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The Gifted Retailer: The Whistling Elk

Barbara Collins, owner of The Whistling Elk in Chester, NJ, offers this advice to retailers: Never quit. Smile. Look for opportunities.The Whistling Elk

Gifts and Decorative Accessories: What do you like best about being a retailer?
Barbara Collins: I opened my retail shop 22 years ago and it has always been a love affair for me. It's the best creative outlet ever. I love the whole process of planning, buying and then merchandising the shop into beautiful vignettes. Recently I opened a new concept shop within The Whistling Elk called "Little Paris" and it is very satisfying to hear customers exclaim in delight when they enter the Paris Boudoir. It is also very enjoyable interacting with customers and helping them to achieve their home design goals. There are many challenges to running a retail business, but I find all of them interesting: from using QuickBooks to keep the books, crunching numbers and planning open-to-buys, to putting together attractive advertisements for the shop to blogging to merchandising. It's all fun and I am never bored!

GDA: What was the most valuable piece of business advice that you ever received?
The Whistling ElkBC: I cannot think of a specific piece of advice that was valuable to me. I have been very lucky in my life to have worked with many people who influenced me, took interest in my career and gave me opportunities. My last position before opening The Whistling Elk was as a vice president in a Fortune 500 company and both there, as well as in previous positions, I was exposed to and was able to learn from many talented people and situations. Every interaction I had whether pleasant or painful was useful. If I had to offer a piece of valuable business advice it would be to work hard, be honest with people and follow your heart.

GDA: What is/was your most successful promotion?
BC: Every year on the first Thursday of December we hold The Whistling Elk Charity Evening. It is a benefit for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It's so much fun and our customers love it. We give away a lot and customers come and do their holiday shopping. We serve delicious refreshments, decorate the shop and even roll out a red carpet at the front door. It feels good to give to charity and show appreciation to customers. It's a party!

GDA: What three products/lines are your best sellers?The Whistling Elk
BC: A best seller for us is Lampe Berger. We all own one and we love this product. We keep one going in the shop and every customer who walks in comments on the fabulous scent in the air. We demonstrate it to everyone and it sells. For 22 years Kennebunk Home throws have been a staple here. We stock certain styles in every color available and showcase them right at the front door. Home accessories and furniture are very important to us and sell a variety of goods from various companies like Schnadig International, Habersham, Uttermost, and Creative Co-op. At Christmastime Mark Roberts Fairies are very popular and we stock them in quantity! We laugh because we know them all by name and have our favorites!

GDA: What are you doing to attract new customers?
BC: Attracting new customers is something you have to work on constantly. We advertise in print to the local area on a routine basis and since we are in a destination shopping town we reach out with advertising to areas further afield. I started blogging last year and have used this to reach new people along with Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. We give a lot of gift certificates out to local charity events hoping to draw in new customers. Relationships are everything and we work toward satisfying each customer so that they refer us to others.

The Whistling ElkGDA: What was your most effective display?
BC: Every display in the shop is designed to delight the eye and we cross merchandise everything. Lately I have been buying inexpensive but clever little books and placing them around the shop and have noticed an increase in men actually picking these up in the shop to look at them. In my mind every minute you can keep a customer in the shop the better chance you have of selling to them, and it is always good to keep men happily occupied while their wives are shopping! We have also installed garden benches outside the shop in the courtyard for husbands.

GDA: How do you find your best employees?
BC: I have been blessed to attract long term employees. When I decide I need someone I look at my customer base. It's a very good place to find employees who will be happy in the shop. Happiness promotes sales.

GDA: What was your biggest retail problem and how did you solve it?
BC: I think my biggest problem has been dealing with the length of this economic downturn. Back in 2008 I first went line by line and cut every expense possible and was very careful with spending on merchandise. I fine tuned who I was buying from, consolidated the vendors and concentrated my business - then worked on selling. I figured maybe two, three years and that the economy would be on the up and up. Whoever would have guessed that it would continue for four years and still no sign of turnaround. So during these past years it has been a constant battle of revisiting expenses, tightening up and working very hard to survive. I think I am still in business because I reacted quickly in the beginning and because I constantly fine tune my merchandise mix to insure that I have what my customer is looking for.

GDA: How is the current economy affecting your business?The Whistling Elk
BC: In the 22 years I have been in business I have never encountered an economy like this one. It has changed everything from the way I buy to the way I sell. For example the shop is so different from big box stores that ordinarily I wouldn't worry about them, but now I have to be very conscious of their ability to sell similar product at very low prices. Customers are extremely careful with spending so we are discounting goods to maintain the business which obviously affects margins adversely. We have added new price categories so that if a customer wants to take home a very small piece of The Whistliing Elk they can. The name of the game is to find good quality, price it as competitively as possible and then sell, sell, sell to maintain the business while looking toward better days. Maintaining cash flow to keep merchandise stocked is key right now. It's a tough world!

GDA: What advice would you give to a struggling retailer?
BC: My advice to a struggling retailer? Same thing I tell myself every day....Never Quit. Smile. Look for Opportunites.

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