7 Ways Small Brick & Mortar Retailers Can Leverage the Holiday Season

Brick & Mortar Retailers Can Leverage the Holiday Season

It’s not all doom and gloom for small brick-and-mortar retailers. E-commerce sales might be dominating the headlines during the holiday season. However, the fact remains that online sales still account for less than 10% of total retail sales in the United States. So, traditional retail isn’t going away anytime soon. It just needs to adapt to an uneasy and competitive relationship with online retail.

Here are 7 ways store owners can take advantage of the holiday season and make themselves visible and relevant in an era of online stores and marketplaces. I’ll be focusing on small-and-medium-sized retailers that sell physical products. At the end of the day, it’s simple really: be everything that online retailers are not.

Advantages of E-Commerce vs Traditional Retail

Firstly, let’s see what advantages that online stores have over the rest of the retail industry:

  1.  24/7 opening hours
  2. Discounted prices
  3. Quick product discovery
  4. Flexible returns
  5. Large selection
  6. Comparison shopping
  7. Free shipping

This is a pretty formidable list and it’s sure to dissuade all but the most stoic of traditional retailers. But if you look carefully, brick-and-mortar stores have an answer to every advantage in that same list.

And it’s not about engaging in a tit-for-tat volley, for example, by offering steeper price discounts. It’s all about leveraging your strengths in operating a physical store:

  1. Location, location, location
  2. Trust and legitimacy
  3. One-on-one sales
  4. Human customer service
  5. Sensory shopping experience
  6. Instant gratification
  7. Participation in promotions

1. Location, Location, Location

There’s an old saying in real estate about buying or renting a property: location, location, location. What does this mean? It means that no matter the condition of the property, it’s the address that matters in the end.

Think Fifth Avenue, Oxford Street, Ginza, Champs Elysees. You can always rebuild or renovate a property in any street but you can’t simply upend it and plonk it into one of these prime, iconic shopping streets.

So even if e-commerce stores are “open” 24/7, they’re really just processing your order and preparing it for fulfillment. You can certainly browse, add things to your shopping cart and checkout from the comfort from wherever you might be, but you still need to wait for the delivery of your order during normal business hours.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are well positioned, literally and figuratively, to capitalize on human foot traffic in strategic locations. You can see this in action by looking at the cluster of shops along Main Street, High Street, airports and railway stations. They sell not just goods but also convenience to shoppers and commuters in mid-travel.

Also, traditional retailers need not engage in online profiling or data gathering. Your walking-and-talking customers are in front of you. Engage them. Get to know their buying habits. Make each visit a special one by throwing in a token gift, nice wrapping or an extra serving of something. Share tips for using the products that you sell. Build a sense of community, familiarity and regularity. And get them coming back. They are your best salespeople.

2. Trust and Legitimacy

Have you ever noticed why banks in the old mining towns were built of bricks and mortar? It firstly served a security purpose by keeping out bandits and protecting its contents from fire and other natural calamities. Most importantly, it played a psychological purpose by suggesting permanence, trust and legitimacy.

A brick building nestled along a row of flimsy timber storefronts isn’t going anywhere soon. It told the townsfolk that it’s here to stay and that it’s part of the commercial fabric of the town. The typically grand designs meant that you can trust it. The same goes for brick-and-mortar retailers.

The fact that a store is here to stay means that they’ll take extra care to protect and maintain their reputation and brand. Few retailers want to be associated with 1-star reviews and scathing criticism on Yelp or Google Maps. The shop proprietor and staff will be motivated to sell products in a consultative manner, dispense constructive advice and provide decent customer support.

On the other hand, online sellers may be able to consistently offer lower, discounted prices than typical retail. But trust and legitimacy can be a question mark, especially for third-party sellers on online marketplaces. Goods may be of questionable provenance and quality. Returns and exchanges may be less forthcoming with independent sellers. And if trouble brews, third-party sellers can always move on and sell under different names.

3. One-On-One Sales

When you walk into any small retail store, what immediately happens? The shop’s proprietor or staff will make eye contact with you, say a greeting and hopefully throw in a nice smile. This is the start of the one-on-one sales process. They’ll leave you to browse around a bit before approaching you, or you might even proceed straightaway with a question first.

And if the shop is really busy with customers, what happens? You still get one-on-one sales service while other customers wait patiently for their turn. Their sales pitch is still tailored to finding what you need. We’ve yet to see any retail store in the world that has one super salesperson serving many concurrent customers at a time!

This level of personalized attention is critical to finding out quickly what a customer needs, to narrow down their choices or even suggest alternatives. An online store assumes that you know what you’re looking for. The act of product discovery involves you typing in keywords or browsing categories to find a particular product.

But what if you don’t know what you’re looking for? Say, if you’re looking for a suitable gift for a baby shower. Or if you’re unsure about what they call a product in retail trade? Is it a rack trolley, floor jack, or trolley jack? Or perhaps you’re looking in the wrong category when it should have been Home & Decor instead of Building & Improvements?

