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posted: 2/3/2014 5:00 AM

Expert sees 'lots of opportunities' for indie retailers

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Retail can be tough, one reason Cathy Nelson is testing the bookstore waters very carefully. Her store, The Big Red Schoolhouse, was a pop-up venture in downtown Wheaton for the three weeks before Christmas. Now the store is open at the same Wesley Street location Saturday mornings and by appointment.

"There's a niche for high-end children's books just like there's a niche for organic foods" and similar products, Nelson says. "My mission is to sell good (children's) books."

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In obviously limited testing, the store so far has essentially broken even. To build success, Nelson has ideas she hopes will "keep people coming in."

Among the most interesting: Making the Schoolhouse something of a gathering place where, for example, the chess team can meet and practice, and teachers can give music lessons. The store, Nelson says, "can be a community center."

Although it's too soon to judge The Big Red Schoolhouse's eventual appeal, retail maven Nicole Leinbach Reyhle probably would approve of Nelson's part-of-the-community approach. Founder and publisher of Geneva-based Retail Minded, a retail lifestyle magazine and consulting business, Reyhle says successful store owners "must be community players, even though they don't always recognize that role.

"Independent retailers bring a heartbeat to our communities," she says, using Geneva's The Little Traveler as an example. Once a mansion owned by a prominent Geneva family, The Little Traveler today is a 36-room shopping landmark that for many epitomizes the retail experience.

Reyhle is reasonably positive when she looks at the independent retailer's future. Retailing, she says, "is on an upswing right now, (partly because) retailers have an opportunity to react to their consumers.

"Before, only the big box stores could collect data on consumer trends and buying patterns," Reyhle says. Now, though, independent operators can use a variety of sources to gather information and develop sales initiatives.

"There's no black-and-white strategy," Reyhle says, "but there are lots of opportunities." What may be necessary, she continues, is a shift of focus and perhaps better time management. The opportunities Reyhle sees take effort:

• In-store signage. "A sign on a display shelf that says, 'Do You Know We Have Gift Cards?' can remind shoppers of a product," Reyhle says, " but the sign shouldn't look like an eighth grader did the work. In-store signage speaks volumes about your approach to quality and care."

• Reyhle suggests joining hometown buy-local movements, not only because they can bring additional customers but because most offer an opportunity to share shopper facts and trends.

• "You can't ignore city council meetings," Reyhle says. She suggests attending meetings on a regular basis to get to know the players and stay current rather than showing up only when an issue impacts parking.

• The e-world. Reyhle has a helpful list of Internet sites -- from e-commerce templates to store packaging materials, social media usage and automated content marketing -- which she says are "great resources for independent retailers."

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at his new email address, Jim@kendallcom.com

2014 Kendall Communications Inc.

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