According to any and all experts, we are in the era of online shopping. Even the most minimal research will show that the storefront is slowly but surely dying away. Not even the exorbitant price of shipping will keep people from ordering clothes, shoes, home decor, cleaning supplies, groceries, etc. through sites like Amazon. People will find brands they love and go straight to their website to order the clothing they need. Even better, people will give their favorite sizes, colors, and styles to an online stylist, the stylist will pick out their clothes, and then they get an entire outfit shipped straight to their door. It is predicted that this virtual experiential shopping method will soon completely replace all clothing store fronts.
But if online shopping completely replaces store fronts, it will mean that our society will have to completely replace the act of shopping. Are we prepared to do that? Will all of the activities we do with our friends soon be virtual? In order to completely replace our shopping habits with online shopping, we would need to eliminate the time we spend with friends, the joy of finding the perfect piece and trying it on in store, the thrill of the hunt, interactions with sales associates, and personal relationships with businesses. All interpersonal interaction and relationships will be eliminated from the shopping experience. Even though all statistics indicate store fronts will die away, I suspect the industry will fight for its life by using human’s inate need for interaction.
The reason Top Buttons, and other similar businesses, have been so successful in this “dying industry” is because of the emphasis they have placed on experiential shopping. Experiential shopping is a way to run your business to ensure your customers come to your store for the experience instead of only the product. Examples of this tactic would be a boutique with a hair salon in the back and a coffee shop in the front. Or another way to achieve this would be to pick a location that ensures a full day of activities. Downtown Lakeland is home to restaurants, coffee shops, hair salons, gift shops, boutiques, and cool places to walk around. Not only are the shops cool, but you also start to form relationships with the owners and employees. Top Buttons, specifically, has a salon on one side and a coffee shop on the other. This is perfect, because Top Buttons doesn’t have to take on the expense of running a hair salon and a coffee shop, but their customers get the benefit of an experiential shopping trip at two businesses that they know and love. There are so many communities around the country that are shifting to this model, for instance Dahlonega, Georgia. Overall, store fronts may be dying, but if you find the right community, your store will thrive.
This brings me to another essential aspect of a boutique’s success: community. The key to small business success is that businesses in the area help each other out. This sounds idealistic, but even competitors in the community will join forces to gain a larger customer base and exposure.
All of these little businesses set up stands together at local markets, do pop-ups at each other’s shops, and host events to raise the foot traffic of the area. Many cities are following this model to support the local business owners and their community. Shopping small is a growing movement that so many people (especially of the millennial and Z generations) are joining with fervor and passion.
Boutiques, specifically, have such a potential to thrive in the aforementioned type of community because for most people, trying on clothes in the store is preferable to ordering them online. Not only that, but the entertainment factor of shopping, combined with the personal connection between a shopper and a small business, ensures loyalty to the business and an emotional attachment to each piece the customer buys there. It is easy for customers to stay detached from big companies because they seem so impersonal, but if you go into a boutique, meet the owner, and hear his/her story, one time in the store could make you a customer for life. Of course, to achieve this, the owner and all of his/her employees must be expert on pitching themselves in their brands. But there is so much potential there.
People who don’t like shopping (as an activity) will replace it with online shopping. But those people were never going to be loyal customers anyway. People who love to shop, people who love human interaction, and people who care about where their clothing comes from will support this movement until boutiques are the number one way to buy clothes. The statistics are not in the favor of this industry, but nothing is quite as strong as the human need for interaction.
The keys to being a successful boutique owner, from my experience, are as follows. The owner and her employees must know their market. Even if the community loves you, you need to have products people will love. Additionally, all of the employees who work for the company must own the boutiques mission, goals, and story like they were the founder themselves. Passion is what sells a small business more than anything. Finally, the business must be willing to interact with, work with, and support other businesses in their community. People do not usually leave their house to go to one store anymore, but they will leave the house to go shop in an area full of unique businesses and have a communal experience with the artisans and creatives in the community.