10 Ways to Improve Gift Shop Sales: 19 Gift Shop Owners Share Tips on Boosting Business

It’s not easy to be a gift shop owner in this economy. For many, sales are down while rents are up, and the competition from big-name chain stores is discouraging at best. What’s a mom-and-pop gift store to do?

As you probably already know, there’s no one simple answer. But there is help!  For this guide, we surveyed 19 successful gift shop owners to get their best tips on marketing and branding, and how they gain and maintain customer loyalty. Read on to learn how branding can improve your gift shop’s sales and make for a more enjoyable experience for you and your customers.


First, what is retail branding?

A brand is the idea or image consumers have when they think of a product or company. Often, branding is associated exclusively with imagery such as company logos, but when it comes to retail, it’s so much more. Your gift shop’s brand is everything that comes to mind for consumers when they think about your shop — think of it as your shop’s personality.


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Almost half of the gift shop owners we surveyed (42 percent) said branding was extremely important to their business, and almost all said it was at least somewhat important. The good news is, as a shop owner, you have a lot of control over how customers view your shop’s personality. That helps consumers know what to expect when they shop with you, and ensures that they’ll think of you when looking for a specific type of gift or retail experience. Think of Tiffany’s: Is there anyone in America who doesn’t know their distinctive ribbon-wrapped blue boxes? Create a unique, definable retail experience for your customers, and they’ll remember you and return to your shop.

Branding is especially important given how much choice consumers have about where to shop. The great reaches of the Internet aside, 79 percent of the retail gift shop owners we spoke with said they have direct competition locally. Properly branding your gift shop is what will make you stand out from the competition and thrive in a time when many retail shops are in trouble.

Here are the top tips mentioned over and over by our gift shop owners:


1) Offer great customer service

Gift shop owners mentioned the importance of their customer service over twice as often as any other measure of success. Great customer service means employing a friendly, helpful and knowledgeable team who will learn your regular customers by name and face, and make them feel welcomed and appreciated. Encourage your employees to follow up with customers on comments they made last time they were in your shop — for example, saying to a customer, “How did your nephew’s birthday party go? Did he like the puzzle you got him?”


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The only problem? Hiring a good team is easier said than done. Finding employees who will represent your company well is one of the biggest challenges for gift shop owners. Here are a few ways to make your job easier:

- Hire employees who care about the company. The best salespeople are those who really believe in your product, not those with fancy training or skills. If one of your regular customers applies for a job, you can bet that he or she is already invested in your business’s success.

- Pay as much as you can afford to. Quality employees are few and far between, so you’d better believe you have some competition for them. When you pay a living wage, you attract higher-quality employees to the position.

- Call references. Many employers write off references as a waste of time, choosing instead to scour employees’ resumes. But just because someone worked for a company you respect doesn’t mean he or she did good work for them. The most telling info you have about someone’s future performance in your store is by their past performance for others.

- Search far and wide. Don’t just accept the first person to show up with an application. Put up a “help wanted” sign, put up notices on online job boards and have current employees tell their friends that you’re hiring.

- Know your requirements in advance. Have a (realistic) list of what you need in an employee, and don’t stray from it.


2) Location, location, location

It’s not just for real estate anymore! Not having a good enough location is the No. 1 reason gift shop owners mention as holding them back from greater sales. Although this isn’t something that’s easy to change once you’re set up and have a lease, it’s important to think about when planning for the future.

A good location can increase walk-in traffic, and a difficult-to-reach location can drastically reduce your business. People are busy, and as much as they may love your shop, most will do what’s easy. If you’re considering relocating or opening a second location, choose a spot near other shops where people like to browse. You may be nearby your competition, and you might end up paying more in rent, but you’ll still have greater odds of success and increase your brand recognition.

Similarly, choose a location with lots of parking spots nearby. Make it as easy as possible for your customers to get to you. Some retail shops choose to share a parking lot with a neighboring business to cut down on costs. Monitor how many parking spots tend to be used by your customers at any one time, and use that information as a guide for how many spots you need.


3) Unique products in your specific niche

Customers will return to your store over and over again if they know they can get what they won’t find elsewhere. Develop a niche for your products. If your store is the only one in town that sells exclusively locally made soaps and lotions, for example, then customers will begin to think of you when they’re looking for a skin care product with local flair for an out-of-town friend or relative.


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It’s easy to think that if you can make money selling niche products, you could make more money selling a wider variety of products, but this is often not the case. Taking our example of the locally made soaps and lotions, a shop owner might consider selling soaps and lotions generally, and having one section of the shop dedicated to locally made products. However, soaps and lotions are not difficult to find, so your shop would no longer stand out if you broadened the selection in this way.

Similarly, make sure that the products you do carry really do stand out. If all of your lotions and soaps come in the typical variety of scents, colors and ingredients, your shop won’t be as memorable as if you carry, for instance, locally sourced jasmine soap that contains real jasmine flowers suspended in the soap.


