Cultivating Retail Success
Ask any brick-and-mortar gift store what draws customers in and keeps them coming back and you’ll undoubtedly hear a range of responses: unique products; enticing displays; engaging in-store events; courteous, knowledgeable staff; location, location, location. What sets Twig—an eco-friendly lifestyle shop in Chapel Hill, N.C.—apart from the competition is all of the above!
Retailing Insight contributor Megy Karydes recently sat down with Twig owner Shawn Slome to learn more about how he cultivated and continues to grow his perennially successful store.
Megy Karydes: Paint a picture of your store. Where is it located, how large is it, and what can we find when we walk through your doors?
Shawn Slome: Twig is located right next to a Whole Foods Market. It has 1,200 square feet of selling space with an additional 600 square feet of stock room. We opened in December 2007 and operate seven days a week. In addition to myself, I have two full-time and two part-time employees.
Toys, housewares, apparel, stationery—we have a lot of different departments, which is both good and bad. Our products are eco-friendly and many are Fair Trade, too. Some of our top sellers include Mr. Ellie Pooh paper, LeKue kitchen accessories, Yala Designs apparel, SodaStream’s Home Soda Maker, and the Buddha Board. We also offer a nice selection of baby shower gifts. We don’t carry consumables since we are next to a Whole Foods, and they pretty much have that category covered.
Karydes: So why an eco-friendly specialty store and why now?
Slome: I had been in the off-price clothing business since 1991, operating three stores around the Triangle area (Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill), when things began to change within the industry: too many off-price retailers were entering the market, sourcing for goods changed, and the U.S. began exporting our textile goods. I was ready for a change too. I had an opportunity to open next to Whole Foods, so I began to think about what I could open in that space that would be a good fit, yet not compete. An eco-friendly specialty store seemed to make the best business sense.
Karydes: What has been your secret to success in a down economy, especially given your specialty focus on green goods? Did you experience any bumps in the road?
Slome: When I opened Twig, I wasn’t expecting to go into debt the first couple years. The off-price stores I managed didn’t need a lot of help to be successful businesses. Without much work we were still generating $60,000 per year in profit. But people weren’t flooding in to buy what we offered at Twig.
I also thought it would make sense to open in December to benefit from the holiday buying season. That didn’t happen because no one knew we existed. Merchandising mattered. Product selection mattered. Then 2008 happened and the economy tanked. But we had no choice; we had to make it work since this was our new business. I needed an attitude adjustment because this is the real process of a shopkeeper; I just didn’t know it before I opened up the store.
I’m happy to say persistence has paid off. Two and a half years in, we stopped losing money. I’m finally getting paid a fair wage and we’re moving in the right direction. We leverage our green mission and culture into all aspects of the business, from marketing to hiring. Twig’s experience has shown that if a company can demonstrate it has made a genuine and meaningful commitment to the concept of sustainability, the return on investment in the form of customer loyalty and good will far exceed the investment.
Karydes: What are the particular challenges and rewards of operating an eco-friendly store?
Slome: I am constantly learning what makes something eco-friendly because I know there is a credibility issue when it comes to these types of products. We want to be knowledgeable about what we carry. Our customers seem very happy we’re trying to do more than just sell them stuff, because the reality is we are still selling stuff.
I’m not jumping up and down telling people I’m righteous or getting on a soapbox to preach. There is no place for judgment in my business. There are many ways people can be responsible consumers: some may decide to buy eco-friendly products and drive a gas guzzler; some may pray for world peace and buy Fair Trade when they can. Each of us decides how to make a positive impact.
Our store is a billboard in and of itself. We may not be perfect but the very fact we’re in existence tells people it’s important enough to us that we decided to make it a business decision. We’re also very fortunate that many of our customers take somewhat of an ownership role in the shop. It’s more satisfying to me to see customers come and support us because they feel it’s their store just as much as it is ours.
Karydes: Their store. How do you engage them to feel like they are part of the store?
Slome: Shoppers want to enjoy their shopping experience. It’s about “shoppertainment.” For instance, a friend of mine has alpacas at a nearby farm. I asked her to bring her alpacas to the store and the yarn shop next door was spinning yarn in front so we had several people stop by to see what was going on. We tied it into the store’s products because we carry winter accessories made from alpaca fiber.
