Retailers try various September strategies
It’s the toughest time of the year for island retail shop owner Lisa Davidson.
The kids are back in school, so family vacations are over.
The snowbirds won’t be here until mid-October at the earliest, and winter tourists will stay north until they get their first harsh dose of cold weather in November.
From mid-August, through the months of September and October, cash-flow slows and it is a struggle for Davidson and her husband, Ron, to move merchandise at Exclusively Coastal, their gift store on Ocean Drive.
Sales in September typically drop 30 percent from those in July.
“I stay busy until mid-August but once the kids go back to school, September is traditionally my worst month,” said Davidson, who has owned the 3119 Ocean Drive shop for the past 13 years. “Sometimes I wonder why the store stays open in September.”
The annual off-season economic doldrums are hardly new to season-based businesses on Vero’s beachside and across Florida. But 32963 took a closer look at how one particular island shop copes with the steep decrease in customer traffic and sales.
Davidson purchased the former Shells & Things store in 2003 and re-branded it as Exclusively Coastal. Shells & Things – no surprise – sold mostly shell items, but the Davidsons have expanded the merchandise selection, though they still keep a small souvenir shell area for the kids.
The store now sells ocean-theme artwork, jewelry, handbags, decorative coral and souvenirs at a broad spectrum of price points, with Davidson’s Marahlago gemstone collection a major seller. The Marahlago price range is $150 to $1,000, while a souvenir shell can go for two bucks.
In September, Davidson breaks out her biggest business strategy to stay relevant during a slow time of the year – a storewide 20 percent sale. She has to get special permission from Marahlago to put that particular brand of jewelry on sale because the jewelry maker doesn’t like dealers discounting the line.
Davidson joked that sales are so poor in September she has thought of calling it the “I Hate September Sale.”
Decorators and other locals savvy to Davidson’s sale wait until September to visit. Davidson said it’s this slow time of year when she will see more locals because they like the smaller crowds and the increased availability of parking on Ocean Drive.
She also uses the down time to take care of other business chores such as getting rid of any merchandise that’s not selling, re-arranging displays and touching up the paintwork on the 1,000-square-foot store.
“It is what it is. It’s a good time to clean house,” she said.
The Davidsons also use the slow time to prepare Christmas items that will be rolled out in mid-October.
“It’s a good time to get ready for the holiday season,” Davidson said.
Taking a broader view of how to bolster sales during this sluggish period, Davidson said she would like more stores along Ocean Drive to stay open in the evenings and Sundays. “People are staying in the hotels and they’re looking for something to do,” she said.
Davidson said evening hours can boost sales by 10 percent.
Tom Kindred, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at Indian River State College, knows all about the challenges facing local businesses that deal with the ebb and flow of seasonal tourists and traffic.
Kindred, who came up with the idea of a Friday Fest street event in Fort Pierce, said season-based business owners need to build diversification into business models from the get-go.
“Sell things that your full-time residents will buy and get the word out to them,” Kindred said. “Find your niche and find what the locals want and market to your locals.”
Kindred said seasonal owners should expand their online presence as well, so that they’re selling not only to customers in their brick-and-mortar locations, but to customers around the globe.
“Now you have the world as your marketplace,” he said.
Kindred also said it’s a good idea to collect emails from the seasonal customers and stay in contact with them when they’re living in other part of the country.
“Stay in contact with your seasonal contacts through summer months and keep them engaged,” he said. “Maybe offer them free shipping on items purchased in the summer months.”
Kindred also suggested a strategy that Davidson has already used. He suggested winding down inventory in preparation for the low cash-flow months – a strategy Davidson employed when she held a Christmas in July sale to clear shelves ahead of the doldrums.
“Build up cash so you can get through those low cash-flow months,” Kindred said.
Finally, Kindred suggested season-based stores team up and hold events to drive traffic during the lean times of the year.
Davidson said she tried that tactic, too, asking fellow stores to collaborate in creating a joint promotion or event, but could not get any other shops to buy into her idea.
Maria Sparsis, who owns the Tea and Chi tea room downtown, is trying to rally locals behind independent businesses this time of year with an online effort that has quickly gained fans.
Well aware that sales crater for local stores in September, Sparsis created the “SeptemberInVero” page on Facebook.
“It was designed to encourage those of us who live here year-round to shop at an independent business instead of spending money at a big box or a chain store,” Sparsis said.
She started the Facebook page last Sept. 1 and it had 3,467 members by mid-August. “It’s been an overwhelming positive experience,” Sparsis said.