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  • Associated Press Peter Manning, left, is a designer, and Jeff Hansen is CEO of Peter Manning, which doesn't off big holiday discounts. “Once (customers) understand our philosophy, they seem to be good with it,” Hansen said.

  • Lambert

Sunday, December 03, 2017 1:00 am

Small stores reject big discounts

Markdowns seen as ineffective, pointless and risky to cachet

JOYCE M. ROSENBERG | Associated Press


Some smaller retailers don't worry about doorbuster-type discounts because they focus more on customer service, two local business owners say.

“In today's world, where you can buy practically anything sitting at your desk, it's up to the retailer to give the customer a reason for coming into the store,” said Chris Lambert, owner of Christopher James Menswear in Fort Wayne.

When it comes to customer service, he said, smaller retailers might offer free shipping or have employees who can meet with customers after hours or in their homes or offices as a convenience.

Vendors won't typically subsidize smaller stores to cover the cost of deep discounts, Lambert said, but that doesn't mean shoppers can't cash in on sales. Last week, for example, his store was offering 20 percent off suits, tuxedos or sports coats with a pant combination.

Buffy Sauerland, co-owner of The Hanger Boutique in downtown Fort Wayne, said her store, which carries women's apparel and accessories, also offers sales. Sauerland, owns the boutique, which is inside The House of Furniture, with her sister, Karen Timmons.

One advantage with smaller stores, Sauerland said, is the service is more personalized. Plus, boutiques offer more unique items.

“You order limited quantities so that the same item isn't out there for everybody,” she said. 

NEW YORK – When Mark Aselstine started online wine retailer Uncorked Ventures, he thought he should offer discounts – so he gave 30 percent off to people buying wine baskets or subscriptions for monthly deliveries. But as he analyzed the sales, he didn't sense that the deal helped – and suspected that people who wanted top-of-the-line wine were actually turned off by it.

“People who were paying $50 or $70 per bottle of wine weren't looking for a discount,” says Aselstine, whose business is based in Berkeley, California.

Many small and independent retailers find that big markdowns don't motivate people to shop at their stores or websites. Or, they can't afford to use them – unlike national chains, they don't have the high volume of sales allowing them to slash prices without hurting earnings.

Retailers who want their stores to have a certain cachet also believe slashing prices may lessen their appeal. And some store owners don't want to play cat-and-mouse with customers, continually lowering prices until shoppers finally buy. Those who do give holiday markdowns often make them modest, or limit them to big days like Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday.

Last year, Aselstine decided to experiment, ending all discounts except for 10 percent off during the Thanksgiving weekend. His revenue rose 20 percent from a year earlier, consistent with the previous year's sales increases. His more-expensive wine sold better than when it was discounted. This year, he's not offering markdowns; even without a Thanksgiving discount, sales were good.

Lea Thompson learned the hard way that being a small retailer and offering big discounts don't mix. Wanting to be in line with other retailers during the 2016 holiday season, she gave customers of her online women's fitness store 15 percent off plus free shipping.

“After many customers took advantage of that, including a few with insanely large orders, we realized such deals actually cut into our profits significantly rather than helped them,” says Thompson, owner of Fit Fly Fab, based in Dyer, Indiana.

This year, she did offer Cyber Monday deals, but they ended at midnight.

Profits aside, it can be risky for some small retailers to offer big discounts, says Elaine Kwon, an online retail consultant based in Seattle.

“The customer is debating between a brand they love that's full price and a brand giving them the discount,” Kwon says. Shoppers may forgo the discounts if they believe they're getting a good value, even at full price, she says.

Peter Manning, a clothing retailer for men 5 feet, 8 inches tall or under, tries to convey to shoppers that it offers quality at a fair price.

“We are clear in our approach, that we're not a traditional retailer offering big discounts. Once they understand our philosophy, they seem to be good with it,” CEO Jeff Hansen says.

The New York retailer, which does 90 percent of its business online, does offer first-time buyers a 20 percent discount year-round, and established customers get the same break each Thanksgiving weekend.

But the rest of the holiday season and year, the only markdowns are at the end of a season when it's time to move out old merchandise.

Peter Manning's revenue has more than doubled each of the five years it has been in business, says Hansen, who believes markdowns have become something of a game in retailing.

“No business can survive selling stuff at 70 percent off; so they're obviously marking things up, only to be able to discount aggressively later,” he says.