverage your advantages.

News reports of declining sales and falling stock prices suggest traditional retailers — major chains found in shopping malls — are struggling to survive. And that’s thanks only in part to the “Amazon effect.”

“Retailers that lack originality or offer nothing to excite the consumer’s shopping experience have started to see a decline,” said Naomi Coleman, founder and creative director of boutique PR and branding agency Access by NKC.


Naomi Coleman, creative director of Access by NKC, suggests adding what she calls a ‘human touch’ to your small boutique in order to stand out. (Photo: Naomi Coleman)

Meanwhile, small shops seem to be holding their own. In fact, small retailers have an opportunity to win some of the business larger stores are losing. The key, said Coleman, is evolving your business to meet changes in consumer demands. Here are four tips she shared with NCR Silver on how small retail stores can come out on top in a retail downturn.

Focus on the shopping experience

While having the best quality products or largest selection may have been the main driving factor for winning business in years past, today’s consumers are more interested in the shopping experience, said Coleman.

“Many small boutiques are doing well in the current retail environment because they are able to present a human touch. They are able to focus on personalizing and catering to consumer needs,” she said. When larger companies try to replicate the “genuine feel” of smaller boutiques, she said, consumers can usually sniff it out as a marketing tactic.

Related: How to Bake a Superior Customer Experience into Your Business

Small retailers can use consumers’ trust in “the little guy” to their advantage by focusing on personalized in-store services, she said. “Online stores can offer many personalized recommendations, but not a human touch. Investing in an efficient work staff and different amenities throughout the store can help drive traffic by forcing consumers to ‘come in and see.’”

For example, in the fashion and beauty markets, many brick-and-mortar stores have seen success from adding personal styling services and in-store product curation by fashion experts and influencers, she said.

Effective use of technology can also enhance the in-store experience. Mobile POS systems that let consumers check out with any sales associate anywhere in the store can keep lines short.

Mix e-commerce with in-store service


Stay relevant and give customers more options by offering e-commerce as well as in-store service. (Photo: vectorfusionart/Shutterstock)

E-commerce continues to gain steam. Forecasts from Kiplinger estimate that e-commerce sales will grow by 15 percent this year, while in-store sales will grow by only about 2 percent.

Coleman suggested finding ways to merge your in-store and e-commerce services to give shoppers more options, such as in-store pickups.

“Most consumers love the efficiency of ordering online but hate the shipping cost and time. Retailers offering in-store pickups create a convenience factor for their consumer while increasing the chance for another sale by having the consumer visit the store.”

Related: On-Demand Delivery Services Are Helping Small Businesses Compete

Set yourself apart with unique products

Another way for small shops to stand out is to focus on stocking local products or products few other retailers sell, which minimizes the strain of competing with online pricing. It also encourages customers to buy now or risk missing out on the item forever, Coleman noted.

“The sense of urgency is created to showcase the importance of visiting in-store. In some cases, knowing that something won’t be available ever again and/or at a reasonable price will keep consumers on the lookout for future products.”

Related: 6 Psychologist-Approved Tricks for Effective Merchandise Arrangement

Stand for something

Embracing a cause can give consumers a reason to identify with you.

“Currently, many consumers are searching for brands that share their beliefs and understanding [of] the world around them,” she said. “If retailers can establish that they are aware of certain issues and publicize their involvement in any cause, they can showcase that profit isn’t their only focus.”

A simple hashtag campaign or a mission statement tied to an environmental or societal cause can enhance your brand image.

Related: Cheap, Easy Ways to Embrace Corporate Social Responsibility

At the end of the day, consumers need to shop somewhere. And if you can offer something mall stores and even Amazon don’t, you can grab a bigger slice of their spending.

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