Successful small business strategy to compete with e-commerce giants

Shopping for anything you could ever want is all too easy these days - all you have to do is open your favorite e-commerce app, tap, add to cart and it gets delivered to your door within a week.

When my wife, Mica, and I first had the idea to start our cooking school and gourmet kitchenware store, Cook, Cork & Fork in Palatine, nearly 10 years ago, online shopping wasn't nearly the beast it is now.

Heck, selling something as simple as a spatula was easier five years ago than it is now. But we've come to find one advantage small retailers have that massive e-commerce retailers can never achieve: personal customer relationships.

Since pre-COVID times, Mica and I have honed in on our customer engagement strategy as part of a winning formula to compete with giant online retailers. It came to fruition when we first started attending The Inspired Home Show operated by the International Housewares Association and the largest housewares trade show in the U.S. For nine years, we've gone to the show to browse hundreds of new and never-before-seen housewares products to get ideas for new retail opportunities at Cook, Cork & Fork.

We've experienced how exciting it is to attend in person, interacting with vendors and their products. Since it's a private industry event, Mica had a brilliant idea one year to bring our customers along virtually to be a part of our buying experience - and the rest is history.

We used Facebook Live to walk our audience through the show, point out our favorite products and ask viewers for their feedback in real-time. The response was so great that we later expanded to Instagram stories to engage more of our customers in fun new ways, including live polls where they can vote "yay" or "nay" on products we're thinking to buy. It's an exciting way to connect with our customers and understand what products they hope to see at Cook, Cork & Fork. On the flip side, our customers feel like they are part of our store and make a point to come to our store and buy the very products they voted on.

As fun and silly as product polls may seem, they do impact our buying decisions. One example is when we asked our Instagram followers to vote on two colors of beautiful Pakkawood utensils from the 2023 Show. Mica and I loved both the yellow and mint options. Not so for our customers. Our poll results showed our audience felt very strongly about the mint. And that was that.

In a day and age when Amazon is king, this kind of customer feedback is our advantage and ultimate currency. Customers get excited and come to the store immediately after we alert them about the arrival of products they voted on during The Inspired Home Show. It brings them into the store and results in a purchase. It's happened every year thanks to our online presence. And we get excited to attend the show each year to do it all again.

Our advice to small retailers looking to grow their business? If you're in the housewares industry, register for The Inspired Home Show, which is not open to the public, and bring your customers along on your social media pages. I can't say enough how important it is to see the vendors and products in person. Start by involving your customers in everyday buying decisions and new product shipments.

For polls, be sure to follow up with your customers. Let them know you purchased the products based on how they voted in the polls. Get them excited to see those products on your shelves by updating them when the shipment will arrive. As long as you have a strong passion for what you do and have a little fun with it, using social media to increase customer engagement is sure to have a positive impact on your business. We hope to see our fellow retailers at The Inspired Home Show 2024 next March.

John Mahler is co-founder and co-owner of Cook, Cork & Fork in Palatine and can be found on Facebook at and Instagram at every day, and especially live at The Inspired Home Show, March 17-19, 2024 at Chicago's McCormick Place.

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