A twist on tradition saved two retailers from getting lost in the shuffle
by Sandy Ruben
“How can I help somebody today?”
Asking himself that question was the way Brice Elvington’s late father Leo began each day. Brice, the owner of The Toy Shop Florence in South Carolina, approaches life in a similar way. “I think, ‘What can I do today that helps another business or an individual in need,’ and ‘Is there a way I can give back to my community?’”
Small businesses, especially independent local retail stores, have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Many owners like Brice have discovered strength in numbers. They’ve been banding together during the past year to help their fellow businesses and communities stay afloat.
“One of the things about a crisis is that it brings out creativity and ingenuity and typically, collaboration and incredible generosity,” said Jennifer DaSilva, the founder and director of Start Small Think Big, a New York City-based small-business nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs in disadvantaged communities. “When people work together, they’re able to accomplish more, so I think this has changed everybody and brought many of us closer together,” she stated in an interview with Time last May. “People have to pivot; they have to think more creatively, they have to think more collaboratively. This is forcing people into that space where things that were nice to do before are now imperative.”
In November, when many independent businesses needed a win, Brice acted on a big idea he had, in honor of his father. First, he went out and purchased $3,000 in gift cards from 50 Florence-area retailers and restaurants. Then, at the end of each day from December 1 to December 23, he held a drawing in The Toy Shop. Any customer who made a purchase of any size there that day was eligible. The prize was gift cards, other stores’ gift cards.
The other businesses were amazed by Brice’s support, and many found a way to give back to him. Some did their entire holiday toy shopping at his store. Others donated free merchandise to him as raffle prizes, and still others gave him additional gift cards to distribute.
It was a huge leap of faith for Brice to invest in those cards. His store is 1,500 square feet in a town of 37,000. But thanks to record-breaking sales that more than covered the cost of the cards, plus the establishment of an incredible bond with his fellow local businesses, Brice feels that he’s recouped his investment.
Piccolo Mondo followed suit
Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, Michelle Smith of Piccolo Mondo Toys had heard what Brice was up to. A recent graduate of Bob Negen’s Whiz Bang Retail Training Workshop, Michelle had been looking for a unique holiday marketing strategy for her store, a project Negen had deemed “essential.” The seeds were planted.
Michelle identified seven local businesses she wanted to support: a restaurant, a coffee shop, a clothing store, a home store, a gift store, a shoe store and a women’s boutique. Anyone who spent $100 or more in Piccolo Mondo (excluding coupons or discounts) would receive a $20 gift card to whichever one of the seven stores they chose.
Customers loved it! All in all, Michelle distributed $4,000 in other stores’ gift cards.
The seven businesses were thrilled as well, and why wouldn’t they be? Michelle’s gift card purchases were a huge boost to their bottom lines, and most of the customers who got them were brand new to the stores. When they shopped, they often spent considerably more than their $20 card.
As an added bonus during the promotion, Michelle live-streamed visits to each of the seven stores on Facebook, and listed everything she loved about shopping there. Thanks to her strong following, all of the stores reported measurable traffic increases as a result.
Michelle was delighted to help, and delighted with the way the community rallied around her and her three retail locations. One restaurant presented a $20 gift card to each of Michelle’s employees, and another business made a donation to Kids In Need in Piccolo Mondo’s name. Best of all, her December 2020 sales exceeded her December 2019 sales, despite the pandemic.
Both Brice and Michelle are making plans to build on the success they had with their wild-card initiatives. They will continue them in some form, and they are looking at ways to take the project beyond just one month a year.
“Be as generous as you can,” recommends Brice. “It comes back to you in multiple ways. You can’t ever do more for a community than it is going to do for you.”
Like Brice, Michelle at Piccolo Mondo is full of good ideas. When COVID shut down her three Piccolo Mondo locations in April, Michelle and her staff created activity bags filled with engaging and educational items for families that needed “just a little jolt of happiness,” she said. According to KGW8 in Portland, Oregon, the project was driven by donations from the community. Area residents purchased activity bags for $20 each on the Piccolo Mondo website, and then the bags were distributed to Title 1 schools that were already providing food to families in need. The program brought in business the store needed to support its employees, it gave members of the community an easy way to help others, and it allowed kids to just be kids.