Independent specialty store owners are faced with a unique set of challenges in their quest to survive successfully against larger competitors. But by keeping their fingers on the pulse of their customers, small merchants can carve out a niche.

In a panel discussion entitled New Rules for Engaging the Fashion Consumer, Janet Brown of Janet Brown Ltd. in Port Washington, N.Y.; Debra Pearlstein Greenberg, president of Louis, Boston, and Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop in New York, took on several issues.

Greenberg believes that staying small is the art of specialty retailing. "When it’s huge, it seems lumbering to me," she said. "When it’s small, it can be focused, flexible, it can move and change and dodge. It’s an art. You don’t need to have 700 stores, especially with the kind of clientele we have; they’re a very small percentage of the overall retail climate."

Brown also embraced her small size. "I enjoy being small because I can devote a great deal of time and passion to what I’m doing. I can give the most enormous service to these very important customers who are very dependent on me."

For Greenfield, specialty stores should strive to be different. Unlike Brown and Greenberg, Scoop recently opened its seventh location and she has worked hard to staff those units with employees who get the Scoop message. Greenfield believes the best way to find people is to ask current employees for recommendations and offer a financial incentive if the person stays for six months. Once on board, Scoop works with vendors to offer in-store seminars to educate the sales staff.

At the same time, she believes the store owner must be present. "To be a good retailer, you’ve got to be on your floor," she said. "When people see you and they feel your energy, they want to be a part of that vibe."

In fact, service was a common thread running through the discussion. Greenberg said she fears that "the consumer is completely lost in what they think service is. We have completely eliminated real service and replaced it with us bending over and wiping their boots. That’s not service." Instead, it’s providing shoppers with a "helpful, time-saving way" to shop."Unfortunately, we think value is clean floors and fluorescent lights and no windows. We think value is a woman who will give you the number three at the dressing room when you go to try something on. That’s not service, yet that’s what people judge a store on now. And it’s so sad."

Brown also defines service as providing for customer needs. "I’m on my selling floor every day. I love being there and making sure these women who are spending an extraordinary amount of money are taken care of. These people are needy and they need us as store owners and merchants. They’re very naïve about shopping."

To guard against constant customer demands for money-off sales, Greenfield said retailers must "buy things that are not everywhere. We see 10 boxes of samples a day. You’ve got to be curious and be out there, and cultivate new talent."

The discussion then turned to the recent spate of spring runway shows. Greenberg said she "felt uncomfortable" at the shows. "The world is feeling recession pressure, we’re on the verge of war and [the designers] are touting some of the most ridiculous clothes I’ve ever seen."

This has resulted in the alienation of the customer. "They’ve lost him already. and I have a feeling they’re going to lose her, too," Greenberg said. "That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to have creative clothing, but there’s creativity and there’s ridiculousness. If you insult the intelligence of the consumer, they’re going to be turned off."

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