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Big Versus Little: How Small Gift Shops Survive in the Age of Walmart

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A few years ago, Naomi Klein wrote a great book entitled No Logo, in which she lambasted the ubiquity of branding by large corporations. Depicted as controversial and liberal, the book gained notoriety but accomplished little else. The world of commerce is still dominated by major brands and mega-corporations, places like Walmart, Home Depot, Costco, etc., which dominate the marketplace.

My personal preference is small, so-called boutique shops: they’re called ‘gift shops.’ They include pharmacies, hospitals, and churches, even airport shops. Over in San Francisco, they’re everywhere, lining the sidewalks along the Embarcadero. It’s like a farmers’ market of outdoor gift shops. There’s a shop near my favorite restaurant where I buy knick-knacks and candy. The owner/operator hails from the East Coast. And he does all right, selling a little bit of everything. He purchases his wholesale gift items from an outfit in Texas.

According to him, it’s a simple process. You fill out some forms to get your business and retail license, then you hook up with a supplier of wholesale gift items. Some suppliers offer specialized and therefore limited lines of products, while others have a vast array of gifts to choose from. Limiting the number of wholesalers you deal with saves time and money, and reduces the bookkeeping chores to a minimum. In other words, keep it simple.

The best suppliers of wholesale gift items are those that have a low-dollar minimum for orders. Many suppliers enforce large initial order amounts, which can be problematic for small boutique shops or a shop that’s just getting on its feet. Being able to order less and more often is a gift from heaven to a shop on a start-up budget.

Most suppliers in today’s high-tech world have an online ordering capability, along with the traditional printed catalog.

It’s surprising how well such boutique gift shops can do. Gift shops, like those in a hospital, usually average about 500 square feet of space. Those that are run efficiently do $500,000 to $1 million in business per year. Even on the low end, that’s more or less $1000 per square foot. If Walmart and Home Depot could pull off a similar feat, they’d rule the world.

There are thousands of hospitals in the U.S., and each one has a gift shop, a kind of teeny-weeny mini-mart, where visitors can purchase gifts for friends or family members who are hospitalized. Just a small gift can brighten someone’s day, simply because it says you care.

For the most part, I think it’s safe to assume that major corporations and big brands are focused solely on big profits, which explains why they usually have such lousy customer service. Anyway, when I finally decide to go into business for myself, I’m going to open a charming little gift shop – the next closest thing to being Santa Claus.

About Randall Radic