Shop Talk: Practical answers for tough business questions.

by : 
Kim Perkins
September 1, 2012

Question: Often people come into our store, look at things we carry, and start writing down information about the company or the artist so they can order it online, obviously hoping to get it cheaper. I’ve tried taking off as much information as possible from the item so they can’t accomplish this discreetly, but some of them actually ask for the information! Is there something polite you recommend saying so these customers understand that by buying online rather than in-store, they are literally putting a small shop out of business?

Answer: I agree this is frustrating, and I also think most customers have no idea how much negative impact they can have on small businesses by looking locally and buying online. So, the answer is education. Is there a “Buy Local” campaign in your area? If so, when you join, they often have stickers for your windows and offer helpful talking points for your website or newsletter. These tools are another way to educate customers as to the true, positive economic influence they can have by supporting local, independently owned businesses.

Some education can be even more subtle. At my store, our receipt printer allows a message to be printed on each receipt. Ours says “Thank you for shopping locally.” And in our print and Web advertising, we often have a tagline that includes the words “local” and “independently owned.” Making this distinction repeatedly helps.

As to what to say to customers who blatantly make a list of items they plan to purchase online, that’s a hard call. At my store, we try to gently educate them as well as tell them about our loyalty programs (we have a Book Club and a Gratitude Club that both reward repeat customers). On gifts, we often replace tags on products from vendors who sell directly, especially at a discount, to consumers. And if customers inquire, we simply say we don’t give out vendor information. I would never advocate being rude to a customer, but I would have no problem explaining, kindly, that by purchasing online they risk not only losing us, but other independent local resources they now enjoy. If they push after that, I might laugh lightly and say, “If we gave out our vendor info, we wouldn’t be in business very long, would we?” or something similar to make them think a bit.

Kim Perkins is co-owner of Elysian Fields Books & Gifts for Conscious Living (, an award-winning store in Sarasota, Fla. Send your retail questions to