For all the technological strengths of your big-box and online foes, your small business possesses some good, old-fashioned strategic advantages that are keeping your peers atop the market. Meet four local businesses and see how they set themselves apart.
A young couple are shopping in downtown Crystal Lake, browsing through a kitchenwares store. The woman has her eyes on a stylish lunchbox. She holds it up to her boyfriend. “I’m going to get this on Amazon,” she whispers.
In the next moment, she’s made eye contact with the store owner. The color drains from her face, save for a bright blush.
Mary Behrens, the shop owner, just smiles back. “Let me show you something,” she beams. Behrens flicks a few keys on her computer, swivels around the monitor, and there’s the exact bag on Amazon. “I’m one penny more than them.”
The reaction was instantaneous: “I’m getting this now.”
Behrens’ experience at Kitchen Outfitters is familiar to store owners up and down the block, and across our region. Their small, locally owned businesses often operate in specific niches, where competition from larger, nationally oriented outfits is tough.
But, these smaller outfits have their advantages over the Goliaths. Maybe it’s product, price or convenience. Maybe it’s the experience that sets them apart. Or, perhaps there’s a deeper emotional connection involved. A small business’ passion, expertise and service could make the difference between buying local and buying somewhere else.
In the ever-changing world of retail, competitive online outfits are challenging traditional brick-and-mortar businesses of all sizes. Large, national chains have responded with deep investments in technology, as they attempt to collect and analyze massive troves of data they hope will dissect their customers’ every move and yield some mysterious truth.
It all feels a bit extreme when you consider the smaller outfits are succeeding not with technology but with good, old-fashioned strategies and a solid investment in people power.
Specialization, conversation, tactile experience, intensive customer service, personal connections – these are true competitive advantages of our smaller, locally owned businesses, and they’re traits that can help to separate your business, too.
“There’s more psychology than technology behind it,” says Lori McConville, who owns Marvin’s Toy Store, in downtown Crystal Lake, with her daughter Kate. “We study a lot about how people behave so that we can complement them while they’re shopping. We’re not out to sell. We’re out to present a good product and share what we have, so that people can make a good decision about what they want.”
Connecting with the Customer
In the world of specialty toys, every visit is a special occasion, and Marvin’s is a special kind of store.
Every item has been carefully vetted by owners Lori and Kate McConville, who maintain a stringent set of standards, all emphasizing eco-friendliness, social responsibility, active and educational play, and American-made or all-natural products. The pair believe it’s a fair reflection of their customers’ values.
“They want to come for something special, or they’re looking for something different, or maybe they like the experience of shopping for the right gift,” says Kate. “They may not know what they’re looking for, so they can come here to get help narrowing down their choice.”
Connecting with customers is an important step in the sales process, but it’s one that has to be done carefully. Marvin’s employees are specially trained to know when and how to engage with customers, and how to help them find what they seek. Selling product comes secondary to connecting with people.
“We don’t want it to feel robotic,” adds Kate. “It’s not a ‘Welcome to Marvin’s.’ You’ll never get the same greeting or tone from two people. We encourage our employees to put into their own words how they greet customers.”
Just up the street from Marvin’s, Kathleen Basista, owner of La Bellissima, specializes in undergarments and other apparel for women of all sizes, including those who are fuller-figured – a market that’s notoriously underserved, she says. “The fashion market tends to appeal to smaller figures, but if you’re a curvy girl or a plus-sized girl, many places just don’t cater to you.”
Too often, what’s available on the market doesn’t fit right or doesn’t look attractive, she adds. So, she tries to emphasize products that will make a woman feel attractive and confident.
Getting them to that point isn’t just a matter of selling products. Basista offers dedicated customer service that provides both education and personal attention – major differentiators from national retailers.
“Bra fitting is our specialty, so physically you need to be with a person to do that,” she says. “Even though, online, you see all of those companies that say they’ll help you, I see those ladies after they’ve tried to fit themselves and they’re frustrated and disappointed.”
Basista appeals to her market through a variety of means – advertising, social media, periodic newsletters – but it’s word-of-mouth that’s been the best driver.
“It’s usually, ‘My girlfriend told me this is where I needed to go,’ or ‘I was complaining about something in the salon and my hairdresser said you need to go to La Bellissima,’” says Basista. “It’s sisters, and daughters, and mothers, and aunts, and cousins, and best friends – even occasionally husbands who are tired of hearing their wife complain about how uncomfortable she is.”
There’s really something about touching a product that helps to make the sale.
At York Furrier, in the Elmhurst City Centre, the store’s collection of furs, fine outerwear and accessories is creatively arranged to invoke the senses – starting with store windows featuring oversized, attention-grabbing photo lightboxes of beautiful models in gorgeous garments.
