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  • Jennifer Marks

Walk a Mile in Retailer's Shoes

Are you a supplier to the independent specialty retailer market? Are you looking for avenues to build your brand? Interested in real-time feedback from consumers to help refine product development?

Maybe you should open your own store.

This month, HTT's sister publication Gifts & Decorative Accessories (GDA) talked with a group of vendors who've done just that — and while I hate to crib from somebody else's notes, their experience is worth sharing.

The first hurdle any vendor contemplating a direct-to-consumer model faces, of course, is the accusation from its customers that it is acting as a competitor rather than a supplier.

However, many vendors interviewed by GDA use stores as laboratories in which to experiment with new products, packaging, price points, and display fixtures. With the exception of Yankee Candle Company, which derives half of its sales from its own stores, other suppliers surveyed still pull 75% to 96% of their revenue from wholesale.

The proprietors of For Every Body, a bath and body vendor with four stores, note that for consumer feedback to be meaningful, stores need to be located in markets that make sense for the brand — growth markets with the right demographic and household income for their positioning.

For San Francisco Music Box, which maintains two year-round stores and 46 seasonal units, operating stores is a brand-builder. As the Music Box owner puts it, his regular retailer customers may "take advantage of brands," but the ultimate responsibility to build a brand rests with the brand owner.

Italian tabletop and kitchenware designer Alessi uses its pair of stores to display its full line — more than 3,000 skus — "so the public sees that Alessi is more than just the bestsellers most retailers carry," says its U.S. exec vp.

Some vendors-turned-retailers augment their assortments with goods from other suppliers. Aunt Sadies, a handmade candlemaker, buys products from more than 200 vendors — including competing candle companies — for its store. "We'd go to the gift shows and see all these cool things and be frustrated that we couldn't buy any of it," said co-owner Gary Briggs.

A few other tips from the vendor group:

  • Choose markets where you won't compete directly with accounts.

  • Always sell at full price so you don't undercut your retail customers.

  • Consider whether opening seasonally is a better option than a full-time store.

  • Use the store as a flagship that will build credibility and show off the best of your brand.

  • Always make a point of telling buyers not only what's selling strongly in your store, but also what kind of margin the item is commanding.

One more point: By operating their own stores, vendors are exposed to life from their customer's point of view. And it never hurts to walk a mile in another man's shoes.

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