How consumers shop has evolved significantly over the past two years, and independent retailers need to address this new reality head-on as the important holiday season draws near.


“The historical trends of shopping are no longer relevant,” says Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, founder of Retail Minded, a Denver-based company that provides resources to independent retailers. “Retailers need to recognize that consumer habits have changed for good, and won’t be returning to what they were before the pandemic. Small businesses, in particular, will need to be proactive in order to be profitable this holiday season.”


So, what exactly are consumers looking for? Here are three important trends to consider adopting:


1. Offering convenience—even local delivery


Reyhle says convenience is the single-most-important thing that retailers need to get right. “That means everything from mobile shopping to curbside pickup to in-store ‘VIP’ experiences—in other words, heightened customer care,” she says. “Retailers need to be aware of the sensitivities COVID has brought to the consumer experience.”


Among her suggestions: launching a local delivery service within, for example, 10 miles of a store. “If you are a small business catering to your community, hand deliveries take things up a notch,” Reyhle says.


She cautions, however, that merchants need to be clear about the terms of purchase involving deliveries: When do orders need to be placed by? What are the purchase requirements to have a delivery free of charge? What’s the return policy?


Retailers should also update their website and social media so that they can meet customers anywhere in their “purchase journey,” whether it’s on Yelp, Instagram or Facebook’s review sites. “If you don’t make it convenient, you’re compromising opportunities to connect with customers,” Reyhle adds.


2. Providing contactless shopping that wows


While many shoppers will return to crowded stores over the holidays, others will prefer to remain contactless. Reyhle says retailers should think about offering reservations for their best customers (those “VIPs”) outside of scheduled shopping hours.


Retailers might also consider positioning themselves as virtual personal shoppers. “Any retailer has the ability to do this,” she says. “Do a FaceTime call and walk them through your boutique, your home décor store, your wine and cheese shop. It’s all about being aware, being flexible, being mindful.”


3. Finding innovative ways to serve your customers


When the pandemic shuttered Foamy Wader Jewelry in Langley, Washington, store owner Alexa Allamano created QR code-enhanced window displays that drive shoppers to her website. Here’s how it works: The window shoppers use their smartphone cameras to scan the QR code next to an item and are then led to that exact item on the website to make a purchase.


“I use my storefront window display to create an alfresco shopping space right from the sidewalk,” Allamano says. “It’s a convenient option for shoppers with small children or pets in tow or for after-hours browsers. And it facilitates fast and easy impulse shopping 24/7.”


Jeff Moriarty, marketing manager of Moriarty’s Gem Art in Crown Point, Indiana, is also using technology to push sales—by instituting live streams through YouTube and Facebook to educate customers about the store’s products. The show attracts about 1,500 viewers each month.


“Not only has it helped us to stay connected to our customers, it’s generated a ton of sales—$20,000 from one recent show,” Moriarty says. “We plan on doing a weekly show during the holidays, which will work especially well for customers that don’t feel comfortable coming into the store.”


“I use my storefront window display to create an alfresco shopping space right from the sidewalk.”


Beyond ensuring convenience options that he likens to “table stakes,” retail management consultant Carlos Castelán, managing director of The Navio Group in Minneapolis, says local retailers should consider positioning themselves as the purveyors of unique offerings, as well as having strong inventory availability.


“With forecasted product shortages this fall and during the holiday season due to supply chain disruptions, having a strong inventory will position retailers to win,” Castelán says.


Small retailers, he adds, should consider stocking items that are difficult to find or are not carried at big-box stores, such as housewares brands found in Europe for a local kitchenware store or a seasonal collection from a designer for a local menswear shop.


“One way to do this effectively is by offering a limited supply of a unique product to encourage people to purchase right away,” Castelán says. “Also, have a marketing plan to keep the store top of mind for customers, as they are likely to shop earlier than ever this holiday season.”

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