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How to be an Indie: Engaging your customer

Independent retailers across the UK and Ireland share their top tips for maintaining great relationships with their customers.

The personal approach  

Offering a personal service can often be the most important way to help build trust with customers. For Matt Horstead, owner of premium menswear independent Dartagnan in Chichester, honesty is the best policy.

“We take a very personal, honest approach with our customers. Our staff have developed close one-to-one relationships with them and many have their personal mobile numbers, which we use to tell them about new stock, Sales and discounts,” Horstead adds.

Jo Davies, owner of Wilmslow designer womenswear boutique Black White Denim, has moved her office onto the shop floor to ensure she is a consistent presence. “When you own a boutique people expect to see you on the shop floor. The key to giving a personalised experience is talking to people and being honest, so if they don’t look good in something you need to tell them the truth.”

For Paul Galvin, owner of premium menswear independent Galvin Tullamore in County Offaly, Ireland, the essence of independent retail is creating a special experience focused on personal interaction. “My staff really enjoy serving customers and know what they’re talking about, so their advice is genuine. They don’t work on commission so they aren’t prepared to compromise on a customer’s experience just to get a sale. Having value added services like an in-store tailor who can turn alterations around in 30 minutes also makes a difference.”

Daisy Wheatley, owner of Tiverton women’s young fashion boutique Mademoiselle Mojo,advises independent fashion retailers to think about the best customer service they’ve ever received and aim to beat it. “Being open, honest and there for your customers is something that can set you apart from the high street. For example, when shoppers ask for a certain style, colour or size go out of your way to get it and if you can’t find it offer them an alternative.”

Tammy Bell, head of brand communications at womenswear brand Viz-a-Viz, believes independent retailers need to think about the entire customer journey, from the moment they walk through the door. “Get to know your customer’s likes and dislikes, then you can recommend new styles or brands they might love. Personal fashion tips and advice are always appreciated.”

Loyalty cards

For some independents, offering loyalty cards and staging VIP events are great ways to reward customers. Dan Jackson, manager of premium independent men’s and women’s chain Aspecto’s store in the Manchester Arndale Centre, sees new signups to his loyalty card every week. There are over 20,000 people signed up to the loyalty card across the chain’s five stores in Manchester, Nottingham and Leeds. “With our card the more you spend the more you get. When customers hit 500 points they get a £50 voucher. Schemes like this help us combat competition from bigger retailers.”

Doncaster men’s and women’s premium independent Robinsons of Bawtry has a comprehensive customer loyalty programme, which includes personalised vouchers for birthdays and Christmas, as well as invitations to local events the store sponsors such as the Bawtry Polo Cup. The system is not based on collecting points, instead customers sign up with their details to join the programme and receive a £25 welcome voucher.

At Black White Denim, customers claim five points for every £100 spent (with every point equivalent to £1), which can be redeemed in-store. “We can go into our system and manually enter double or triple points for birthdays or special events,” explains Davies. “We also have a permanent ‘three for two’ offer on our own label BWD basics range for our loyal customers.” Owner Jo Davies advises keeping a record of important dates like customer birthdays, along with other contact information, so you can treat customers and show an interest in their lives.

Customers at Gosforth womenswear indie Havetolove have their loyalty cards stamped on every visit and on the 10th purchase the customer gets 10% off. A similar approach is taken by Daisy Wheatley, who offers regular Mademoiselle Mojocustomers a 10% loyalty card which can also be redeemed in Frou Frou, her parent’s gin bar across the road or Mojo’s, her sister’s hair and beauty salon next door.

“They like our loyalty cards because we aren’t making them fill in pages of information or basing it on a points system they don’t understand,” she explains. “With our card you earn 10% of the value of each transaction. So if you spend £100 you get £10 put on your card. After six purchases the card is full and can be spent like a voucher. It’s fantastic as it entices customers back and introduces them to the other businesses.”

While Paul Galvin does not believe in loyalty schemes, he agrees personal discounts are a good tactic. “During the depths of the recession customers were constantly being offered packages and deals, but the feedback we had was that a loyalty card of 2-3% isn’t really enough and to offer 5-10% would’ve had too much impact on the business.  

“We prefer to give personal discounts to good customers. We also contact our customers by text with more substantial offers like 20% off for a limited amount of time, which is a real call to action.”

Bespoke events

Events are a key part of the in-store experience at London-based skatewear specialist Slam City Skates. The loyal community of Slam City customers are invited to screenings of video premieres with brands such as Converse and in-store signings with internationally respected skateboard teams. The store also sponsors its own skateboarding team, which fans of the store can really get behind.  

