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Putting on a Show in the Showroom

With online retail growing more than three times the rate of storefront retail, the in-store experience of over-the-top customer service has become more important than ever.

Bryant Smith uses social media to alert customers to great deals in his store, Cotton Creek Clothing in Troy, and then wows them with inviting displays and local merchandise.

Bryant Smith uses social media to alert customers to great deals in his store, Cotton Creek Clothing in Troy, and then wows them with inviting displays and local merchandise.

Photos courtesy of Cotton Creek/Kristy E. Drinkwater

Janet Holcomb has built a booming business based on the fact that 85 percent of women wear the incorrect bra size. Her lingerie store, The Fitting Touch, in Birmingham, employs specially trained fit specialists and focuses on helping women find a properly fitting bra.

As a former lingerie buyer for a larger company, Holcomb was trained in corsetry fit and unique sizing — and her unique knowledge offers her 41,000 customers something they could never get through an online retailer.

“Helping our customers find the proper fit and the appropriate apparel is our goal,” Holcomb says. “And we do that by providing an expertise that is difficult to find elsewhere. We know that having a properly fitted bra can make a positive difference in a woman’s appearance and self esteem, and all of our fit specialists have been trained on proper fit and are educated on the fit of different bra styles.”

For decades, the most successful retailers have been those who provide an extra level of service and an insider’s knowledge that is helpful to the customer. In today’s changing retail landscape, in which online retail is growing more than three times the rate of brick-and-mortar retail, that over-the-top customer service has become more important than ever.

Janet Holcomb and her staff at The Fitting Touch, from left, Jan Smith, Holcomb, Candice Bryson, Nicole Harper and Kimberly Hicks, bring in customers by offering a service that just can’t be provided online. 

Photos by Lynsey Weatherspoon

The In-Store Experience

“The advantage to in-store sales is being able to see, touch and have the products sold explained to you by an experienced staff member,” says Nancy Dennis, public relations director for the Alabama Retail Association. “For the shoppers who frequent the most successful retailers, the store is a destination. It is a place the shopper wants to be and a place that has the items they most want to buy at a price they are willing to pay.”

In addition to offering unique expertise like The Fitting Touch, successful brick-and-mortar stores also focus on the presentation of their merchandise, says Rodney Barstein, founder and chief operating officer of Simply Fashion Stores Ltd., a network of 250 clothing stores headquartered in Birmingham. That may include updating the building, frequently changing displays and decorating the store seasonally and in ways that mimic the style of the items for sale.

“The in-store experience is extremely important for attracting and keeping customers,” Barstein says. “People want to be wowed when they go into a bricks and mortar store. They want instant gratification, and they want to receive service beyond their expectations. Those retailers that offer that service will succeed.”

For Simply Fashion, the customer experience is more important than anything else, because “it keeps them coming back to the store,” Barstein says. “Brick-and-mortar stores cannot sell anything unless the consumer comes into the store. So they need them to come back regularly.”

The Ongoing Relationship

To keep customers coming back on a regular basis, savvy retailers work to build ongoing relationships with them. For many Alabama shops with loyal customer bases, those relationships are being built through social media.

For instance, Cotton Creek Clothing, in Troy, has more than doubled its customer base in the past two years by staying heavily active in social media, which “keeps us connected to our customer base regularly,” says Bryant Smith, owner of the men’s clothing shop. Almost every day, Cotton Creek Clothing promotes something via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It may be a sale offer, a contest or a giveaway, but it keeps the audience interested and sharing with each other.

Giveaways have been especially effective for Cotton Creek Clothing, Smith says.

“People always gravitate towards something free,” he says. “We’ve given away coolers, a grill, jackets and shirts. We just ask customers to ‘like’ our Facebook page and share with friends to enter.”

When customers “like” the store’s Facebook page, they’re essentially signing up to receive regular updates about what’s going on at the store via Facebook posts, so the relationship continues.

“Old ways of advertising are archaic, it seems,” Smith says. “We promote everything on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.”

But once customers come into the store, Cotton Creek Clothing pleases them with old-fashioned personal service, Smith says. “We help a lot of customers who otherwise wouldn’t know what tie goes with what shirt or pants,” he says.

Behind the Glass, a popular clothing boutique in Auburn, keeps customers talking about its merchandise and coming in to buy it through frequent posts on Facebook and Instagram. Regular posts include photos of customers and staffers modeling the latest styles from the store and invitations to special sales and events. The store boasts more than 15,000 Facebook followers.

Another important way to build lasting relationships with customers and potential customers is to give back to the local community. In addition to providing special expertise and service, “brick-and-mortar retailers also have the advantage of being part of the community,” Dennis says. “Engaging with their community is another trait of a successful retailer.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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