How Small Retailers Can Compete with Big Box Stores

How Small Retailers Can Compete with Big Box Stores

By Lea Hensel, UNI Business and Community Services

Holiday season is here. There is no denying the holiday music in the store or the twinkling, sparkling decorations beginning to take over. And in just a few short weeks, Black Friday will be upon us. But, following Black Friday and gaining steam each year, is Small Business Saturday.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that, “small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy.” But in order to be that lifeblood, you have an entirely different set of struggles and challenges you face in order to compete with the big box stores, especially at this time of year when they’re shelling out millions in advertising and promotions. So we’ve put together some ways you can capitalize on being a small retailer to get an edge on the big box stores this holiday season.


Where you can really differentiate yourself and gain customers that will continue to come back is through creating an experience and keeping it personal. One of the biggest complaints the big retailers get is with service. You wander around trying to find what you’re looking for and if you need help, you need to search for it. And even when you find an associate, they may not be able to tell you where a product is located or if they even have it in stock. But you can do all of that, quickly and easily. And as an added bonus, you know your products inside and out so if there’s a great story behind it or if it’s local, you can share that information.

Take-Away Idea: Provide each customer that walks through the door with an experience. Greet them and have conversations. Have they been there before? What are they looking for? Can you recommend products or other items they may not have even realized you carried?

Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram. Social media networks can be your best friend to set yourself apart. Pick a network where you know your customers are going to be and be sure to be visual. These days, it isn’t enough to just post a sentence or two about what’s going on, you need pictures. But that’s the beauty of being a small retailer, you have tons of opportunities from your product, your storefront, the local area, etc. Being local gives you an advantage over the big box stores in that you can directly talk to your customers about what’s going on in the community. Is the tree outside your store losing its leaves? Snap a picture to post and ask if everyone is ready for the seasons to change again!

Take-Away Idea: Host a social media contest. Pick whichever network you have the most interaction and develop a customer-focused contest. If you choose Instagram, develop a hashtag phrase and ask everyone to to snap a picture of their purchases and randomly select a user every week to receive a coupon or discount. The next option works especially well for bakeries, cupcakeries, or other foods – allow customers to suggest names for item. The winner receives that item. Who wouldn’t love to name a holiday pie?!


One of your biggest advantages is that you know the local community and you don’t have to get corporate approval to make decisions. This makes a world of difference when it comes to marketing. Not only can you make decisions on the fly, but you can customize and cater your outreach in a way the big box stores simply cannot do. Keep up with what’s going on in the community and capitalize on events and news when it happens.

Take-Away Idea: Highly customize your marketing efforts for your community. Do you create and sell any t-shirts? If there are particular phrases or jokes for your community, make a t-shirt for it!

Managing Merchandise

Managing merchandise comes in two forms. First, the merchandise you have in your shop and second, the inventory you have in the back.

When it comes to the merchandise on the shop floor, be sure to keep things fresh. Chalk this up to another advantage over the big box stores. You get to decide where product goes and how it is displayed. If you know a display isn’t working the way it’s set up or needs to be put somewhere else in the store, do it. Test out placements to see what works best for your customers.

As for your inventory, be sure to rotate it out on a regular basis. Keeping things fresh will give customers a reason to visit often to see what’s new.

Take-Away Idea: Rotate products and don’t be afraid to rearrange and move displays throughout your store.

Capitalize on Small Business Saturday

Big box stores may have a lock on Black Friday but you have Small Business Saturday. Take advantage of all the free custom downloadable marketing materials available, create a promotion surrounded by shopping local and get involved with your chamber or other local businesses.

Take-Away Idea: Work with other local businesses and have a scavenger hunt. The Small Business Saturday Event Inspiration has a bunch of resources for this including maps, signage and social media posts.

At the end of the day, you know your business better than anyone and you have many advantages over the big box stores. Take advantage of those and put yourself out there to not only gain more customers, but more loyal customers that will come back time and time again.

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