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Challenges, problems, and triumphs -- from a manufacturer's perspective.

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Retailers: Create a "Place," not a Store

Customers return if they feel a sense of community.

by Janet Perry, Napa Needlepoint (October 3, 2005)

I read with great interest the articles about the current situation in the current issue of CLN, and I want to bring up another topic which I sometimes hear mentioned, but which I think is very important as we look at how to increase our business in the face of rising costs.

The one-word summary for this is "community."

It's a concept many people have talked around for ages, but it becomes a very critical factor in what makes a shop (of any kind) successful. One craft chain now has employees who don't look like employees, in the knitting aisle there to provide advice, suggestions, and even an impromptu knitting lesson.

What does this accomplish? Besides customer service, it is peer selling (your friend suggesting what to buy), and it creates a sense of community.

My best friend and I often go to a local bakery/cafe for breakfast and while we are waiting for our food, she knits and I needlepoint or knit. While we are there people come up to us to talk. We have gotten students and commissions from these informal talks.

Why does the bakery allow this? Because the bakery fosters a great community and people from all over town hang out there. You can sit forever and have your drink refilled. Deals get done, friends come and meet for lunch, and moms take their kids there for treats.

Local independent shops often open their doors for their customers in the evening. I can sit with friends, talk about things, maybe have something to eat, and get my questions answered. And the shop sells stuff to the people there.

What does this accomplish? The shop has created a Place, not just a store. I have friends I meet there, I get away from the house, and I learn something. This keeps people coming back.

It seems to me that in the face of constricting budgets and rising gas costs, doing business with places which make you feel welcome is important. I go to the bakery, even though it is more than fast food, because of the community. I go to the stitching evenings (and have even started one of my own) because my friends are there.

We all talk about declining sales, competition from the chains, and rising gas prices. But consumers want to have connections to handwork, and connections to other people. It doesn't cost much, if any, money to achieve this kind of atmosphere but how often are we doing it?

Almost never. One of my daughter's friends wants to open a coffee shop/art gallery. I told him the community element is the most important part.

One example I forgot to mention is those crafty places for classes and hanging out which you wrote about at one point and which are now popping up in San Francisco. I think one of the biggest reasons they are viable is the sense of community. There is one in San Diego which charges $5 per hour (with a three-hour minimum, I think) just to hang out. Why would I go there if I can sit somewhere for free and do the same thing? Community.

And God knows, as goes the Left Coast, so goes the rest of the country....

Editor's comment: Why was Cheers such a popular bar for its regulars? Because it was a place "where everyone knows your name."

(Note: Janet operates Napa Needlepoint. To contact her, email janetp@napanet.net or visit her website, www.napaneedlepoint.com. To read previous "Vinny" columns, click on the titles in the right-hand column. To comment on this or any other industry issue, email mike@clnonline.com.)



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