While the economy lagged and big box retailers struggled, by most accounts, gourmethousewares stores outperformed their bigger brethren. Now don’t get me wrong. No one is writing home to mom about the great big sales increases they wracked up last year— except maybe Mary Moore (see story page 18). But having met with scores of gourmethousewares store operators over the past several months, it seems clear that this industry did better than most last year.
There are a couple of reasons, the most important being this industry’s connection to its customers. Last year, I heard story after story from owners who were making sure their regulars kept returning and that first-time visitors came back for seconds. From creative promotions aimed at capturing e-mail addresses followed by proactive newsletter campaigns to out-of-the-box strategies to spur employee salesmanship, gourmet store operators took control of their destinies to drive sales in a down economy.
And then there is the time-worn truism that when times are tough people eat at home more. I’m still not quite sure how this “trend” drives short-term sales. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that food-prep products did better last year than other consumer goods.
Which brings us to 2010. Visits to the first shows of the year revealed bustling booths with retailers hungry for new wares and ready to write orders. Both the Atlanta and New York gift fairs reported strong attendance, with the latter announcing double-digit gains over last year’s event. Vendors at both events were giddy with the quantity and quality of activity. And even the usual complaints over location and last-day traffic declines— really, does that ever NOT happen— receded amid the order writing activity.
At the recent New York Gift Fair I chaired a panel discussion on Positioning for the Recovery that seemed more than a tad hopeful when it was conceived last Fall, but felt perfectly timed when the event came. During the discussion, Cook’s Companion owner Jennifer Baron made a point that should guide all our efforts this year: This is not the time to take your foot off the gas.
As things begin to improve there is a natural tendency to relax, to let the urgency that drove creative merchandising and disciplined management wane amid the relief that the worst is over. Instead this is the time to consolidate gains made over the last year, to continue pushing yourself to think more creatively, to use resources more effectively and yes, to take risks. One of the strategies Baron employed in her store was to pass out vendor catalogs to her employees and challenge them to each find one new item the store could add to its mix. She understood that not every item would deliver. But one, two or maybe more, would provide the basis for sales gains and all of them would bring a touch of the unexpected to shoppers.
This exemplifies the type of creative thinking that remains critical to success as the economy improves. New ideas are as important now as when the economy began its decline, perhaps even more so as the recovery, at least initially, is likely to be fragile. Uncovering innovative new products, new merchandising strategies or better ways to manage your business will determine your ability to begin growing your business again at pre-recessionary levels.
It is with that in mind that I recommend attending Specialty Retailer University, the annual day-long educational program held prior to the opening of the International Home + Housewares Show, in Chicago. The program includes educational speakers experienced in the kinds of issues you face daily in your business. Attendees are also eligible for free consulting sessions. And if that’s not enough, it’s an invaluable opportunity to network with your peers.
One of the most valuable resources independent retailers have is each other. No one else better understands the issues you face running your business than people who face those same challenges.
The education and networking opportunities specifically for this industry are growing. We applaud those undertaking those efforts and encourage all to participate.
When Specialty Retailer University opens again this year I’ll be right there in front ready to learn as much about this business as I possibly can. Hope to see you there.
Mariposa’s Pearled large deep dish server is the latest addition to its String of Pearls collection. It features whimsical handles and a luxurious border, and a generous size and depth designed for serving a main dish that contains sauce or au jus.