How to Beat the Big Guys on Black Friday

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Black Friday means business as usual for Simone Oettinger, owner of specialty children's clothing store Maya Papaya & Toni Macarony in Evanston, Ill.

"Black Friday is for the malls and mass merchants and the people who patronize these kinds of establishments," Oettinger says. "It's the day to get your flat-screen TV for a bargain, if you are willing to be in line at 5 a.m. or earlier. That's not the typical profile of the consumer who shops small, local stores -- the people who value service and convenience over getting a 'deal.'"
Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year and quickly coming up. Is your retail business ready to take advantage of it?

Oettinger does, however, plan to offer discounts or free shipping to customers on her email list if they make a purchase on Cyber Monday. And she shouldn't dismiss her smaller store's ability to draw customers on Black Friday, a study suggests.

According to a National Retail Federation survey, discount and department stores will take the lion's share of consumer dollars this holiday season, followed by grocery stores and supermarkets, clothing and accessory stores, drugstores and, interestingly enough, craft and fabric stores. Small retailers still have an opportunity to shine during the most important shopping season of the year, though, because consumers are increasingly basing their gift decisions on customer service and quality of merchandise, in addition to discounts and promotions, the survey found.

"Limited budgets and a desire to make the most out of gift giving will drive consumers to shop at a variety of retailers while also thinking outside the box for great gift ideas," said Pam Goodfellow, Consumer Insights Director of BIGresearch, the company that conducted the NRF survey.

Jodi Black, owner of Beautiful Brains Books and Games, has one of those specialized shops -- she sells tabletop role-playing games online and at conventions and trade shows -- and rarely does special promotions.

"Customer service is really key," Black says. "Not only do I keep an index file for every single one of my customers, but a lot of them have friended me on Facebook . That's just how key we are to knowing our customers and knowing what they do and don't like."

Black is offering free shipping for customers that buy from Black Friday through Cyber Monday -- a big deal for her online-only store.

"We never do free shipping," Black says. "It's the one weekend where people are actually thinking about spending money , and it's good to capitalize on that enthusiasm."

But if small retailers really want to get a piece of the holiday shopping pie, they need to grab shoppers who will be using their smartphones and tablets to research and ultimately buy holiday gifts on their mobile devices.

The NRF and BIGresearch, polling consumers for the first time about the devices, found that 52.6% of those who own a smartphone said they will use it and its apps to research products, redeem coupons and buy holiday gifts and items. In fact, 14.1% of those with smartphones say they would make purchases via the devices and 34.8% will make a purchase with their tablet.

There is plenty of space for small businesses to cater to that audience.

"Consumers are really looking for more," says Betsy Demarchi, director of strategy at Resource Interactive, a digital marketing company.

"When people are in the store and they're trying to decide on an item they might leave to go look at ratings and reviews on Amazon ( AMZN)," she says. "We can bring that content into the store by facilitating the decision-making in the store, but also enhancing that with some additional content that can help her or him understand 'Is this the right product for me?'"

Smaller stores can offer personalized experiences through outstanding service, something Wal-Mart ( WMT) doesn't have the ability to do, Demarchi adds.

"At Apple ( AAPL) they have associates armed with iPads . They're walking around with those devices. That can be the conduit for bringing out information and also facilitating that transaction, which is another key thing on Black Friday. If you can have the in-aisle transaction as opposed to making people go and wait on long lines ... you're able to shorten that experience," Demarchi says.

"The instant gratification is a benefit that the store should try and really capitalize on. In order to do that they need to make it as fast and painless as possible so that consumer makes the purchase in the store ," she says.

Buying iPads for sales associates isn't the only way to engage customers -- small businesses also have the ability to create unique offers, such as bundling items together or offering gift cards with purchases. That will encourage customers to come back to make another purchase, Demarchi notes.

Getting customers to interact as much as possible with the brand, product or service is another great way to get the sale, particularly on big shopping days.

Footzyrolls, an online shoe company that sells direct-to-consumer and through larger distributors, plans to offer the first 150 customers on Cyber Monday a free pair of shoes with their order, co-owner Sarah Caplan says.

Once customers get their order confirmation, they also get a Golden Ticket -- an email from the owners of the company letting them know they've won and a personalized affiliate code to pass on to friends and family. For each order placed by referrals, the original customer gets a $10 credit. The person with the most referrals at the end of Cyber Monday will also get a $100 American Express ( AXP) gift card.

"It's a great way to get our customers interacting with our brand and using word of mouth to help us get our brand out there," Caplan says. "We can't compete with the big companies that spend millions of dollars on advertisements."

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

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