“The success of Amazon, the death of retail.” The media continually repeats this narrative. But they’re wrong.
Independent retailers are on the rise. Independent fashion boutiques are building multimillion-dollar companies and doing it with e-commerce and fewer than three physical locations across the country. I’ve seen this up close since founding The Boutique Hub five years ago. Our digital media community for the boutique movement has more than doubled in the past year alone. Small is the new “big box,” and boutiques are cashing in on the market.
Small Business Saturday is a grassroots campaign to promote small businesses. It’s coming up this weekend, but consumer excitement for small retailers is not confined to one day of the year. The “Shop Small” movement is shaping the future of retail and not just because millennials want to do business with local, socially impactful companies. Here are the lessons that businesses of all industries and sizes can take away.
1. It’s all about the experience.
Boutiques fill a need Amazon doesn’t. Amazon is functional and useful when we know what we want. But there’s a difference between buying and shopping, and Amazon does not address the shopping experience.
Consumers care about the experience, online and off. That’s why online brands like Warby Parker are expanding to physical stores. How a product is delivered — how it makes you feel — can be more important than the product itself.
Boutiques are successful because they’re more than just stores: They’re style educators. Many consumers don’t have the time or know-how to style themselves. Fashion is fickle, and they’re scared to try a new trend — until boutiques show them how. They walk in the store to be inspired, to shop with friends, and to feel good about themselves in their clothes. Or they tune in to a live video for style tips from the comfort of their couch.
When you inspire customers, they don’t just buy your product or service — they buy the experience. They buy memories. What is the equivalent for your business? Do you sell landscaping services or a beautiful new yard? Retirement plans or financial freedom? Your online and offline experience should communicate that cohesively.
2. Social media creates community.
Social media is integral to the customer experience. Don’t build sales channels; build an online community.
Boutiques connect like-minded customers over a mutual interest in fashion using live video and Facebook groups. They incentivize customers to share their selfies with contests or discounts. Referral codes are powerful ways to encourage friend recommendations, which 92% percent of consumers believe over all forms of advertising. All of this builds community.
You don’t have to do it all — do what makes sense for your audience. If you aren’t sure what that is, ask them. Some boutiques have success with Facebook notifications or Instagram updates, while others know their customers prefer texts. Put yourself in their shoes. Amanda Halpin-Kruse is the founder of Discount Divas, a multimillion-dollar boutique with nearly 170,000 members in their Facebook group. Each day, she asks her team, “Would you be annoyed getting these notifications?” If the answer is yes, they adjust.
3. We do business with people.
Today’s customers don’t want to do business with large corporations or small businesses. They want to do business with people. They care about relational transactions and customer service, whether they’re buying food or furniture.
Many boutique owners build influence and trust through their personal brand, not just in the store. They show their real, authentic selves — not just the highlight reel — on social media. That’s what sets them apart. Their customers have a personal connection and want to buy from them.
Even large companies can mimic this approach. Whether you’re in retail or financial services, your employees are the face of your brand. Give them permission to be your ambassadors. Train them how and appreciate them — because they have the power to make or break your brand.
4. No one knows your business like you.
Great boutiques don’t just stock the bestselling clothes, they try unique brands their customers might like to discover. Don’t be afraid to take risks, try cutting-edge trends, and fail. Many boutiques even bring back “failures” when their customers are ready for the trend. When a celebrity sports a wide-brimmed hat, they may become popular in Los Angeles right away but take a year to reach the Midwest. Bottom line: Learn what your customers want and you can’t go wrong.
Laura Benson is the owner of Filly Flair Boutique, a multimillion-dollar business. Once she hit a certain point in her business, others told her that she needed a more detailed handbook and stricter boundaries. That removed the personal connection with employees, which took years to recover. “I realized I don’t want to run a business like that — no matter how big we get,” says Laura. “If something is working, don’t change it. No one knows your business like you. That doesn’t mean you don’t need mentors, but you don’t have to do things a certain way because you hit a certain size or revenue.”
It comes down to remembering your “why.” For Laura, her dream was not to send her kids to daycare daily — so she brings them to meetings. Vendors often comment on how much work that is, but she doesn’t see it that way. “That’s my life,” she says. “I don’t have to leave them with a nanny — that’s what’s important to me.”
Laura makes another important point about the relationship between personal and business life. “I’m never going to be a normal mom, and that’s OK. Be OK with where you are. Be present, whatever you’re doing. Show your kids it’s okay to work. Teaching them about your business will give them such an advantage when they grow up.”
5. When you find your tribe, don’t compete with them.
Entrepreneurship isn’t easy. You need support from others who understand you — not just your business. They might be an employee or business partner, but they might not. For Laura, it’s her three best friends. They don’t own businesses but they talk every day.
You also need those who are in the same boat, who get it. “Accountability buddies” determine your success or failure. At The Boutique Hub, we bring together business owners to share wins and strategies, seek advice and build friendships. Whether it’s through a similar group, industry organization, or Facebook community, find your tribe.
What’s really amazing about the boutique world is that it’s built on the philosophy of community over competition. There’s a real collaboration among the business owners. Many sell the same brands, but they all bring their unique personality and style to their unique customers. Their industry is growing because they’re growing together.
I also believe many of them are successful because they build their business with heart; the goal isn’t selling the business. They know their “why,” and it usually isn’t to sell the company. Whether it’s a love of fashion, teaching their kids to run a business or creating a balanced lifestyle, they do it for more than money — and that’s why they’ll continue to succeed.