Who wants to shop local nowadays? I work for an independent retailer and we get fairly bombarded with e-mails etc. from local groups promoting independent retail. They’ll often ask us to be part of this or that initiative to encourage people to shop local. There are some brilliant ideas out there including loads of ways to make shopping a fun and personal experience for customers in a unique way. Often we’re asked to participate in a way that only an independent store really can. However, what stores do once we have customers in the door is really what will encourage more local shoppers.
The real issue for local shops is that they’re fighting a battle on two fronts. On one side you have the reduced prices and convenience of the supermarkets and on the other you’ve got web stores. Although the big supermarkets can cause problems for an independent retailer, the really tricky thing for a lot of retailers is competing with web stores: a web site can get extremely specific in it’s range and expertise or extremely broad (e.g. Amazon). The specific sites can give you access to customer service and expertise that can equal (and in some cases surpass) their high street counterparts. When you consider, on top of this, the range of the ever-present behemoth that is Amazon, you can see how the internet can be a formidable opponent to a ‘good-old-fashioned’ bricks-and-mortar store. So what’s a retailer to do?
I think there’s a market for playing on the idea that there’s something traditional/ quaint about independent stores but it can also be quite limiting (not to mention the fact that visiting ‘ye olde…shop’ can get a bit repetitive if everyone’s doing it) and it has the potential to hinder the creativity of the retailer , and that’s the key skill at the disposal of smaller shops: creativity. Most of the staff that you’ll meet in an independent shop do a lot more than their name-badge might suggest. To be honest, even when we’re just staff we have to have something entrepreneurial about us and also have a slightly artistic eye so that we can create an experience for the customer. Sure, we can play up the ‘old-fashioned’ idea, there’s nothing wrong with that, and if we really put our backs into it we can make it feel authentic instead of a simple contrivance or gimmick, but there are more options than just making people feel like they’ve stepped into yesteryear.
Karen (the owner of Fun Junction) often explains that she likes the shop to feel like you’ve just entered a party. Given the mixture of toys that we have out on display in the shop I tend to agree with her that ‘party’ is a good way to describe the atmosphere. When it comes to younger children coming into the shop I like to think we’ve put together something similar to a mini playgroup as well, where children can feel comfortable playing with open toys on the play table (display toys getting a bit beaten up is par for the course for us).
Overall kids will enjoy coming into any toy shop to look at toys regardless of what a retailer does, so we could have just left it at that. However, if all children saw when they walked into the shop were boxed up products that they recognise from TV adverts they’d get pretty bored pretty quickly. That’s why we try and stock unusual toys and games, and when we get the chance we open up some of these for kids to try (a lot of the time they’ve probably not seen/played with toys like these before).
We want to show off our range of toys and celebrate them, we’ve taken time and energy going through product ranges and picking things because they look fun (we are ‘Fun Junction’ after all) not because they’re TV advertised or linked to the next movie franchise. That said we’re the first to admit that just because a toy is well-known/ popular that doesn’t mean that it won’t be high quality. I’ve personally never subscribed to the idea that rarity/obscurity and quality are synonymous; sometimes something is popular because it’s good, popularity isn’t always just made of hype and hot air (check out my recent post about branded toys to see what I mean).
Another important aspect of a shop is the theatre of the experience. If that theatrical experience consists of a step back in time then fantastic, especially if it’s done well (this sweet shop from Crieff is a prime example of that). However, there are loads of ways to make someone’s shopping experience fun (and, if a retailer is really good, special too). We’re trying out some new ideas this year at Fun Junction. We started with a mermaid day in our Perth shop (she brought along her friend Jolly Jim the Pirate too). She’s since visited our Crieff shop as well, you can visit this post to find out more about that. We’ve had a ‘Brio Train Day‘ too and there’s lots more in the works (watch this space).
Is there anything that really draws you to return to any of your local shops? Do you think there’s still a place for independent shops alongside the world of web-stores and giant supermarkets? As always I love to hear what you have to say either in the comments below or over on twitter. Thank you for reading, all the best, John