Take Five with Carol “Orange” Schroeder

In the 10 years since Carol “Orange” Schroeder published the third edition of Specialty Shop Retailing: How You Can Succeed in Today’s Market, social media has exploded in terms of adoption and variety of uses, so it was obviously time for a fourth edition. That would be the case whether or not Amazon was eating brick-and-mortar retailers alive, and this unprecedented challenge is another reason Schroeder hopes the new edition will give independent retailers some coping strategies and tools.

The previous editions have sold over 40,000 copies, but in this Take Five interview, the proprietor of Madison’s Orange Tree Imports explains how this updated 450-page version can help retail “Davids” keep Goliath at bay.

IB: You come right out and say that because Amazon is such a major threat to small businesses, you have chosen not to publish or promote the new edition through the online behemoth. Since then, another major retailer, Boston Store, has bitten the dust, and Amazon looks more menacing than ever. What’s in this new edition that will help small retailers, or any small business, compete with Godzilla.

Schroeder: [Laughs] There is room in the world for both in-person shopping experiences, especially when it’s a locally owned and curated business, as well as online shopping. I don’t think any of us can make Amazon go away, but we can present something to the public that they can’t get when they shop online and make our communities richer by offering alternatives that encourage people to get out of their homes and get off of their phones and have a social experience that also involves viewing and purchasing merchandise.

One of the most important aspects of independent retailing is offering exceptional service, so that the shopping experience is pleasant and efficient and makes people feel that it’s worth having made the trip to the store. So I do talk about using an approach called participative democracy to hire and empower staff so that you have employees who can give exceptional service. That’s an aspect of the book that’s unique to specialty shop retailing. It’s not found in other books about running your own business.

The other thing is merchandise selection. We talk about where to find unique products, in part by working with local makers to create things that are exclusive to your store and sourcing fair trade items and unusual merchandise so there is a sense of serendipity when somebody does stop in a physical store. Those are both important things.

The other aspect is probably social media, which is new to the fourth edition because when the third edition came out, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Pinterest were not really active parts of our daily lives, whereas today it’s one way a small business can relate to its customers quite efficiently. We can share stories with them, share stories about our business or stories about our merchandise. We can have customers get excited and share with each other what they like about our business. It’s definitely a new tool that was not available to us before.

The last thing is that the internet itself is an option for small businesses that want to expand their reach beyond their brick-and-mortar store. I do talk about how to do that efficiently, either to use the internet to promote your actual physical store or to supplement your income by reaching out to the larger world via online sales.

IB: So you would not necessarily recommend entrepreneurial retailers start out with a strictly e-commerce approach and consider a brick-and-mortar store later on?

Schroeder: Starting with e-commerce before opening any brick and mortar is certainly one approach. Doing a pop-up store or a pushcart is another approach. There are different ways of experimenting with retail before you are ready to take the plunge with an actual store. It’s difficult if you don’t have a physical store to start a small business online because there is so much noise. It’s so hard to break through and get attention on the internet that it’s probably more efficient to start the other way — to have a physical store and build up a customer base and then add online sales based on your customers’ loyalty.

IB: The new edition contains a good deal of information about how to use social media. Which platform or approach has worked best for Orange Tree Imports?

Schroeder: I’m personally an active user of Facebook, both for Orange Tree Imports and for the Monroe Street Merchant’s Association. I do enjoy using that means of reaching out to our customers, along with regular email blasts. I will also give credit to two of my employees who handle our Instagram account. They have a fresh pair of eyes and are sharing things that perhaps appeal to a younger demographic, which is important for all of us to include because, obviously, those are our future customers.

It’s a real challenge to make sure we are focused on both our traditional customer base and developing a new, upcoming customer base in part because younger shoppers are so used to shopping online. They have grown up with the option of Amazon rather than coming at it as something new. So in order to appeal to that group, it really helps to have some younger employees to get their perspective, have them help with buying and see what they are interested in shopping for, and also develop some experiential options that bring people into the store who might not be going out just to shop.

IB: To put things in full context, what happened with Boston Store may not have been only about competition from Amazon.

Schroeder: The retail apocalypse we’ve heard so much about that involves the closing of department stores and chain stores is in part a result of investment in real estate that might not have turned out well. They have a lot of expensive leases and in some cases that has been the downfall of the store. Another example is Radio Shack, which was responsible for a huge number of the store closings last year. That was a chain based on a concept that was not necessarily still viable, so it’s the flexibility of an independent retailer to say ‘If our product mix isn’t working, what can we do to adapt to the change in the market? What can we sell tomorrow that we didn’t sell yesterday?’

To use Orange Tree Imports as an example, there was once a time when we sold a lot of macramé and plant accessories back in the 1970s that we don’t sell today, although macramé is making a comeback from what I understand. But we’ve tried to change with the times, and an independent retailer can do that. We can see a trend today and bring it in tomorrow. Boston Store, it’s kind of a dinosaur. You have these huge management structures and buying offices and it’s not easy. It’s also not easy in their case to be local or to say ‘Here is what’s working in Madison, Wisconsin.’ If the lines you bought in the Madison store were not selling in Boston or Peoria, they probably took them out of the store. So the local focus of a small retailer is one of the reasons we will continue to survive — maybe on a different scale than in the past, but there will always be good local retail.



IB: We recently interviewed a startup e-commerce retailer (Chioma Amegashie of ShopMosaiconline.com) who is gaining some traction with a subscription-based business model. What’s your take on that model?

Schroeder: I’ve actually written a blog post about the subscription-based model. It’s not for everybody but it’s kind of a cool thing. One of my daughter’s friends in Boston is doing it as a side business. I doubt there are too many people who are making a living with a subscription-based model. It might not be something we see as much of in a few years. It’s kind of a new thing at the moment. It could be a side business for someone running a retail store for instance, but to just do a subscription-based gift or product business alone, it would be hard to make a living.

IB: Instead of Amazon, you’ve chosen to encourage interested readers to ask for a copy at their local bookseller, or order it through IndieBound or other alternate sites, or an ePub version that can be purchased directly from the publisher, HenschelHAUS. Are you trying to prove a point that there are other potentially successful promotional and sales channels than Amazon?

Schroeder: I definitely feel my book is focusing on the new reality for retailers, which is that we have to compete with Amazon and provide something that Amazon doesn’t give customers. So for me to tell people to go to Amazon to buy my book seemed not in keeping with my philosophy. Obviously, the book is on Amazon, and I’m happy to say it has some really great reviews on Amazon, but I’d much rather have somebody go to a local bookstore or even to IndieBound, which is the portal to local bookstores online, and buy the book there instead of on Amazon.

IB: In general, what else is new in the fourth edition of the book?

Schroeder: I’ve refocused the book to make it clear that it’s a tool for people who are already in business, as well as for those who are starting out because there are not many new stores opening today. It’s very difficult to get financing, and a lot of startups don’t have the capital to get the inventory and do a build out in the store, but we have lots and lots and lots of independent retailers across the country that need help getting through today’s challenges. Those are the people I’m hoping to help and believe I’ve helped with the previous three editions.

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