Inside, shoppers are encouraged to personally experience the product.
“The York Collection is meant to be touched, tried on and enjoyed,” says Kathy Rezny, the store’s third-generation owner.
The women’s side of the store includes versatile fur and outerwear garments for everyday wear, glamorous evening pieces, and bridal wraps and stoles. The men’s section has shearling and leather vests, jackets and car coats. The Bargains du Jour features discounted products that are switched out daily.
“We’ve also curated an extensive selection of accessories – hats, earmuffs, gloves, scarves and handbags – all ensconced in an accessible cherry wood display case and on shelving in matching open cabinets,” says Rezny.
For almost 90 years, York Furrier has provided clients with fashion-forward furs and outerwear, and it’s also developed a strong service business offering climate-controlled storage, cleaning, repairs, alterations and restyling or repurposing of garments.
Consequently, York’s clientele spans across generations, traveling from throughout the Chicago area and beyond, including both coasts and internationally – thanks, in part, to York Furrier’s use of e-commerce. Visit YorkFur.com and you’ll see a sampling of the latest offerings, displayed in glamorous photography of professional models. Typically, those photos are composed in-house, bringing together a photographer, stylist, and hair and makeup artists.
“Hosting our own photo shoot ensures that the product images accurately reflect how the product is displayed, and ultimately, how it’ll be worn by York clients,” says Rezny.
Display is an important part of Behrens’ process, as well. The owner of Kitchen Outfitters has carefully curated the racks and shelves of her store. Every product is organized so it’s easy for shoppers to browse. She thinks of each display as a “story.”
“This is our popcorn display,” she says pointing to a shelf of popcorn popping tools. “This is our lunch story, our bar story, our grilling story. We have 7,000 products, so we have to be strategic about where we place things to make it look not cluttered.”
At La Bellissima, the main clothing gallery is light and airy, with soft, feminine violets and tones of white. Racks on the floor and walls display a variety of products. The hands-on nature of the store speaks to the sales process.
“We’re looking at you and determining where the wire of your bra should sit, where the back should sit, where the shoulders sit,” Basista says. “It’s very thorough.”
To do it right, there’s also a heavy degree of listening involved. While the customer may request one thing, her demeanor may indicate something else is afoot. That’s where the right process and a little attention can make the difference.
“I’ll put them in a fitting that I think will work for them, and once we’re trying it, I can tell it does,” she says. “Then I’m like, ‘Let’s put on this one you were looking for,’ and they’re like, ‘No, that’s not what I want, after all.’”
Basista was at a trade show, buying product for the coming season. Her friend and daughter had both fallen in love with a silk nightgown. “But there was something about the cut that told me it wasn’t going to sell well,” she recalls.
She ordered some of the nightgowns, but she also took a bet on a peacock-blue paisley dress that reminded her of Mrs. Roper, from “Three’s Company.” She could just imagine someone wearing it on the pool deck or at a dinner party.
“I went through four orders of the Mrs. Roper robe. It took me two years to sell the nightgowns,” she says. “So, you have to look at other people’s tastes, or hope you’ve caught other people’s tastes.”
It takes a careful eye and ear to monitor what consumers want. While Basista relies a lot on what she calls a “gut feeling” developed through her intimate customer interactions, some markets require constant vigilance.
The McConvilles try to gauge trends in several ways, but most importantly is good, old-fashioned listening. When there’s an influx of customers asking for something specific, it’s a good indication a product is gaining traction. Growing interest in certain educational toys may also indicate changing interests in local classrooms.
“Crystal Lake seems to be a little ahead of things,” says Lori. “They pick up on trends a little quicker, and when it’s big and bold nationally, Crystal Lake is on to something else. We found that with llamas. They’re big everywhere, but we’re not selling as many here, because it’s more saturated.”
“And once it’s everywhere they don’t come here for it,” adds Kate. “They come here for something different.”
The McConvilles also belong to a national trade organization for specialty toy stores, so they can monitor what kids elsewhere are demanding.
“The big-box stores are doing a lot of studying, so when they show us their catalogs, they’re showing us their research and they’re telling us ‘Here’s what we see coming,’” says Lori. “That’s very valuable. Our reps can show us what they’ve been preparing for, too, and we can decide how it fits into our community.”
Kate keeps an eye on children’s clothing, baby items and home decor, as those industries tend to reflect up-and-coming trends in the toy market – and vice versa.
Inevitably, there are certain trends that can’t be avoided. That doesn’t mean compromising on values, though. “Know what’s important and what your values are, and use that as your guiding light,” says Kate. “Don’t be tempted by the shiny things.”
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes a product just doesn’t move. Kate recalls the time a set of fun, screen-printed pillows struggled to take off. They were fun, fit the company’s values and got a lot of attention, but just didn’t move.
