Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Sit Down With Susan Wagner of Smart Retailer Magazine: A Look at the Shopper Economy, Consumer Trends and Facebook for Retailers

How did you come up with the idea for SmartRetailer?
Smart Retailer was started as Country Sampler's Country Business in 1993 as an offshoot of the company's consumer publication, Country Sampler. The founder of the company, Mark Nickel, was the managing editor of a trade publication and traveled with his wife to craft fairs to sell her merchandise. After several of these trips, Nickel came up with the idea of Country Sampler as a way for crafters and artisans to advertise their products and sell merchandise to people across the country. From there, Nickel started Country Sampler’s Country Business as a trade publication to serve the artists and crafters who wanted to conduct business wholesale.

Over the years, we continually heard from more and more storeowners who said, "I'm not country, but I absolutely love your publication. It provides all sorts of resources and good advice for small retailers like me."

We realized that independent retailers were clamoring for more business advice and resources and ideas to help them grow, and we could provide that to them.

In 2012, we rebranded our magazine from Country Sampler's Country Business to Smart Retailer with the goal that we would provide solid business advice to independent gift and decor retailers of any genre. We revamped our website, added e-newsletters, partnered with other businesses, held seminars and created events that were all designed to help the independent retailer improve his or her business.  

Tell me a bit about your background and retail?

Surprisingly, my background is all in publishing. Other than working at McDonald's for several years as a teen, I've never worked in retail. However, through the past 13 years of working on this publication, talking with retailers and vendors and researching information, I've picked up quite a bit about retail. Plus, I've been involved in various positions that involved such business skills as customer service, marketing, accounting, etc.—skills that are just as critical to retailers as they are to any small business.

What is your vision of where retail is going?

For local retailers, retail is all about building relationships with the community. In today's market there are way too many places where you can buy similar products. People can go into a gas station convenience store and buy a birthday card or a fashion scarf. Many hardware stores, beauty salons and spa dealers carry products that were traditionally only found in gift stores.

Merchandise can be bought online from a store across the country. With product being that prevalent, the independent retailer needs to draw customers to his or her shop by means other than product alone.

That's where the relationship building comes in. Simply put, people like to do business with people they like, and as a retailer, if you can build your business where people want to buy from you because they feel that connection to you, then you are much farther ahead than other retailers. Building that connection means being personable in all your marketing campaigns, going above and beyond what other businesses do, partnering with your community or other businesses. You want your shop to come immediately to mind when someone says, "I need to buy a gift for Aunt Sally."

The retail world at large is going to continue to evolve into various channels. Consumers want to be able to buy through whatever means is easiest to them.

That could mean shopping in person at a storefront, shopping online through a traditional website, shopping through Facebook or other social media sites, placing an order through a smartphone, hiring a personal shopper that comes to you, etc.

Retailers need to be aware of how consumers go through their day, how they interact with their friends and family, and what is important to them. Today, many people do most of their interacting through Facebook or conduct much of their life via their phone, and time is important to them. When these people want to buy something, they want to buy it now and they want to do it through the means they are doing all their business – via their phone or their Facebook account.

Retailers need to remember that although they might not be into Facebook that much, that doesn't mean their customers aren't. And so they need to develop means to reach these people through different technology even if it isn't something they would use themselves.

What do you think are the most important trends that retailers should keep an eye on?

Trends in retailing fall a lot into what I said above about technology. Retailers need to be aware of what is out there and how it is being used, even if their customer base is not quite ready for that technology.

A good example is mobile marketing. Mobile marketing is going to continue to grow and become huge, because as I mentioned before, people live and breathe on their cell phones. A retailer may say, "but my customers aren't really into mobile marketing," or "I don't think my customers would welcome text message promotions." Well, they may not now, but there's a good chance they will in the next couple of years. Retailers need to know about these up-and-coming marketing avenues or what's new in retail technology and keep an eye on them. Then, when their customers are ready, they can jump on it without having to spend precious time becoming acclimated to how it works.

