Boutique owners band together for their own Black Friday

Photo by Modern Toile Photography - The boutique Fibre Space in Alexandria, Va. draws knitting fanatics looking for discounted specialty yarns on Black Friday. .

Danielle Romanetti is a small business owner whose products are more sought-after on Black Friday than even the newest tech gadgets — among some shoppers, at least.

Romanetti owns Firbre Space, an Alexandria, Va. boutique that sells every kind of yarn imaginable for crocheters and knitters. And to the surprise of the area’s other boutique owners, in 2009 she did something rather unorthodox for a shop as small as hers: she held her own Black Friday event.

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“I’ve always been a Black Friday shopper, and when we opened the store three years ago, I was sad I wasn’t going to be able to do that anymore,” she said. “So I thought I would participate in it the way bigger stores do.”

She started planning a traditional Black Friday — the kind where a store opens at 6 a.m. and offers discounts to early customers. She tried selling the idea to other shop owners in Alexandria’s Old Town Boutique District.

“I couldn’t get a lot of the other retailers on board,” she said. “They didn’t want to get up at 6 a.m., and they said that day is traditionally a day folks spend at the big stores.”

Typically, they’d be correct. The National Retail Federation estimates that 52 percent of people shopped at department stores on Black Friday weekend in 2010, compared with 7.2 percent in craft or fabric stores. But Firbre Space has anything but a typical customer base.

“Knitting is a highly addictive activity, and I happen to feed the addiction,” Romanetti said. When she opened the store at 6 a.m. that year, there was a line of people waiting -- and knitting.

“Knitters are really excitable, and they enjoy comraderie and community,” she said.

That day, Romanetti made six times as much as she normally makes. She had 268 customers when an average day would bring about 45. The next year, the number of Old Town boutiques doing Black Friday grew to eight. This year, there will be at least 32.

“Small, independent retailers like us were not convinced that we could draw people in like the big box stores - that’s like David and Goliath,” said Kim Putens, owner of Old Town lingerie store Bloomers and co-founder of the Old Town Boutique District. “But sure enough, Danielle was right. By having more and more stores getting involved, it makes it a nice draw for people to come and have a one-stop shopping experience.”

Small businesses aren’t normally able to sell items at the same discounts that large retailers are because their profit margins are generally much slimmer.

“It’s really hard for small businesses to compete with the super bargains at the big-box stores,” said Leisa Reinecke Flynn, professor of marketing and fashion merchandising at the University of Southern Mississippi. “There’s no way businesses are going to be able to make money by selling lots of things at super-cheap prices. They have to come up with something else.”

In Old Town, the “something else” is a critical mass of specialty stores whose products almost never go on sale. Romanetti, for example, has hand-dyed yarns in limited quantities, which avid knitters want to be the first to snatch up.

Most stores at the Old Town Boutique District will offer initial discounts of up to 30 percent from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., 20 percent off until 10 a.m. and 10 percent off for the rest of the day. The stores merged their newsletter lists in order to draw a larger following for the event. Some, like Romanetti, will be stopping by a doughnut store to put out treats for early-bird shoppers.

The stores may lose out slightly on profits, Putens said, but the foot traffic and revenues more than make up for it. Other stores in the boutique district said they hope the early-morning discounts will turn customers on to their store’s offerings for the long-term.

“You always hope you get someone who comes in looking for a bargain and realizes it’s a wonderful place, so they will come back even when there’s not a sale,” said Trish Brown, co-owner of the children’s book store Hooray for Books.

Nationally, the big day for independent retailers is largely seen as Small Business Saturday - the American Express brain child that aims to draw customers to local shops for holiday gifts. But many small businesses across the country are also staging Black Friday events in an attempt to lure customers away from big-box retailers. Occupy protesters in several cities are also trying to re-direct people to small, locally owned stores rather than big chains.

Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman at the NRF, said that while smaller stores can’t necessarily offer deep discounts on flashy electronics, they do have a number of unique advantages that larger stores don’t, such as a lack of massive crowds, better customer service and an array of specialty goods.

But Romanetti said the boutique owners in Alexandria aren’t just offering a different type of Black Friday experience, they’re attracting a different kind of customer as well -- one that’s drawn to the historic charm of Old Town.

“The idea of being in Old Town and seeing the Christmas lights and being a part of the community is attractive to them,” Romanetti said. “Tjhe reason we’re successful is we attract two types of shoppers: half of them don’t do Black Friday at all, and the other half are standing in line for yarn instead of going to Best Buy.”

 
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