4) Variety of products and sizes

While having a niche is important, being too narrow in what you sell is a detriment to your sales. If you sell women’s dresses for formal occasions, for instance — a niche that will attract customers with specific needs — you wouldn’t want to sell only a single style of dress. If possible, provide a choice of color or pattern, and make sure you carry a variety of sizes to suit your customer base. Keep track of which colors, styles and sizes sell well, as well as when customers request a size or color you don’t stock — if you get multiple requests for a larger size, for instance, it might be worth stocking that size in the future.


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If a customer comes in for one product, offer them other products they might also be interested in. Women searching for dresses for formal occasions might appreciate you selling matching shoes or purses, for example. A gift shop that sells gourmet treats may benefit from also offering fancy tea sets. A jewelry store might choose to also sell other types of accessories, such as belts.


5) Make the most of limited cash

Many of the gift shop owners we spoke with said cash flow was one of the biggest problems in their business. Start-up expenses for brick-and-mortar stores are pretty substantial, so it’s important to make the most of what limited cash you do have.

The best way to do this is by taking advance of free and cheap marketing opportunities rather than paying large amounts of money for advertising in local newspapers and magazines. Set up social media accounts to keep your shop top-of-mind for your customers and let them know about sales and events. Give away free samples (if appropriate to your shop) outside the store to lure in passersby. Market primarily to your existing customers rather than trying to gain new customers.

If you’re like most retailers, much of the cash coming into your business goes to payroll. Although we mentioned earlier that paying a living wage is important for attracting good employees, it’s a waste of money to have three employees in the store if they’re just standing around and two would get the job done just as well.


6) Competitive pricing

You may not be able to price as low as some of the major retailers, but if you’re overshooting by too much, customers will quickly learn that they’d be better off going elsewhere.

Pricing is tricky business, as you don’t want to undersell yourself and lose money, but you also don’t want to overprice and lose customers. Many experts recommend that retailers should not have sales as often as they do — or at least that they should not mark down products by as large a margin. When you have too good of sales, customers come to expect the lower price, and don’t want to pay full price for the same product.

Consider instead offering discounts for purchasing multiple items. “Buy three, get one free” deals (or similar) mean that customers still walk away feeling like they scored a great deal, but you sell a larger overall number of items.


7) Throw in extras for free

Many gift shop owners in our survey recommended that customer loyalty comes from giving your customers more than they expect. Everyone loves freebies, so if you can give something away that isn’t costing you too much, you’ll earn a customer for life. Some of the examples mentioned include:


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- Free gift wrap: For last-minute shoppers looking for gifts, free gift wrap is a big plus. It saves them time and often money, if they don’t already have wrapping paper or tissue paper, and the convenience of getting a gift wrapped often means the difference between making a purchase at one store or another similar store.

- Free shipping: Like free gift wrap, free shipping is an extra that can make the difference of which store customers buy from. If you don’t have a product in stock or a customer on vacation is considering buying a product to ship home, free shipping can tip the scale toward making the purchase.

- Discounts to repeat customers: Everyone likes to be appreciated, and repeat customers are the lifeblood of most retail businesses. Show your loyal customers you appreciate them by giving them discounts every once in a while or throwing in a little treat for free — something they wouldn’t get from a large chain store.


8) Listen to and respond to customer needs

Are your customers repeatedly asking if you have a product you don’t stock? Maybe it’s time to start stocking it. Customer feedback is often your best source of information when you’re looking to increase sales.


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Similarly, take customer complaints as an opportunity to improve. Likely, if one person is complaining, others have thought the same thing but not wanted to bring it up. If you think of customer complaints not as personal attacks but as useful information to improve your customers’ experience, it won’t be so difficult to hear negative feedback.

Another good reason to listen to negative feedback is that studies show that customers who have a negative experience in your shop will tell many more people about the experience than customers who have a positive experience. No one likes to feel slighted or disrespected, so it’s important to make unhappy customers happy before they leave your door.


9) Go online

Many retail gift shops feel they’re losing out to the online market. But you know what they say — if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Create your own online shop and you’ll retain customers you already have who might sometimes prefer to shop in the privacy of their own home. Going online allows you to stay open 24 hours a day without hiring a staff around the clock, and reduces the overhead of rent, a huge expense for most shop owners. Better yet, you may gain new loyal customers who discover your shop online and then seek out the brick-and-mortar location.

Many shop owners shy away from online shops because they’re not very tech-savvy. If this is you, consider hiring someone to create your online shop — you don’t have to do everything yourself! This investment may well pay off more quickly than you expect. Alternately, many shop owners partner with established online shops, such as Amazon.com, to make an easy-to-create (on your end), easy-to-use (on your customers’ end) shop for your goods.


10) Quality products

Lastly, a key to success as a gift shop owner is to sell quality products. You might sell someone a cheap product at a great markup once, but they won’t return or spread the word to their friends about how great your shop is. If you really want to brand yourself as the premier gift shop in your area, a focus on quality will get you far.

Branding isn’t easy: It takes time to establish a reputation as the best local gift shop in your particular niche. But keeping an eye on how your customers perceive you can make or break your gift shop and alert you to potential issues before they become full-blown problems. Take these gift shop owners’ advice and take steps to properly brand your gift shop today, and you’ll reap the benefits tomorrow.