Limited Selection: Small Town Weakness #3… & Possible Solutions

Limited selection is the third of seven common small town weaknesses identified by Becky McCray of Small Biz Survival. As promised in this post, following is a summary of Becky’s post on this area, as well as a few of my own suggestions as it pertains to Lewistown and the surrounding Central Montana area.

Weakness #3: Limited Selection

Solutions to Limited Selection: Offering modern or trendy items such as this Tickle Monster gift set helps satisfy the needs and wants of local shoppers.

Walking into a small town shop can sometimes feel a bit like stepping back in time. Depending on the store’s ability to change with the times, it’s not uncommon to find dated displays and decor, perhaps even dated or limited merchandise on the shelves. When this translates into a mismatch between what a customer wants and what a shop has to offer, the result is typically lost business as the would-be customer takes his or her business elsewhere.

It’s easy to shop locally when you find what you want, such as the adorable new Tickle Monster book set (above) found … and immediately purchased from … Country Junction in Lewistown.

Becky’s solution? Connect a shop’s retail selection to what customers really want. This involves “modernizing” the shop’s selection and paying extra attention to offering products to match the local market. She offers several suggestions to help a small business expand its product selection. These are summarized below, along with my thoughts as they pertain to Central Montana…

Improved Product Selection:

1) Involve the younger generation. This includes letting students and young people help pick out products and possibly assist with displays. As the parent of kids ranging from little to big, one of my biggest frustrations has been finding items locally to fill our needs, whether it be clothing and other essentials or gift items. Yes, we can usually find something that would work in a pinch (but not always), but oftentimes we simply are not willing to “settle” for what’s available locally when we can easily get a more highly desired item elsewhere. If getting input from the kids when making inventory selections would help, I’m all for it.

2) Consider short-term offerings. This includes time-limited special offers, seasonal or limited inventory items, or other similar temporary product offerings. This may be a way for local shops to add more trendy items to their inventory without sinking too much of their budget into an untested market. For it to be effective at generating local traffic, however, I would suspect that it would have to become an ongoing, repeated activity. Central Montana shoppers seeking the “latest and greatest” products are more likely to get in the habit of checking Lewistown area shops first if they more frequently experience success in actually finding those items. (Knowing inventory is limited would also help allay fears of having the same clothing, decor, etc. as everyone else in town.)

3) Make choices based on trends & customer requests. This goes along with #2 and requires that shopkeepers are in tune with their customers, both current and potential. Actively seeking feedback, perhaps even getting input prior to or during buying trips, could be helpful. Social media tools, such as Facebook pages, Twitter & Instagram feeds, or other avenues could help make this happen if the shop owner takes the time to develop an online relationship with those customers. For instance, the buyer could post photos from the trade show floor and ask for local input before making inventory decisions.

4) Explore supplier options. Suggestions include finding additional suppliers or partnering with other regional stores to avoid running out of stock. Along those lines, I’ve heard of local shops going together on bulk orders of various types, typically basic supplies or other non-inventory items, but I suspect there are competitive issues with the idea of doing something similar with inventory. Rather than relying on other local suppliers, the Internet may offer a way to help in this area … perhaps local shops could supplement their local, in-store inventory by also offering an online selection that is fulfilled by a drop-shipper or other outside supplier, preferably one that can provide fast and affordable shipping. This may be a tall order but it is one well worth fully exploring if the result is better local shopping.

Based on my experience trying to shop locally as often as possible, I’d like to offer a fifth suggestion…

5) Figure out what’s missing … and provide it. There are entire categories of items that are either entirely unavailable or offered with extremely limited selection in Central Montana. I’m sure local shop owners are aware of this, but it would be great to see someone really jump forward and work to fill these gaps. Just a few items that immediately come to mind: shoes for school-aged children (early grades); school concert attire for junior high and high school students (typically black slacks, white shirts); supplies for certain types of pets (guinea pigs, hamsters, fish); office supplies (address labels, organizers, printable business cards, etc. beyond the most basic items); Apple/Mac computer accessories. Also lacking in our area… indoor recreational activities for kids, a complaint I hear from fellow moms on an almost weekly basis.

Do you have additional suggestions for how to improve product selection in a small town? Would improvement in this area increase the likelihood that you’d support local shops? What would you like to purchase locally but simply cannot find at this time?


Prior Posts in this Series…

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