At first glance, you might wonder why four competing boutiques in the mid-size city of Rockford, Ill., are joining together for sales events, such as a fall “boutique crawl.” Why would one small business drive its customers into the arms of another shop?
But for these boutique owners, collaboration trumps competition, especially during times of economic downturn.
“Instead of feeling like competitors against each other, we said, ‘Let’s work together,’” says Kat Mitchell, co-owner with sister Debbie Aiello of Roxy Carmichael, a four-year-old women’s accessories store.
Mitchell and Aiello recently joined forces with Cindy Molosz, owner of a home decor shop, Interiors, to plan out joint promotions. The three invited several other boutique owners to take part in the first of what they hope to be many marketing events — a boutique crawl on the first day of fall, featuring prize drawings for those visiting every location.
“Some people are afraid of that competition thing,” says Mitchell. She hopes that once the success of the joint marketing campaign is apparent, other shops will join in.
Also, she points out, “We’re all different in our own way. We’re not trying to take each others’ customers; we want to share them.”
The other two boutiques that joined are home interior and gift shops, owned by women and primarily catering to female customers.
“So many women go shopping together. When we see a bunch of women like that, we always ask, ‘Where are you going next?’ and refer them to other boutiques in town,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell has found that often, her customers hadn’t heard about the other boutiques. One goal of the joint marketing campaign is to raise awareness of the existence of the small shops, which are scattered throughout the city. None are in high-traffic malls. They can’t rely on drive-by or walk-by customers, and have to depend on advertising, which can be expensive, especially when undertaken as a solo endeavor.
Both Molosz and Mitchell say the slow economy wasn’t the primary reason for their collaboration, though Molosz agrees local merchants have been “riding the retail roller coaster” the past several years. (Rockford has been hard-hit, with an unemployment rate of about 12 percent — 3 points above the national average — as of July 2011.)
Instead, they say, their chief goal is to improve visibility for their stores. “The biggest thing is to expose local shopping and what’s available without having to go out of town,” says Molosz.
Molosz practiced as an interior designer before opening her boutique and became comfortable with collaborating with fellow designers, with whom she shared studio space and ideas. The collaborative model is one she finds “so right.”
After all, she points out, any one merchant “can’t have everything. I’ve always been impressed if I’m at a store and they say ‘did you try such and such’ store.
“That’s confidence in their business. That’s helpful to a customer. That’s how I want to be.”