Another friend manages a bamboo plantation, and he came in and did a presentation on bamboo as a sustainable resource. We even did taste testing of bamboo shoots.
A mother of one of my employees did a workshop on feng shui. We charged for that and invited people to come in and get a sketch of their house done to incorporate feng shui in the design.
None of these things say “buy something.” We want to be sincere about providing a service. We want our customers to feel good, to feel appreciated, whether they buy something or not. It’s all about living in harmony and living well. We give them enough information to make their own decision. We’re not dogmatic in our approach.
Karydes: I have to say, you seem to have the marketing thing down. In addition to the brick and mortar store, you have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account; you’re on Google Places and have videos on YouTube; you offer classes, send out emails, and attend networking events; you win local retailer awards and promote them in your shop. What works, what doesn’t, and do you think it’s necessary to be all over the place?
Slome: There is no one way to reach our customers so we have to be involved in many different things to remind them we exist. Right now our most effective way to reach most of our customer base is through monthly emails, but we also play around with different things to see what might stick.
We’ve offered free socks to people who come in and mention they saw the offer on Facebook, or we’ll offer a $100 discount and we might get 20 people who come in. Another thing that seems to draw new customers in is that we won our local magazine’s Reader’s Choice award as the best environmentally friendly store in the Triangle and we didn’t even know we were in the running! We’ve won the distinction the last four years in a row. We also won the Triangle Business Journal’s Green Award. We prominently display these in our shop.
Also, I’m pretty active in our local business community. I serve on the board of directors of our local chamber of commerce and I believe networking should be part of every business. We can all help each other and it’s not always in the form of a transaction.
Our website is a work in progress. The inventory we carry on our site is an extension of what we have in the store so if we sell something from the site, we pull it off of our shelves to ship it out.
Finally, we’re expanding on something we started in 2011, offering a financial donation to a nonprofit during the 10 days leading up to Thanksgiving. In 2012, we hosted a party with a live auction of a prize consisting of gift items donated to us by our vendors.
Karydes: How do you source new products?
Slome: I will admit that oftentimes I don’t know what to buy. Sometimes I’ll buy by consensus. If it does well, we’ll build on it. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t return on our shelves.
My wife is not actively involved in the store’s business day to day, but she has a good eye when it comes to identifying and recommending products to carry in the store. We also attend trade shows, including non-gift shows like ASTRA, the Housewares Show, and the Outdoor Retailer show. We check out GreenAmerica, see what other stores similar to ours in other parts of the country are carrying, or we get recommendations from our customers. We try to source locally as much as we can, but while it sounds great to say we offer products from local artists, sometimes their products just don’t fit the wholesale model.
Karydes: What would you love for manufacturers to do to help you sell their products better at the store shelf level?
Slome: Hang tags are extremely helpful because it’s hard for us to be knowledgeable on so many different products and causes. Reference materials, if they have them, are always good to have on hand in case people want more information. If we use the products ourselves, we can sell from our experience.
Karydes: What would you say is your biggest challenge as a shopkeeper?
Slome: I’m not good at budgeting or financial planning, which would come in handy when it comes to profitability and cash flow management. I’ve never been comfortable being the “face” of the business either. I am more of a background guy, letting my employees work with customers. I want to work on the business rather than in the business.
Karydes: What recommendations do you have for your fellow retailers?
Slome: Create experiences for shoppers. Think of ways you can connect with your customers that will involve them. Fundraisers, events, and classes build traffic into the store.
Hire good and capable people because it frees you up to do your work and grow the business.
Good photography of the store helps. I hired a photographer for $200 to shoot the inside of my store to include on GooglePlaces so people can get a general idea of what we’re all about. That’s just another way for us to get eyeballs.
There are so many ways to introduce your store to people. It’s all experimental. I’m always interested to try new things because you never know what might work. We have to earn our customers’ business just like any other retailer.
First published in Vol. 27 No. 1 of Retailing Insight. © 2013 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.