Small Town Retail: You CAN Thrive

Lori holding her award and the words 'Thriving in small town retail'

Yes, it’s possible to thrive in small town retail! Watch or read my chat with Lori Holt from Quilter’s Corner – a thriving small town retail shop!

Lori is a RETAILMavens client who uses the 4 steps of the Sales Breakthrough System to build her sales, profit and supportive team. Watch this free training to start implementing the Sales Breakthrough System in your store!

Cathy:
I can’t wait to introduce you to Lori Holt, tell us a bit about your store! 

Lori:
My shop is called Quilter’s Corner and we’re in a little tiny town in central South Dakota – Population 700! Our closest stoplight is 60 miles away. 60 miles to a Walmart, to fast food. So that tells you, we are in the boonies!

We love what we do! We have a sewing machine dealership and service, we host retreats and have two long arm machines where we do custom quilting for other quilters. We also hold classes and try to be an inspiration center for people that love to work with fabric. 


Cathy:

But you didn’t start out quite that way. Did you? 


Lori:

Oh no. We started out in a tiny little 300 square foot shop, if you can call that a shop! It was one little room with three walls of shelves with bolts of fabric on them.

We’ve moved three times, each time to a little bit larger location and now we’re in our fourth and final location. We bought the building, we’re in 5,000 square feet now and we’ve got it full of fabric and sewing machines! 


Cathy:

That’s so exciting. I’m so grateful that you’re here because we are asked so often about how to survive and thrive in retail when you’re in a small town. And I don’t think you could get in a much smaller town than yours! 

Lori:
No, we’re a tiny town. We started out initially doing quite a bit of vending where we would take the show on the road to show people what we had to offer. And we’d include bounce back gift certificates for them.

Since then, social media has just been huge for us, with our Facebook lives and an online web store, that’s just really been a godsend for us. The pandemic was not a bad thing for us. We actually grew our business in the pandemic. 

Cathy:
Right, it really forced you to finetune your eCommerce, right? 


Lori:

Yes, we had always said, oh, someday we need to do the online thing. And we just hadn’t pursued it. And this forced our hand to do that. And it just started a whole new stream of business for us. 


Cathy:

So obviously it’s possible to grow a thriving retail store in a small community – You’ve been able to do it! Did it happen overnight? That’s my question.

Lori:
No, it didn’t happen overnight. My goal was to be a destination shop and I knew it would take time to do that. And I feel like you just have to stand out from the crowd with your customer service. It has to be exemplary to build those relationships.

During our quilting retreats we have women come from neighboring states to attend and we open it to 50 women at a time.

We develop those relationships and therefore they want to come back and shop with us.

Cathy:
So what are some of the specific things that you do that you feel has created this customer loyalty? 


Lori:

Building friendships with the customers we provide the service to. When they come in, they might be stumped with a project and we’ll sit down with them and help them plan out the entire project, select the bolts of fabric and give them our input.

We might have them come and sit and sew in our shop where we can guide them through the project as well. It all helps to develop that relationship. They’re friends now. 

Cathy:
I bet! And how did you get into selling machines? Because honestly, that would make me nervous taking on the risk of such a high ticket item. What made you decide to pull that trigger? 


Lori:

It was scary in the beginning, but we just thought it would be an opportunity. We weren’t filling that need with our customers. And we had a brand of sewing machine that we were all sewing on, that we loved. So we thought, we love these, why can’t we sell them?

First we started as a sub dealer for another quilt shop about 90 miles away. And then eventually we got our own dealership with the company. So it’s been a good thing. We have a service tech here. We sent him to New Jersey for training so we have the full service end of things for people. 


Cathy:

So do people travel from all over then to come purchase their machine from you? 


Lori:

Yes, we’re really fortunate, our basic radius is about 150 miles, but we have women that jump in cars and come from North Dakota and Minnesota and Montana. So we’re really blessed. We have women that actually call up and want to know the name of a motel here so they can come and stay for the night and then come and spend the day shopping.

Cathy:

Oh my gosh, that’s so exciting. I really wanted to talk about the machines because of how I love your mentality about how it all came from providing service.

Most retailers listening will be thinking “Oh, I provide good service, I do that well” but what I love about that sewing machine example is that you took on the risk because you knew there was a way you could provide better service.

And it is such a high ticket price point, but to you, it came from wanting to offer better service to your customers. And really, you also look at retreats the same way because your retreats aren’t inexpensive either, right?

Lori:

Well we want to make our customers feel special when they come here, it’s more like a boutique experience for them.

And with the machines, I sold one yesterday, a mid-range $3,500 sewing machine. And I told the gal, if for any reason you’re unhappy with this, I’ll stand behind this machine. I’ve been able to say that for quite a few years now because I’ve never had an issue. And if for some reason she wasn’t happy, I would stand behind it because if I don’t honor my word I’m out of business, as far as I’m concerned, I want to stand behind my products that I sell. 

