Small retailers play to strengths off the beaten path
On some of the more frenzied days of the holiday season, shoppers have been known to fight over parking spots.
Parking is no problem at Mosaic Boutique, an upscale women's apparel and accessories store in tiny Fulshear. About seven miles from Katy, Mosaic carries designer brands including Brighton, Vera Bradley and Joseph Ribkoff.
Parking is also no issue at Write Now, a brand-new card and gift shop on White Oak in the Heights area. It's in a small strip center that has three other retail spaces, all of them vacant. Unlike the Heights' crowded 19th Street, there are relatively few retail shops along White Oak.
And Mossrock Gallery, which features ceramics, paintings and sculpture, is in a converted house near The Woodlands. You can park in owner Andy Sankowski's driveway.
Not all Houston-area shops selling gift items this season are in the center of the retail action. For cheaper rent or a variety of other reasons, these mom-and-pops choose to locate outside traditional retail areas.
The Mosaic's Lisa Theut wanted to be near her son's school. Shanna Barnstone of Write Now picked her space because it had plenty of parking, and she loves the building's exterior.
Mossrock's Sankowski, a potter, chose his location for a quirkier reason. The chimney on the house has a catenary arch that reminded him of a kiln.
Yet opening far from the Galleria, Baybrook Mall or other retail hubs, these entrepreneurs face challenges in attracting customers. They market themselves with websites and through social media. They take part in neighborhood events and put on their own. And they go the extra step in trying to make their places friendly.
In some cases a store can be in a good location even though it might not seem like it, said Lou Congelio, owner of the boutique ad agency Acme Fish.
Write Now, for example, is part of a neighborhood with a sense of community, he said, and many of its residents want to support neighborhood businesses.
You can also be on a residential street in The Woodlands and make a go of it, Congelio said, because when people are ready to buy a particular item they often go to the Internet to find out where it is. They might type in the search words "crafts" and "Woodlands," for example, he said. Small-business owners can pay for targeted Facebook ads or for enhanced ranking on search engines, he noted.
'Still a numbers game'
It can still be tough, said Betsy Gelb, marketing professor at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business.
"It's still a numbers game," she said. "There are only so many promotions you can do to get people in your store."
One thing out-of-the-way retailers can do is join forces, Gelb said, by purchasing a big ad together.
Write Now features affordable items such as clocks made from classic rock albums, frog-shaped tape dispensers and nostalgic holiday greeting cards, and a variety of stationery, pens, decorative stamps and art supplies for children. Most of her items are $20 or less, and almost everything is under $50.
"I don't have a lot of advertising dollars yet," said Barnstone, who has been open three weeks.
On Saturday, she participated in a "Heights Mistletoe Madness" event with 36 other neighborhood businesses.
"Write Now has a lot of fun, funky stuff I haven't seen anywhere else," said customer Viula Torgerson, a stay-at-home mom who lives in the Heights and blogs at theheightslife.com. "Everything in her store she handpicked, and you can tell she's proud of everything."
Several blocks down, Margarete Sanchez-Ripps showcases local artists who make crafts, jewelry, wind chimes and other items in her 5-year-old shop, The Artful Corner.
"I am hidden over here," Sanchez-Ripps said. "When people come to the Heights to shop, they go to 19th Street."
She promotes The Artful Corner through a website and an e-newsletter, and she recently started advertising.
She's also gotten customers who first saw her clocks shaped like pets on the walls of another small business, Pie in the Sky cafe and bakery on 19th.
Spreading the word
Irwin Miller, a counselor with the small-business advisory group SCORE, recommends making the most of social media sites like Facebook because they can create a word-of-mouth network in which your best customers will spread the word about your shop to their friends online.
At Mossrock Gallery, more than half of the items were made by Sankowski. The rest are by other artists and craftsmen, he said. Prices range from $35 to $5,000 and more.
The gallery still feels like the home it once was. He serves customers espresso he makes in his kitchen, and the backyard has a winding garden path.
"He's always happy, always up and very generous with his time," said interior designer Marilyn Montgomery, who has been buying ceramics for clients at Mossrock for about a year. "You can tell he absolutely loves what he does."
On Dec. 19, Sankowski plans to host an event with food and wine. He will post the details soon on his Facebook page.
Mossrock Gallery has not yet turned a profit, Sankowski said. His wife's income helps support them, and he teaches pottery classes.
Far from the frenzy
Mosaic Boutique's Theut says half her customers live in Fulshear and the rest come from Katy and Houston.
She is among a small cluster of businesses on FM 359 that includes several eating places and Gaby's Apparel & Interior Gifts.
Theut advertises in magazines, and about twice a month she holds events in the store, including eyebrow-shaping and Botox parties.
Her merchandise generally ranges from $10 to $200. She wouldn't say whether her 3½-year-old store was turning a profit.
On a recent day, her customers seemed to feel at home in this shop far from the bustling malls.
"This girl's got it all for us," said Mosaic regular Crystal Kropf, a Rosenberg resident who was shopping with her mother. "My mom's one of the girls when she comes here."
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