Havetolove uses customer information to invite shoppers to VIP Sale previews. Every Friday the store serves glasses of prosecco and gives out vouchers for VIPs, while on Saturday loyal customers are invited to get their make-up and lashes done, all part of making them feel like part of the Havetolove community.

DaisyWheatley believes linking up with events across different independents in the same street or town can help to build momentum. “In the past we’ve done late night summer shopping evenings or extended opening hours over Christmas tied in with a number of other local shops and eateries. Larger scale events definitely drive existing and new customers to your store.”

Jim McDonnell, owner of contemporary menswear store Tony McDonnell in Dundalk, Ireland, stages mulled wine and mince pies evenings at Christmas and collaborates with national radio stations, which broadcast live from the store and offer customers special promotions. McDonnell also finds celebrity appearances from the likes of Irish rugby star Rob Kearney help create a buzz.

Early access

Offering VIP clients or customers on mailing lists early access to Sales can be a good way to capture their interest. Both Black White Denim and Robinsons of Bawtry invite loyalty card customers to a Sales preview a week before discounts are advertised to the public.

A similar approach is adopted by Mademoiselle Mojo’s Daisy Wheatley, who sends out VIP emails to loyal customers letting them know about Sales, discounts and extended opening times before anyone else.

For a specialist store like Slam City Skates, which stocks exclusive collaborations and niche items that on release often have customers queuing outside, manager Dave Atkinson sends out special offers or ‘first chances to buy’ opportunities to his mailing list.

On reserve

At Black White Denim, Jo Davies looks at customer purchase history on sizing and preferred brands and then gives her customers a call or text to when their favourite brand has arrived in store to offer them first refusal.

“We also let our customers reserve items. For instance, we have several new brands launching for autumn 15, such as Ivylee Copenhagen footwear, Harris & Wharf outerwear and John Smedley knitwear. We send out an email to our database introducing the new brands, explaining why we picked them and how to style them,” she says.

At Mademoiselle Mojo if the team cannot find a garment customer is looking for they tell them when a similar garment arrives and hold it in stock, without the shopper needing to put down a deposit.

Keeping in touch

Email, text, social media, even television and radio – there are many different routes independents can use to maintain contact.

Paul Galvin finds his customers respond better to text messages than promotional emails, which they tend to delete. The store has also ploughed more money into running adverts on local and national radio. “We find radio is much important than TV as there are too many television channels and your advert just gets lost. Our radio adverts run between 7am to 9.30am and 4pm to 7.30pm to catch the morning and evening commute. They help maintain awareness in the customers’ minds.”

Daisy Wheatley texts her customers with photographs of new products, as well as posting images on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Unlike Galvin, she uses mailing lists to target customers with email discounts. “It’s important to keep a consistent message and concentrate on which channel works best for you. A good communication strategy is key to finding new consumers and keeping your loyal customers updated.”

Tammy Bell sees a place for social media and direct mailings working together, but it’s important not to bombard customers. “Once or twice a week is a good amount to keep them up to date and if you can personalise these direct mailings, even better.”

Jim McDonnell uses a combination of text and email to tell customers about the latest Sales. He also finds Facebook important to build a community feel. “We find women mostly use Facebook and a lot of them come into my shop to buy for their husbands, boyfriends and sons. There’s no magic wand, but working hard, having quality product and being loyal to customers goes a long way.”


Feedback can help independents find out if they are stocking the right brands or generally satisfying their customer’s needs. Craig Sperzine, manager at premium menswear independent D. Copperfield in St Albans, chats to customers to get their thoughts on brand selection. “Many of our customers travel worldwide, so we welcome their suggestions about any new brands,” he says

Jo Davies asks her customers for feedback on designs to help grow the BWD own label collection. “For example, they’ve been asking for a good quality maxi dress and lounge pant. So we design pieces and send them to our best customers to try out for a couple of days to get their feedback.”

To take a more detailed look at the business, Paul Galvin carried out an in-depth customer survey a few years ago. We incentivised the shoppers to fill out the forms by offering the chance to win a free holiday for two. “It was amazing,” Galvin recalls. “If a brand was mentioned 20 times by different customers we definitely had to sit up and listen.”

Tammy Bell agrees surveys are a great way to gather qualitative feedback and gain insight into customer shopping habits. Formal surveys are, however, not for every business. “I feel they’re impersonal in a small business,” says Daisy Wheatley. “We talk to our customers all day, which helps us understand what they like or dislike. We then make notes to use when we do our buying.”

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