Two important trends right now are the surge in buying local and purchasing made-in-America goods. These trends are a definite result of the drawn-out recession, but they are an important trend for retailers everywhere. Store owners that do carry American-made goods need to promote them and help their customers understand why that is a better product. Likewise, any independent retailer can become involved in the buy-local movement. Back to what I said before, people like to buy from people they make a connection with, and if a retailer can make a connection with their consumer base because they are a locally owned company that lives right there in the same town as their customers, that builds that connection.

What are your predictions for retail in the next few years?

Retail will definitely pick up.

Holiday sales figures for 2012 were up, which is good for everyone, and many of the retailers I talked to have said they experienced fourth-quarter sales that were double or even triple that of the year before. Some store owners even said last year was their best holiday season yet. But retailers have to be aware that they can't be everything to everyone. They need to find their niche and provide the best they can for that niche – whether it is a certain type of product or a specialized service.

I think consumers are returning to a European grocery-shopping mentality, where they go to one store to buy bread, another store to buy meat and another to get fresh fruit. People are moving away from getting all their goods in one major shopping trip at a humongous big-box store. They are picking and choosing where to spend their money. They are going to a local shoe store for their shoes and a boutique for their clothes and a specialty shop for their favorite hand soap or body cream. Plus, consumers want to treat themselves. That mentality hasn't gone away. Even in the recession, people still found ways to spend on products they really wanted. They might have cut costs on their paper products or groceries, but they still spent money on that fabulous lipstick shade or wonderfully scented candle.

What is your take on the resources becoming available to retailers? (technology, apps, mobile, etc)

Today there are many more resources available to retailers than many of them can even imagine!

There are specialized apps for their phones or tablets that can help them conduct business on the fly. Business owners can use cloud technology for their inventory, accounting and sales records and not have to invest in major software. And technological tools abound that help them boost their marketing beyond what they could do just on their own. In reality, many retailers already have software or technology for which they don't even use half of the functions.

They should research what their current technology does and look into all the other options to see what truly works for their business.

Small business owners wear many hats. Some hats they wear beautifully; others are just never quite the right fit. It makes sense for business owners to use the technology available to do the tasks that might not be their forte so they can free up their time to work on aspects of their business in which they excel. 

What is your favorite aspect of Smart Retail magazine? There are a lot of resources and it is geared towards being very helpful?

My absolute favorite part of working on Smart Retailer is the interaction I have with our readers. I love when I can talk to them at trade shows, hear about their businesses, offer tips or insights on our Facebook page and help them grow and realize their dreams.

My second favorite part of working on the magazine is the enjoyment I find in publishing in general. I love to work on the magazine and then see the freshly printed copy hit my desk. It's a thrill to look through every time. As far as what specific section of the magazine I like the best, it would have to be our display ideas. Our stylist/designer, Nancy Borsodi, is very talented and she constantly comes up with creative ways of showcasing merchandise. Retailers are always looking for new display ideas and we love to bring spark their imagination with our ideas.

What are your thoughts on the economy and how a retailer can overcome it?

The economy has certainly gone through a much tougher time than anyone expected. The reality is we are never going to go back to the heydays of the earlier years. We are now operating in a New Normal. That means that shifts in shopping habits that consumers adopted during the recession are here to stay.

Yes, people are price conscious. However, they also value what is important to them. So if a busy consumer places a high value on his or her time and a retailer can show how his or her product or services can help save that person time, the consumer will be happy to pay the price. If a person values a unique fashion look and doesn't want to wear the same clothes as everyone else, then the boutique owner who carries truly one-of-a-kind items will help that person stand out in a crowd. As a result, that customer will shell out the money for that look.

Retailers need to discover what they can offer that is truly different than everyone else. You can't go through business with blinders on. You need to know exactly what your competitors are doing, what your customers are looking for and what you can offer that can't be found elsewhere. Yes, it takes work, but if you want to succeed, you can't just sit back and expect the money to roll in. Those days are past.
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