In a physical store, you get answers on the spot from a generally well-trained and experienced salesperson with innate knowledge of all the products they sell. If their answer is a positive, you’ll be led immediately to their range of products on display, at which you can compare prices, features and quality.

4. Human Customer Service

When things go wrong with a store purchase, what’s the first thing that you do? If it was bought from a nearby local store, you simply go back to the shop with the goods, produce the purchase receipt and explain why you need a refund or exchange. The storekeeper will look over the goods, and if everything is in order, honor your request for a refund or exchange on the spot.

At the same time, the physical store has an opportunity to perform service recovery and turn a disappointed, upset or angry customer into a raving fan. This might be done, for example, by graciously accepting a return outside the refund or exchange window, or exchanging the item for an upgraded model. For situations where the return reason is suspect or the goods are used, the store may use its discretion to give a store credit instead.

Online retailers have tried to replicate this level of human customer service. But it’s not the same with chat windows and email. Return terms may be generous but the standard of customer service, intuition and communication vary with the customer support agent that you get. Plus, your case may not be handled by the same agent all the time.

And then there’s the time taken and the steps needed to resolve your customer issue: submit a refund and exchange request online along with photos, wait for a reply, pack the item for return shipping, have the package picked up or dropped off, wait for the retailer to receive the package, and then wait again for your refund or exchange.

5. Sensory Shopping Experience

When I was a kid, the department store in my city held a special Christmas treat every year. Each large store window would be filled with a fantasy scene from Christmas. It was simple yet effective.

The detailed, handmade scenes drew you into their world. You wanted to believe the fantasy elves and animals that you were seeing. Lights and moving things tickled your eyes. Clocks and bells would ring. People would be amused for hours as they shuffled past the windows.

I still reminisce about those storefronts today. The annual experience left a powerful mark in my memory that no online shopping experience can hope to match yet. Christmas time, like elsewhere in the world, was a full-blown sensory experience: smells of spice and gingerbread, sounds of carols, decorations adorning anything and everything, and the taste of fruitcake.

Online retailers enjoy a competitive advantage by offering an immense selection of goods at discounted prices. But they cannot offer the ability to touch and feel goods. I’m sure many of you have changed your initial online shopping lists after viewing the same goods at a brick-and-mortar retailer. Perhaps the quality and finish were not up to scratch, the sizes were too big or small, or that it was complicated to operate and use. And I’m sure quite a few of you then completed the purchase at the physical store.

6. Instant Gratification

So you’ve diligently bookmarked several online retailers for a particular product. And you’ve gone through a couple of comparison shopping sites to get the best prices. However, the available colors, sizes and stock vary with each online store. Furthermore, some offer free shipping, others don’t. And there’s still a wait for the goods to arrive at your door.

Then you call around your office and find out that a store in Main Street has the exact model, size and color that you’re looking for. Their price isn’t the cheapest around but when you tally the cost of paid shipping, insurance and time from an online retailer, the price difference is very slim. You decide to buy it locally that evening anyway. This is instant gratification at work.

It’s well known that you feel good when you go out and shop. Your brain releases a chemical called serotonin that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. Some of you may agree that the act of shopping matters more than the item that you bought! For others, it is a sense of achievement when you can finally tick off a nagging purchase in your task list.

7. Participation in Promotions

Small brick-and-mortar retailers aren’t left out of giant online sales. Small Business Saturday, for example, is held on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. While Black Friday and Cyber Monday involves big box retailer and e-commerce stores, this shopping day encourages you to buy from neighborhood stores. Plus, store owners can leverage online traffic by using the Twitter hashtag #SmallBusinessSaturday.

Similarly, Small Business Saturday UK promotes small businesses on the first Saturday of December each year. Interestingly, small businesses are encouraged to apply to be one of the 100 small businesses that are profiled a day at a time up until Small Business Saturday. The #SmallBiz100 hashtag is used to generate buzz at Twitter.

And don’t forget Super Saturday, the last Saturday before Christmas. Small neighborhood shops are well poised to capture any last-minute shopping purchases because of their local proximity and convenience. Savvy shop owners will do well to advertise, extend store hours, and promote final discounts and limited stocks.

Finally, if you’re a small business retailer dabbling in online sales or juggling multiple sales channels, be sure to use an order, purchase and inventory management system tailored just for you. From a user-friendly interface, store integrations and wallet-friendly pricing, EMERGE App is designed for small-and-medium businesses engaged in retail, wholesale and distribution. Try a free account today.


As a small business retailer, you still have a part in the retail landscape. The goal posts might have shifted with the arrival of online big-box retailers and e-commerce giants, but the playing field is still the same size and growing. It’s just that the rules are different. Past strategies and products offered in the past don’t apply anymore. You can leverage shopping holidays by going hyper-local, giving personalized service and attracting customers with Instagram-worthy store decor.

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