Candace Carr has been retailing since 1994, first on the south side of Chicago, then just over the border in Blue Island, Ill. What started out as a garden shop run by herself and her husband has become CARR home, garden and holiday. Carr operates the store now that her husband is involved in another business.
These days, she is doing all she can do to keep the store going. To survive the recession, she has cut back on inventory and is careful with re-orders. When she sells out of an item, that's it. Rarely does she re-order the same product. Carr doesn't keep a lot of back stock in her 2,500-square-foot store.
Her five best-selling categories are jewelry, Christmas items, bath and body lines, live plants, and clothing (accessories, scarves and socks). She shops the Chicago market and subscribes to the Giftbeat newsletter and bulletin board service to keep track of top-selling items nationally and regionally.
Carr sells live plants just twice a year. This month, she is taking orders for mums, which are delivered on Thursdays and sold on Fridays and Saturdays.
Her store is at the edge of the business district on Western Avenue. Consequently, she does not see a lot of foot traffic. She calls her store is a "destination" and she says her customer base is the repeat shopper. When a new customer comes in, Carr captures her name, address and e-mail address for marketing purposes.
Color ads in one local newspaper are effective. So are direct mail and e-mail pieces. Once a week Carr sends e-mails featuring a product or an event. The direct mail is less frequent, and typically advertises an event. Carr is vigilant about maintaining her lists. When mail is returned, she deletes or updates the address.
In August she staged an autumn open house and Halloween event with refreshments and a raffle. Shoppers rolled their own discount with a pair of dice at check out. This "shake, rattle and roll dem bones!" idea is one Carr said she learned from another retailer. In October, she'll have a witches night event.
On her website, Carr shares humorous stories about interactions with shoppers. One customer wanted a unique hostess gift—a praying mantis egg case—but decided against that for fear the eggs would hatch in her suitcase en route to her destination. Carr writes a blog, "Blue Island On $5.00 A Day." That idea started nearly two years ago when, in frustration, she challenged the board members of the (now defunct) Main Street organization, and later her fellow citizens, to spend $5 a day with a local downtown retailer in order to support independent business owners.
Lately, she has being using Twitter (follow her at carrgardens) to publicize new merchandise in her store, and events in the community at large. She is tireless in promoting Blue Island and independent retailers. Carr joined the 3/50 Project and is promoting the idea to her business neighbors. The library gives out bookmarks promoting the cause. A local hospital is also supportive of Carr's store and efforts. It has volunteered to send a cancer-screening unit to her store in conjunction with an in-store event. Carr said she needs to figure out the logistics to make that happen.
Carr has learned a lot of survival lessons in her 15 years of retailing. Like many U.S. storeowners, Carr is feeling the effects of the recession. She says she is like a shark; instead of looking back, she will only move forward.
This article first appeared on The Gift & Home Channel, a website focusing on the independent retailer. The site includes a deep library of instructional videos on topics including visual merchandising, buying, hiring and marketing.