“We may love the idea of it, but we present it to our customers and they say, ‘Um, not really,’” she says.
Behrens tries almost every item at home before it goes on display at Kitchen Outfitters, so she can easily discuss everything she sells. She encourages that tactile, hands-on experience in the store, even hosting occasional demonstrations that produce tasty treats. Still, sometimes a product just doesn’t live up to its hype.
“If something doesn’t work, I take it off the shelf,” she says. “I feel like my reputation is on the line.”
Bringing Them Back
It doesn’t happen often, but when it happens that Basista can’t quite meet a customer’s needs, she doesn’t mind connecting them with another locally owned lingerie store in the area. If it feels like she’s helping the competition, Basista doesn’t see it that way.
“I feel you don’t want to leave a customer hanging if you can help it,” she says. “I may not have what she needs, but she’ll remember, I hope, that we were pretty awesome over here. And she’ll say to a friend, ‘She didn’t have what I needed, but she sent me somewhere that did. Maybe you should give her a try.’”
The McConvilles find value in the tightknit community that exists between store owners downtown. Between themselves and their downtown organization, they routinely swap ideas. They also pitch in to host events, such as sidewalk sales and the popular Johnny Appleseed Festival – occasions to help draw people in the door. Chances are, if they see one store they can be persuaded to visit a few others while they’re at it.
“It’s an event to come to our store, so they want to enjoy it,” says Lori.
Independent toy stores are hard to come by in McHenry County, so it was pretty natural when Marvin’s paired up with Read Between the Lynes, an independent bookseller located on the Woodstock Square. The so-called Mini-Marvin’s offers a selection of toys and games that fit in with the bookstore’s shopping environment while also encouraging families to visit Crystal Lake.
To connect with past customers, many retailers use emails and text messages, but across the board local business owners say they use those tools only sparingly.
“My customers have said they really would rather not get any more emails,” says Behrens.
She finds social media can be a big driver of traffic, and the abundance of TV cooking shows provides a nice boost, too.
“Alton Brown did a show on a potato ricer and it happened to be one that I carry,” she says. “I sold out the day he aired the episode. People were running in, ‘Do you have any of these potato ricers?’”
York Furrier uses a combination of print ads, email newsletters, direct mailings, social media and community events to meet new clients and stay current with past clients. It’s a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, participates in numerous fashion shows and charitable fundraisers, and even hosts an annual in-store charity event, with past beneficiaries including groups like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Alzheimer’s Association, Blessings in a Backpack, and NAMI DuPage County. This year’s October event benefits Haymarket Center, a substance abuse treatment center.
York products are often featured items on raffle tickets and auction tables for events supporting worthy charities.
“Part of the York Furrier mission statement is to give back to the community we serve,” says Rezny. “We enjoy being very involved via board work, community service projects, and supplying product to fashion shows and fundraisers.”
At the same time, York Furrier separates itself from other fashion outlets by investing in quality materials, craftsmanship and services provided by a professional, knowledgeable staff, and not merely part-time, seasonal help, says Rezny.
The in-house design team works with clients to ensure that each garment fits perfectly, while also helping to make older garments look new again or to create a one-of-a-kind garment.
York Furrier’s on-site services not only care for fur and outerwear during the offseason months, but they’ll also help to restyle or repurpose grandma’s old fur coat into something for the next generation, like a youthful fur vest or zip-up jacket, a fur Teddy Bear, pillows and throws, or an accessory like earmuffs, scarves, or a winter coat for the family puppy.
“For all of the products offered at York Furrier, we make sure the craftsmanship is exquisite,” says Rezny. “The materials are of the utmost quality. We always pay attention to the details – linings, closures, fit and including a personalized monogram. And, we love that our product is eco-friendly and so sustainable that clients are able to wear and enjoy their garments and accessories for years, even decades.”
A Special Occasion
It’s Saturday morning and Behrens is cooking up something delicious on one of her newest product offerings. It’s true that food sells, especially when your business is kitchenware.
Upstairs, a kitchen island with a cooktop is prepared for additional demonstrations. Maybe tonight it’ll host a “taste and sip,” event, a private party in which the host brings the wine and Behrens brings the food – with some fun cooking techniques and tasty samples, of course.
“We’ll teach step by step how to cook it, they all get to try it, and then they get to shop around at a discount afterward,” Behrens says. “Those have been very, very fun, and a good draw for business. It brings repeat customers.”
Compared with the big-box alternative, there’s a palpable difference in the locally owned retailer. You might notice it on quality or price, but you’ll definitely see it in a hundred smaller ways.
“Passion, I think, is No. 1 for most of us,” says Behrens. “We all are passionate about what we do, and I hope it shows.”