11 October 2009

Profile: The Whistling Elk

The Whistling Elk is a furniture store owned by Barbara L. Collins in Chester, N.J.Retailers react when business conditions turn unfavorable. Some tactics they use are watching expenses, ordering more cautiously, becoming creative, and seeking partners with similar goals or clientele.
Last year, retailer Barbara L. Collins saw sales of her custom-made cabinets and furniture dry up, and customers were no longer coming for design work at The Whistling Elk, her Chester, N.J., furniture store. Shoppers just were not spending like they used to. Items priced greater than $200 were out, she said.
So Collins adapted and added less expensive items. Gifts and accessories that sell well today range from $5 notebooks to $30 candle holders. Fragrance lamps are popular, too. The retailer keeps them near the entrance so she can demonstrate the product to shoppers who notice the scent as soon as they enter the store.
Collins describes The Whistling Elk's point of view as "casually elegant." (She took the name for the store from a character in a Lynn Andrews novel.)
Customers are buying $10 at a time, but they are buying, and they keep coming back. Collins shops the Atlanta gift show for textiles, the New York gift show for accessories and the High Point market for furniture. She says emotion drivers her purchasing decisions. "If I love it, I buy it."
Chester is a tourist destination in northern New Jersey, between New York City and Allentown, Pa. The Whistling Elk is in a 19th century two-story house. Furniture and accessories are displayed in vignettes.
Collins will celebrate 20 years as a retailer next year. She takes care of her good customers, giving them a 10% discount on all purchases. She collects customer information for her mailing lists, and notes the day when they were in the store. She does not use direct mail as much as she used to. Instead, the retailer e-mails her customers every one or two months, and buys a full-page color advertisement in the local paper regularly. Collins creates her own ads, takes the pictures and writes the copy. Another of her strengths, she said, is that she is a "great merchandiser."
Her use of social media includes Facebook and Twitter (follow TheWhistlingElk).
This December, Collins will again hold an in-store fundraiser to benefit a leukemia and lymphoma society. Last year, she invited two other retailers to participate in the evening event; one carries jewelry and the other chocolates. The event attracted 150 guests, who paid $10 a person and received one raffle entry. (Collins is increasing the ticket to $20 this year.) The two grand prizes (valued at $3,000) were a set of top-of-bed linens and a sofa.
Collins has adapted her business practices and is winding up another year. With signs that the national economy is improving, maybe in 2010, as Collins celebrates her 20th year in business, The Whistling Elk will be whistling a happier tune.

This article originally appeared on The Gift and Home Channel.

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