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Ask the Experts

Ways to stay current, rethink your business and keep shoppers happy

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By Georganne Bender
By Rich Kizer
Published: May 1, 2016
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Q: "I really need to do a better job of keeping up with what’s going on in the creative world, with the competition and in my community. Do you have any fresh ideas?"

A: We just returned from a couple days in a small town in Kansas, where we spent time talking to successful downtown retailers to see what made them tick. This town has a very active downtown association and a chamber of commerce that keeps the businesses stimulated. But what if your town doesn’t? There are still things you can do:

Operation Observation!
• Begin by doing what most retailers say they do, but really don’t: Spend time with shoppers. Start by talking with customers about their hobbies, upcoming family events, even favorite creative projects outside of what you sell. “Maker” is the new term being used to describe crafters, creators, hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers—anyone who creates anything can be considered a maker. A dad putting together a train layout with his son is a maker, a person accessorizing or making adjustments to an R/C plane is a maker, cooks are makers, crafters are makers—even a kid with a snap-together model is a maker. Get the picture?
The goal is to find out what your customers like to do when they are not in your store. The information they share will help you determine which new product areas to explore.

• Utilize Facebook posts, Facebook surveys and email blasts to solicit customer opinions on what product they’d like to see in your store that you do not currently carry.

• Take a trip to the mall at least once a quarter to observe shoppers in other retail environments. You are looking for fresh ideas! Note what shoppers are wearing and carrying, and what they are drawn to, keeping an eye out for ideas for your own store. Keep an open mind, and don’t say no to anything you observe until you think about how it might be used in your store. Think about other places you might go, such as maker fairs, craft fairs, school science fairs—even museums.

• Spend an hour or two online. Stores like Michaels, for example, have teams of buyers whose job it is to find new product and crossover merchandising opportunities. Michaels might not carry a large selection of what you traditionally carry, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired by what you see to try something new. Spend another couple of hours on creative sites like Pinterest and Etsy. Pinterest, by the way, is the best online focus group there is. Use the search box to find out what people are talking about.

• Keep a notebook handy to record all the ideas you’re sure to find. This will be an invaluable tool you can take with you to the next trade show you attend.

Shop out of your comfort zone
• In addition to the trade shows you currently attend, there are others you might consider as well. Gift markets are a creative explosion of product, and the Craft and Hobby MEGA Conference and Trade Show is the oldest and largest craft and hobby trade show in the world. (The next CHA Show is Jan. 19-23 in Phoenix.)

• ASD Market Week is held twice a year at the Las Vegas Convention Center. (The next one is July 31-Aug. 6.) ASD’s slogan is “Find anything, buy anything—here.” No kidding. In addition to nine shows in one, ASD Market Week is home to the Independent Retailer Conference, the place to see 15-minute how-to presentations by operations vendors that do not typically attend trade shows. There is so much to see at ASD Market Week, you almost need a tour guide.

Next month, part 2: Walk each trade show with new eyes.