Smaller retailers aiming for sentiment

NEW YORK (AP) — Some smaller retailers will tug at shoppers’ heartstrings during the holidays, trying to create an emotional experience or connection that a big national chain might not provide.

Store owners are going well beyond the usual holiday decorations and music. Among their plans: Parties where the focus is fundraising rather than profits, events with other stores to encourage shoppers to visit them all, and personal services like merchandise deliveries. The retailers are betting that their efforts — which for some are a year-round strategy — will keep customers shopping long after the holiday season.

John Dudas, who co-owns Carol & John’s Comic Book Shop in Cleveland, participated Saturday in Local Comic Shop Day, which he calls the comic book industry’s equivalent of Black Friday. People lined up outside the store for limited-edition comics, and had a great time while they waited.

“They get to hang out with like-minded people,” says Dudas, who estimates he made one-and-a-half times the sales he would see on a good Saturday.

Creating experiences and an emotional connection will help customers feel like they’re getting more value from a retailer — and that they’re being valued and appreciated in return, says Syama Meagher, CEO of the Los Angeles-based consulting firm Scaling Retail. Small and independent retailers have a greater ability to create a bond with shoppers than larger competitors, she says.

Meagher’s advice for store owners: “Don’t think about your customer as someone who’s going to buy something.”

Dudas has more events planned, including a sale starting on Black Friday during which he expects to sell 80,000 comic books at $1 each. And on Dec. 16, he’ll hold a party with artists drawing pictures of comic book fans. But Dudas won’t look for a profit that day — he’ll be raising funds for a local charity, something he does periodically. In September, the store had a fundraiser in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America. These events help Dudas to expand his customer base.

“Put yourself into the community more and the money will come back to you,” he says.

Independent retailers in Portland, Oregon, take part in Little Boxes, an annual alternative to shopping at big-box national chains that offer big discounts during the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Started in 2011, Little Boxes gives shoppers the chance to win raffle prizes according to how many purchases they make at participating stores. In its first year, there were 90 stores; this year there will be about 250.

Debbe Hamada, whose gift shop Tilde is participating, sees shoppers making an expedition out of going to Little Box stores, using an app to help them find as many as possible. Many people want to support local retailers — the event overlaps with Small Business Saturday — and aim to visit as many as 10 or 20 in a day, she says.