Cathy:
So they really feel like they can trust you to support them. And what I want you all to hear about this is that it’s the same if you’re a clothing store or a gift shop or a different maker store, because at the end of the day, everyone wants to feel better when they shop with you and your store.  And you can’t underestimate the impact you have on people’s lives.

It’s so exciting to think about all these women that you’ve allowed them to be super creative because of how you’ve grown your business and the way you’ve been able to serve them because of that.

And I just want to encourage you that if you have a women’s clothing store for example, that you can be the person who makes a woman feel more confident about themselves. 

And then start thinking about it from the perspective of what it is that you can provide that they can’t get from someone else. Is it classes about shapes and styles? There are so many things.

Gosh, Lori, I’m so grateful to be working with you. I know that you’ve been doing this now for 15 years but you’re still so coachable. When we suggest something, what I’ve heard you say is, I’ve tried that before, it didn’t work, but I’ll try it again! And don’t you feel that now that’s even more important than ever before because of how customers are so different now than they were before the pandemic? 


Lori:

Right. There’s that saying, that people won’t remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. That’s just so true. You and I both know if we go into a retail store and feel like they could have cared less, are you gonna go back again?! Right. But if you truly care, you know, and show that to your customer, they’ll be back. 

Cathy:
Right, so how do you train your team to feel about customers the same way you feel about them?

Lori:
I’ve always said that without the customer, we’re out of business. And so we have to make the customer feel welcome. We have to give them great service, greet them the minute they come in. And let them know we’re here for them. We’re here to help them in any way we can. They’re the most important part of the business, without them we’re not in business. 

Cathy:
Very true. And how about communicating with customers? How do you do that? 

Lori:
We always engage and make a connection with the customer. What their likes and dislikes are. In my area, they’re going to be working on a project. So I’ll ask them what kind of projects they like to work on and steer them towards what I’ve got that meets their needs in my shop.

Cathy:
Do you feel like you made specific decisions also in hiring people?


Lori:

Definitely. I want staff with people skills. It’s not even so much their knowledge of the product when they’re first hired. It’s how they can interact with people. Their social skills are more important to me than product or industry knowledge, because we can teach them about the products that we sell.

We’ve hired people that didn’t know anything about sewing, now they’re knowledgeable but they have to have the people skills to deal with the public to present the persona that we want.

Cathy:
It’s funny because I’ve talked to so many maker stores who feel like they can only hire someone that knows what they do and how that really limits the pool of people they can hire from. And I’ve always felt the same way you do that you can teach anybody how to do anything as long as they have a willing attitude. 

So again, it really has to do with your willingness to continue to learn!


Lori:

We’re learning every day! 

Cathy:
Right! And that’s one of the reasons why you’ve been able to grow your business how many times? Since the first year of business? 


Lori:

18 and a half times!! From when we started!


Cathy:

That is just so exciting!

People will sometimes say that the client success stories we share can happen only because they’re in high end areas where retailers are able to pay more for their team members and have customers with more disposable income. What would you say to someone who felt that way? 

Lori:
Yeah, that’s not the case here. We’re in rural country out here. The median income is around  $42,000 – For a family!

So we’re not in an urban setting. We are in rural America here. But you can do so much now with social media and online sales!


Cathy:

I believe so strongly that this is literally the best time to be in retail. Because the playing field is so level now, you can impact and engage with people everywhere. I mean when you started 15 years ago, that certainly wasn’t true. You wouldn’t have been able to engage with people in different states without traveling there. I still think there’s a lot of value in that too, but now there are so many options!


Lori:

Right? You can reach the world from where you’re at. I always say, it’s not where you’re at. It’s what you do with where you’re at, you know? 

I work in a town of 700 people but I live in a little tiny town with a population of nine! I’m not kidding you. The sign as you go into towns says ”we’re all here, because we’re not all there”.

Truly, it’s not about your location. It’s about your attitude. 

Cathy:
Exactly right! I always love to ask people. What would you say to Lori when she was first starting her new store? What do you wish that you had known then that you know now?

Lori:
Oh, I would tell her to go for it once again, because I love what I do and retail is a lot of work, but if you love it and have a passion for it, this is my happy place. When I come to my shop every day it’s my happy place!

Follow your dreams, pursue them and don’t let anybody hold you back if it’s your passion. 


Cathy:Thank you so much, Lori. I tell you, it’s such an honor to work with you. You inspire me so much. It’s really, it’s really, really amazing. So thank you so very much.

Lori:
Thank you!

Where to find Lori and Quilter’s Corner:

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