It's easy to moan about the death of the independent retail store. But retail experts are surprisingly upbeat about the prospects for small stores, finding many ways that clever merchants can capitalize on the unique advantages that come with a brick-and-mortar presence. Here's how.

1. Exploit your size

Small merchants should carry brands that the big box stores can't carry. Paco Underhill, founder of consulting firm Envirosell and author of What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping, says a big-box store needs to work with suppliers that can provide 20,000 pieces at a time. Find the manufacturers, designers, and artisans who work in small, exclusive, runs, and promote your relationships with them.

2. Keep it fresh

Change stock frequently, to give customers a reason to come to store, says Antonio Moreno-Garcia, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School of Management. "Selling stuff is not that hard," he says. "The main challenge is attracting traffic."

3. Use your windows to tell a story

Store windows should do more than just display merchandise. They need to tell a story that will intrigue passers-by and get them to stop in. Underhill points to a recent Kate Spade window, playing off the theme of "A Visit to Tokyo." The entire window had "a slightly Asian feel, and just looked great," says Underhill. "They were reaching out to Japanese tourists."

4. Face the customer

Generally speaking, Underhill says, 65 percent of traffic will walk past a window in one direction, and only 35 percent of foot traffic will be in the other direction. Make sure your display is oriented toward the 65 percent, not the 35 percent.

5. A little technology goes a long way

Most of the customer identification and fancy in-store advertising display technology is not really suitable, or realistic, for small merchants, says Lee Peterson, executive vice president of brand strategy and design at WD Partners, a Dublin, Ohio-based consulting firm. What small stores should have are fully wired store associates. That means an associate can check out a customer using a tablet or other device--without having to go to a register. If you have a larger store with inventory in the back, a store associate shouldn't have to dig through the back to find out if you've got a certain pair of shoes in a size seven. That information should be available immediately, on a device the associate can carry with them.

6. Pick your battles

Eighty percent of everything we purchase is a repeat purchase, says Underhill. Those are the purchases that, eventually, are going to migrate online. So, says Underhill, the smart independent merchant ignores the 80 percent, and tries to get as big a chunk of that 20 percent as possible.

7. Make the layout easy

Underhill says most stores work best with a counter-clockwise circulation. That's because most people tend to experience the world first with their right hand, and will naturally walk to the right upon entering your store. (Sorry, left-handers.)

8. Stock the third window. Then look up.

Peterson refers to the display just inside the store as the third window. "It is interesting, visually simple, and says something that is super-relevant right now," he says. Essentially: bait. After looking at that display, Peterson says, most people will look up and to the right. Whatever they see should be consistent with the contents of that so-called third window.

9. Draw them in

Put something extremely appealing in the back left-hand corner of the store (this is where the sale merchandise often hangs out, after all) to draw people all the way in.

10. Make referrals easy

Your marketing communications should encourage customers to spread the word, make it easy to do so, and occasionally, offer rewards for referrals. The one thing that reliably gets people into a store is a personal referral, says Dana Cho, a partner at IDEO, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based design consultancy. "That's the thing that does it, over and over," she says. "People don't just decide to stumble into a store. Time is precious."

11. Cater to pets

Many of us shop with pets, says Underhill--especially the two-legged variety. Give someone's spouse or kids a place to hang out, and you've freed them up to spend more time in your store.

12. Don't hire customer service people

Remember the movie High Fidelity, with the record-store salespeople who enjoyed insulting customers? "Experts in music can be awful," says Peterson. "Bookworms can be awful too. Just hire people who like to talk to people. They can often solve problems, because they care." He recommends store owners steer clear of people with lots of customer service experience and look instead for people with a curiosity about psychology or sociology, or those with a teaching background.

13. Cater to women

Women's radar for cleanliness and security is more-finely calibrated than men's, says Underhill. That means your parking lot needs to be well-lit and your store needs to be spotless. It also means that if you're selling technology, "women are less concerned with how it works than what it does." In the end, even the most gee-whiz technology will be regarded by many customers as an appliance.

14. Solve fulfillment

Once upon a time, customers drove to a store, bought something, and schelpped it home. Those days are gone. Getting a purchase home is now the store's problem, not the customer's. High-end store have long offered delivery services to their best clients. Now the masses expect it, too.

15. Make it fun

Yes, there are nail salons that offer free champagne and clothing stores with DJs. Fun can be much simpler than that, says Cho. Trader Joe's hides a stuffed animal somewhere in the store, and kids who find it get a free lollipop. "It's so easy!" says Cho. Her kids "think of any other shopping as an errand, but Trader Joe's is fun."

Published on: Aug 28, 2014