Byline: Cami Alexander

Business this year for many retailers has been tough. In times like these, strategic marketing tactics can make the difference between profit or loss — or even staying in business.
To stand out from the pack, some specialty-store owners have come up with some quirky tactics to drive business early in the season or to clear out old goods.
“Any idea that I’ve done in one form or another, someone else has done,” admitted Lester Melnick, owner of his eponymous store in Dallas and in Fort Worth and Leslie’s in Plano, Tex. “What you have to do is take the same concept and try to put a new wrinkle on it.”
Many retailers WWD interviewed said they use so-called mystery discounts to attract bargain-conscious shoppers. With this form of promotion, customers are enticed to come into the store, knowing they will get some sort of discount off of their purchase, but not knowing how much.
Temple, Tex-based retailer The Rosebud attempts to lure shoppers with its “Pick A Rose” mystery discount promotion.
“We have a bouquet of roses at the front of the store,” explained owner Betty Thrasher. “After a customer makes a purchase, she can pick a rose. The amount of discount is on the bottom of the rose. And then we don’t put it back in the bouquet. We offer from 5 to 50 percent off. They make their purchase, and then they pick their rose.”
Nashville retailer Coco has two such events each year: at Halloween, to clear out fall merchandise, and at Easter, to clear out spring merchandise.
“People bring their kids in to trick-or-treat and if they come in with a mask they get an additional 5 percent off,” said buyer Donna Duensing.
At the event, all items in the store are subject to a discount. Customers pick out their items first, and then pick a card out of a pumpkin, which indicates the discount. The discounts range from 10 to 50 percent.
Coco’s spring sale takes the form of an Easter egg hunt, during which eggs are hidden in the store. Inside the egg is a piece of paper that indicates the discount to be taken off of merchandise — but, again, the customer must choose her purchases first. After she makes her choices, she may open the egg.
“We also have Easter candy out for the kids,” added Duensing. “They come in with their baskets. A lot of clients bring their kids in because it’s really a fun day.”
Duensing said the Halloween event and the Easter egg hunt are the store’s two highest-volume sales days of the year.
“We’ve done these sales for a very long time, so the clients know about them, and they look forward to them,” she said.
At the Fashion Post in Jackson, Miss., its mystery discount promotion is similar to that of a game of blackjack.
The store prints playing cards and mails them to customers in a sealed envelope, with instructions not to open it until they visit the store.
How close the customer gets to 21 determines the percentage discount she’ll get off of her purchase. Once the customer chooses the items she wishes to purchase, the sales associate opens the envelope to see what the customer’s “score” is. The store posts charts detailing what discount their score entitles them to.
The Fashion Post frequently runs its mystery discount promotion, but store owner Beth Holmes said its duration varies, depending on how quickly the store’s inventory is moving.
Lester Melnick sends out a card to its customers with an erasable dot over a discount amount. Once customers pick out their purchases, a sales associate erases the dot to uncover the discount.
“We do it in early August and early February when we have a lot of new receipts in the stores, and the traffic hasn’t started back up yet,” said Melnick. “It’s been successful for several years.”
Aside from mystery discounts, retailers have found other ways to increase sales.
The Fashion Post has found that it can motivate sales with a contest among customers to see who can spend the most over an eight-week period. The store posts a chart with participating customers’ names on it. Each time a customer makes a purchase during the promotional period, she gets a point for every dollar she spends. Whoever gets the most points at the end of the time period wins a gift certificate.
“People who saw that they were on top or close, would buy stuff just to get their points up or keep them up,” said Holmes. “One lady, who was retired, was just hell-bent that she would get that prize. It was very effective to get people to buy. We’d show peoples’ names listed in order where they were in the contest.”
Lester Melnick likes to keep a lot of promotions going to keep people coming into the stores. Last winter, to poke a little fun at discount store mania, it conducted a “two-fer” sale on cashmere coats, which featured two coats for $999.90.
“We thought it was kind of funny, since, normally, those kind of things at Wal-Mart or elsewhere are two for something like $49.90,” said Melnick. “Our ad read something like, ‘Bring a friend, snag a sister, grab your Grandma — come in and buy two cashmere coats!’ We had two ladies who didn’t know each other, who were negotiating with each other: ‘Let’s buy these two and get the deal!’
For the past few seasons, Melnick has encouraged spending by offering a frequent-buyer program.
As part of the program, customers receive a gift card of varying amounts, based on the amount of their purchase. Gift card amounts vary, climbing all the way up to $300 gift cards for customers spending $1,000 or more. The increments are set in hopes of getting the customer to buy one more item to get them into the next level of the gift card.
“We get another shot at the customer, and she already has a discount of $25 to $300 off her next purchase,” said Melnick.
At Tres Mariposas in El Paso, owner Nan Napier has employed several techniques to draw customers back into the store.
The store this year published in its newsletter and on its Web site a list of 10 key fall trends.
To complement this, the store is conducting a “Trend of the Week” event. During the promotion, each of the 10 trends is listed on a piece of paper, folded up and placed in a fish bowl. Customers who come into the store dig into the bowl and pick out a trend. If the customer draws the trend that is designated for that particular week, she receives a $10 discount off of her purchase.
For its summer sale, Tres Mariposas polled its customers to determine their three favorite charities. Napier determined which were the three most popular charities, and labeled a fish bowl for each one of them. Each time a customer bought a sale item, the cashier gave her five dollars in Mariposa Bucks. The customer could then drop the five dollars in the fish bowl of the charity of her choice.
In addition to its popular Halloween party and Easter egg hunt, Coco has a sale every November as a benefit for Second Harvest, a national food bank. Customers who bring in a can of food receive 25 percent off one item in the store.
“Last year, we gathered more than 400 pounds of food,” said Duensing. “This is a kind of a fun thing that we do. Our clients love it.”

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