Black Friday sales pay off in the long term for smaller retail businesses

Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year for many retailers across the nation, but for smaller boutiques and independent shops, that’s not always the case.

“Last year was the first year we tried to pull people into our business for Black Friday and I can’t say it was successful,” says Donnie Austin, owner and manager of House Wine in Worthington. “With a limited marketing budget, it’s hard to get real numbers for a one-time event. We’re competing against big box stores, so we’re just poking at a customer segment that we might not normally get anyway.”

What The Rock?!

Other local retailers have seen similar struggles that eventually turn fruitful. What the Rock?!, a boutique in The Short North, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary but has only offered Black Friday promotions since 2008. Their first year was met with limited success, but the significance of Black Friday has grown for their business in consecutive years.

“Since the inception of our Black Friday sale, we have seen an overall increase of 700% for our same day sales,” says Mike Renner, co-owner of What the Rock?! “Our biggest leaps were in the first couple of years, but 2010 still had a 26 percent increase over 2009.”

Kareem Jackson, co-owner of milk bar, a clothing boutique located in The Short North, says Black Friday sales have been unpredictable for his business, describing them as “hit or miss”. He cites ongoing changes in national trends as one reason that customer shopping behavior can be somewhat unpredictable.

“National retailers have started running their sales prior to Black Friday because of the lack of traffic earlier in the week,” Jackson says. “Which means that customers are trying to hold out on spending until Friday morning.”


Just a few doors down from milk bar, Tigertree, a clothing and lifestyle boutique, sees the landscape improving for small businesses during this shopping-centric day. Owner Josh Quinn has witnessed the growing momentum in smaller shopping neighborhoods and states that his retail sales have improved with each year.

“When we first opened, no one was really doing door busters or extended hours,” says Quinn. “But with a few extra neighboring stores coming on board each year, Black Friday has gained traction.”

“I always ask what other shops in the area are doing because I want to make sure that my hours are mirroring theirs,”┬áhe adds. “I don’t want to let potential retail traffic leave the neighborhood just because there weren’t enough open doors to satisfy those customers.”

Austin sees a big challenge in competing with larger chain retailers, beyond the direct competitors who sell similar types of products. His wine shop opened early for Black Friday in 2010, but saw no customer traffic for the first few hours.

“Many people who shop Black Friday will hit Target, Walmart and Best Buy at 6 a.m. and then call it a day,” he explains. “We now know that we need to focus on customers who are interested in products and services that the big boxes can’t provide.”

Tigertree’s Quinn points out the fact that smaller independent stores aren’t able to compete with the same sales model as the larger chains. Many of the biggest retailers can provide deeper discounts because they are selling products in larger numbers.

“We generally order in such low quantities of a particular item that a strategy like that isn’t feasible,” Quinn says. “At the same time, our customers are shopping with us because what we sell is only available in lower quantities and they know they are getting something special.”

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Renner echoes this sentiment.

“Honestly, I don’t see chain stores as competition for What the Rock?!,” he says. “I see our store as a valid alternative to the mall and to big box shopping. There are plenty of people who want to participate in holiday shopping and also want to spend their money locally.”

One thing that holds true across both large and small retailers is the type of peculiar customer behavior that occurs during Black Friday sales events. Every year there are national news reports on what sometimes turns out to be violent or thoughtless behavior, but generally the small local retailers see a calmer demeanor present in their most dedicated shoppers.

“Last year’s Black Friday sale started at midnight and the entire store was 50 percent off for an hour,” Jackson says. “I was out of town, but my business partner texted me a photo of the line of people standing in the rain waiting to get in. The line for the dressing room ran all the way to the front of the store.”

What the Rock?! saw similar crowds, even during its slower early years.

“In 2008, the first year we opened early for Black Friday, I completely underestimated our fans,” Renner says. “I arrived late for our 8 a.m. scheduled opening and to my surprise, we already had five customers waiting for us to open.”

House Wine

As for 2011, all retailers remain optimistic for another solid year of sales. Renner hopes to see another 20 percent increase in same day sales over 2010, while Jackson is testing a new format where the sale discount decreases with the passing of every 20 minutes until their hour-long midnight door buster sale concludes.

“I plan on getting a couple more hours of sleep this year and will be focusing instead on our customer base that wants wine for their upcoming holiday parties,” Austin says.

Additionally, House Wine will be turning its attention to the following day, which has become known as Small Business Saturday. This new national campaign is only in its second year, but provides a new opportunity for smaller retailers to stand out separately from the big box stores, rather than forcing them to compete on Black Friday.

Austin will be participating in the event on Saturday with extended business hours and a charitable cause for customers willing to splurge on a glass of wine while doing their shopping.

Of course, a glass of wine might not be a hard sell to shoppers looking to recover on the day after the madness that is typical of Black Friday.