21 November 2009

A retailer to know: Blackstone's of Beacon Hill

Mark Duffield said a wise man told him long ago, "Don't make a sale. Make a friend." So when Duffield and business partner Jennifer Hill bought Blackstone's of Beacon Hill in April 2006, they put that maxim into practice. When I spoke with Duffield and Hill, it was a long time before we ever got around to talking about merchandise, buying, marketing and promotions. Instead, they wanted to talk about their customers-- locals and tourists alike--who hang out and share stories with the owners. Their store is the first stop for one repeat customer traveling from England.
"There are a million 'small-world' stories," Hill said. Recent visitors from Ohio turned out to be neighbors of her parents.
Blackstone's was one of four 2009 recipients of the Pride of New England Awards given by the Boston Gift Show. The award recognizes New England retailers for outstanding customer service, creative merchandising, community involvement and demonstration of New England pride.
Duffield says their core values are "good old customer service" and "the experience." Because Blackstone's is near Massachusetts General Hospital, Duffield and Hill see a lot of shoppers who are undergoing treatment there or are visiting patients. Often, these customers need a friendly ear to listen to their stories or a shoulder to lean on. One shopper told them she was all alone, to which Hill replied, "No you're not. You know us." A candy dish is always stocked so that, Duffield said, they can "sweeten the day" of their visitors.
The owners' caring and empathy extends beyond their store to the Boston community. They contribute to more than 20 organizations and allow their store to be the site of fundraisers. For one Christmas promotion to benefit the United Way, Duffield and Hill asked vendors to donate product, which they laid out, unpriced, on a table. Customers named their own price, then donated the gifts back to the store. The retailers displayed each item under a Christmas tree, along with the names of the buyers. At the end of the promotion, they gave the gifts to a church to redistribute to the needy. Money collected from the sales went to United Way.
The owners are now in the third year of a five-year-long holiday promotion. They are creating two "mystery" ornaments a year, each with a puzzle consisting of word jumbles. The words from the 10 ornaments will spell out a holiday message. The first customer to decipher the message in 2011 will win $2,000 in gold and silver coins, donated by a local bank. In addition, Duffield is writing one chapter a year of a holiday story, which is being illustrated by comic strip artist Don Sherwood. Duffield hopes that the finished, five-chapter story will create new holiday traditions for the participating ornament collectors and their families.
The retailers' sense of community extends beyond Boston. Duffield and artist Lynn Stern met at a trade show, where she was selling her handmade witches hats. During Blackstone's Halloween event, proceeds from the sales of the hats benefit Michael's Garden, a program in Arizona helping disabled adults.
Hill described the store's price point as medium to high end. She and Duffield shop gift shows in Boston and New York. They have attended the New England show in Portland, Maine, and have been to Atlanta.
Personal accessories, including jewelry, purses, scarves, men's neckties, are a top-selling category. Paper products, such as napkins, gift wrap and cards, keep customers coming back.
Hill and Duffield are always on the lookout for exclusive merchandise. They work with one artist who draws ducklings from Boston's Public Gardens (the setting for the children's story "Make Way For Ducklings"). Her illustrations are on pillows, rugs and stationery.
A new "personalization corner" was established at the request of customers. Shoppers can put their name, monogram or words on soaps. Other items can be engraved. A Caspari display sampler promotes cocktail napkins that can be personalized.
E-commerce is a new activity for the store. Hill and Duffield had been at it for just one week when we spoke. While shoppers won't be able to chat with Hill and Duffield as they shop, the internet does allow the retailers to stay in touch with their far-flung fans.

This article originally appeared at Gift and Home Channel.

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