Retail done right

Successful startups are powered by ingenuity, not hacks. Here are six ideas to make your own.


Each year, the National Retail Federation publishes hundreds of articles, videos and resources on industry trends and issues. NRF Director of Online Content Jessica Hibbard shares some of the emerging themes behind her favorite retail stories, with a focus on inspiring ideas for small businesses and retail entrepreneurs.


Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Instead, build on what makes your business distinctive. If you’re a small company, don’t try to act like a big business — embrace that close connection to your customers and your community and use it to your advantage.

Dave’s Soda and Pet City is a small business in Massachusetts. The company has built amazingly strong loyalty among local customers, and Dave says his secret is to hire passionate employees and deliver a remarkable experience.

Johnny Cupcakes is also based in Massachusetts. Johnny Earle started the company out of the trunk of his car when he was just 19 years old. Since then, the brand has garnered a cult following. Our Retail Across America crew went behind the scenes to see how Johnny Cupcakes built its brand:

Retail Across America: Massachusetts


If you’re trying to build your own brand, partnerships are an excellent approach. There’s so much to be gained by joining forces with like-minded brands.

The best partnerships are the ones that feel authentic and natural. REI’s partnership with the National Park Service is a totally obvious fit — the parks are linked to the company’s history, and many of REI’s customers are already fans of visiting the parks and celebrating the outdoors. This shows REI’s strong environmental values and makes customers feel good about supporting a retail brand that shares their own priorities.

Partnerships are also a great way for all the brands involved to give customers an even better experience. If you stay at Virgin Hotels in Chicago, you can use the hotel’s smartphone app to select clothes from Gap to try on in your room. It’s a fun, convenient and luxurious experience when you’re on the road, especially if you’ve forgotten to pack something or are just too jet-lagged to visit a store. There’s no reason this couldn’t work on a smaller scale with local business partnerships.


We’re finding that the retailers that really stand out are the ones thinking beyond retail, beyond the basic store experience. What can you do to make customers think of your business when they’re not necessarily thinking about browsing or buying?

Creative Kidstuff, a local chain of toy stores in Minnesota, produces a TV show that’s geared toward moms and families. It’s a smart way for the company to show that it “gets” what life is like for its customers, and this helpful attitude reinforces the idea that shoppers will find friendly service and helpful staff when they visit a store.

When it comes to creating fun campaigns that really enhance a brand’s personality, Warby Parker is particularly inspiring. Their campaign from last summer is just one of many examples. In this case, they made road trip kits that included items you could download and purchase. Of course, if you’re planning a summer road trip, you’re probably going to want a new pair of sunglasses.

Part of Warby Parker’s summer 2015 road trip kit

I guess we’re still considering Warby Parker a “startup,” but they clearly have resources greater than most small businesses. Some of these ideas are cheap and easy to execute, though. You could easily make a Spotify playlist or a printable game like a BINGO card.


Shoppers are increasingly curious about where products come from and how they’re made. If you’re sourcing locally or selling products with unique stories, make sure customers know about it.

Everlane is shaking up retail with a “radically transparent” approach to every facet of their business. On product pages, they give detailed pricing breakdowns that clearly show how much money they make on each purchase.

Everlane’s factory in Los Angeles

They also share in-depth information, including gorgeous photographs, of their factories around the world. But transparency doesn’t end there. The brand uses social channels like Snapchat to directly connect with customers and answer questions about how they do business.

Transparency isn’t just an American obsession. Coop Italia is a large grocery chain in Europe that has implemented a wide array of touchscreens and other devices to display details about products, including sources and ingredients. In a small store, you can take a more lo-fi approach by printing signs or information cards for products with interesting back stories. If your website is mobile friendly, encourage customers to find more product details on their smartphones while shopping in your store.


Make sure your store is “camera-ready” and encourage customers to snap and share. Design visual experiences around the way people live — or want to live — their lives.

In this day and age, there is really no reason for a retailer to post signs that say “no photos allowed.” No one is going to follow that rule and you’ll end up alienating customers who love your brand and want to share on social media.

From the first weekend Curious Iguana was open — which was when these photos were taken — the store was a visual delight. Every corner and vignette is snap-worthy. Unlike many bookstores that discourage photography, this business trusts its customers enough to let them take photos in the store. The truth is, people take photos for many reasons, often to share with others or remember a product for a later gift. Sure, showrooming is always an issue for bricks-and-mortar retailers, but it’s often not the reason that people are taking photos.

There’s a really interesting retail business model popping up that’s entirely based on presenting an authentic visual experience. In Toronto, a company called 800 Sq Ft has set up shop in an apartment, where everything from the dishes in the cupboard and books on the shelves are for sale. The concept came about because the owner was trying to avoid a permitting issue, but other retailers have followed suit.

The Apartment by the Line

In New York and Los Angeles, The Apartment by the Line is reaping the benefits of viral visual marketing. These rooms are impeccably merchandised and an Instagrammer’s dream. As of early March, @thelinenyc had more than 72,000 followers on Instagram and there were more than 1,400 posts on #theapartmentbytheline hashtag.

If you’re not sure where to begin, consider monitoring the photos shared from your location. You’ll start to see how customers view your store and what appeals to people … the photos they share might surprise you.


When retailers are successful in one location, they often wonder how and when to make the jump to additional locations. We’re seeing retailers of all sizes experiment with pop-ups and other special events as a way to test new markets, increase awareness and build a larger customer base.

Just recently, we visited The Tie Bar’s pop-up in DC. This men’s accessories company is based in Chicago, but primarily operates online and is exploring options for stores in DC and New York City with some holiday season pop-ups.

At the Land of Nod, pop-up shops and other events are great opportunities to launch and spotlight collaborations. Rather than thinking of a pop-up as a temporary store that’s entirely focused on selling, Managing Director Michelle Kohanzo considers Land of Nod’s tour bus and other initiatives a way to build partnerships, goodwill and awareness. The strategy is working: The company sees a sustained lift of 10–15 percent in markets where pop-ups and events are located.

This story is adapted from an NRF presentation to small businesses at a Downtown Frederick (Md.) Partnership event on March 15, 2016. Find more retail trends, small business stories and industry research at


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The National Retail Federation is the world's largest retail trade association, representing all retail formats and channels of distribution.

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