Black Friday: Boutiques open at midnight? How ‘little guys’ try to compete.

Many small business owners are looking for their piece of the Black Friday retail pie. But experts say trying to match the big stores may not be the best policy, and warn shoppers to do their homework, too.

By , Staff writer

From midnight on Thanksgiving night until 3 a.m., Julia Dvir’s store, “The Closet,” will further discount her jewelry, hats, belts, and purses (already 40-60 percent off). Located just 80 yards up the Fashion Square Mall from Macy’s, the boutique is trying to take advantage of people who will be lined up to shop at the national retailer.

At the other end of the mall, S.Y.L.K, another women’s fashion retailer just outside Bloomingdales, also is opening at midnight, with the hope that shoppers on the prowl for Black Friday deals at the much larger store will look up and see them as well.

“We want to pull that traffic from the early bird shoppers into our store,” manager Kathleen Moore told the Los Angeles Times.

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Faced with the competition posed by colossal deals offered by major retailers – just blocks away from the mall, tents are lined up outside a Best Buy with half-price jumbo TVs for the first 30 in line – smaller retailers and specialty shops are trying to figure out how to get into the Black Friday action.

Burned in past years by setting up their deals too late – and with fully half of their yearly sales on the line between now and Christmas – the nation’s retail “little guys” are realizing that moment can’t wait.

This year, with several giant retailers from Walmart to Target to Toys “R” Us launching major product pushes as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, the stakes are higher than ever.

“What is at stake for boutique shoppers is the opportunity to take advantage of a consumer’s mindset to shop,” says Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at the Wake Forest Schools of Business in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Smaller shops located at malls are well positioned physically to take advantage of the bigger stores’ promotions, he says.

Consumers “are in a shopping mode and want to get their Christmas shopping done,” he says. “Boutiques should capitalize on this, as it’s something that larger retailers have already built. It’s the mall strategy – anchor stores draw customers in, but boutiques take advantage of increased number of customers eager to buy.”

And he notes that this strategy, “in a broader sense, doesn’t just apply to bricks and mortar.”

Many cities are highlighting special gatherings of smaller retailers – pushing the idea of staying small and “staying local” as a way of boosting the tax base in the community, as well as rewarding the creative, innovative and non-corporate.

“This is a really nice way of honoring the brick and mortar stores, the mom and pop outlets who really can’t compete with the deals of goliath retailers,” says Ron Elkus, of “The Shirt Box” in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Calling his store an “old fashioned haberdashery,” Mr. Elkus says it is not planning any Black Friday sale but will rely on the store’s personal touch developed over three decades to draw in business.

“The beauty of our store is personal attention, like the Cheers’ bar, everybody knows your name,” says Elkus. “We don’t feel we need to do something more.”

Elkus’s comments, which more than hint at some residual antipathy toward Black Friday among smaller retailers and some consumers, are like a red flag for Freeman Hall, who worked at Nordstroms, the giant department store, in Southern California for 15 years before becoming a retail blogger, humor author, and self-styled activist on behalf of what he calls sanity in the American workplace.

Claiming that the opening of stores on Thanksgiving is ruining the American psyche, Mr. Hall says he is pushing a “Be Kind to Service Workers Day” to take place Saturday Nov. 24, the day after Black Friday. Other chamber of commerce groups are uniting to call it “Small Business Saturday.”

“I chose this day because many service workers are now forced to work Thanksgiving Day and there is a lot of negative energy surrounding Black Friday and the stress of the upcoming holiday season,” says Hall, author of "Return to the Big Fancy: A Riotous Descent Into the Depths of Customer, Corporate, and Coworker Hell."

He admonishes consumers to beware of hype about Black Friday, noting a recent study by the personal finance website NerdWallet that found that 90 percent of 2012 Black Friday ads have the same merchandise and pricing as the previous year.

Experts on retail marketing say the competition between small and large stores can be beneficial to consumers who know what they are doing, but not all that compelling for the unaware or impulse buyer.

Further, small or unique retailers should also be wary of competing on the same terms as the giant retailers, and instead focus on their own strengths, the experts say.

“Specialty stores should not try to compete with big box retailers and department stores,” says Ron Friedman, a senior retail analyst at the New York-based accounting firm Marcum, LLP.

“They need to realize and concentrate on what they do that is unique and can’t be gotten elsewhere – such as creative, non-mass-produced products, great quality service and personal attention.”

And the consumer, he says, needs to do his or her homework before wandering out into a mall.

“Buyers should go online ahead of time to know what are the prices of what they want and be prepared,” says Mr. Friedman. “Some might find they can get wanted items just as cheaply – or more so – online.”

Others say this is the time for both smaller retailers and consumers to hold back and get the lay of the land for later shopping.

“By seeing what shoppers want, smaller retailers can know better whether they need to hold more tightly to what they have, or discount it,” says Michael A. Levin, an assistant business professor at Otterbein University in Ohio.

Sometimes, he and others say, the allure to buy can have nothing to do with the price of the product, meaning retailers can pull in shoppers long after the Black Friday sales hysteria has faded.

“The last-minute promoter can put out e-mail blasts, Twitter feeds, and Facebook alerts that they are doing something no one is expecting … like ice cream and cookies, or a clown and balloons for kids,” says Levin. “This can help break the monotony for shoppers, establish a personal connection for sales long after Black Friday.”

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