By Katherine Snow Smith Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Small, local retailers can't buy merchandise in bulk. They can't afford commercials during Modern Family or The Voice. They don't place splashy ads in Vanity Fair or other glossy magazines.
But one of the edges Mom and Pop have over the big box retailers and national chains--they know how to throw a party. E-mail and snail mail boxes are filled this holiday season with invites to wine and cheese nights, sip and shop evenings and customer appreciation events.
For some stores it's as simple as keeping two bottles of Chardonnay chilled in a bucket next to the cash register while others will spend more than $2,000 to host a party. But the payback from holiday entertaining lasts long after this crucial shopping season, retailers say, because it builds and maintains relationships with customers.
"It's really not something we do to try to boost sales for that night but to let people know we are here and this is what we have," said Amy Bromley, owner of Being at 1575 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg. She has a holiday party at her eclectic home furnishings and gift store every year. The cost of printing and mailing invitations alone was $1,500 this year.
"We are community based. It's the reason we are still here," Bromley said. "I have friends in this business all over the country and I have seen some of them go belly up and seen some of them have great success. It's the ones in markets like ours, Austin (Texas) and New Orleans who do these kind of events that do well."
Marketplace Interiors at 301 N Willow Ave. in Tampa also hosts a customer appreciation party with live music, roasted oysters and wine.
It serves mimosas and pastries every Friday during the holidays.
"It helps us get to know our customers," said co-owner Heidi Jinks. "People stay and look at things longer."
Customers who were shopping at ZaZood at 531 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg recently can vouch for that. The gift and home decor store offers mimosas in the morning and wine in the afternoons most weekends throughout the year.
"I've never had this experience," said Nivea Malave of St. Petersburg, who had just accepted a glass of Pinot Grigio from one of the store's owners. "It relaxes you and kind of makes you take time to browse."
ZaZood and three other nearby retailers, including Plane Jane, hosted a Holiday Shop Hop recently. Hundreds of e-mails invited women to stop by the stores to enjoy free wine and refreshments while they shopped on a Thursday night.
"You just loosen up a little bit when you have a glass of wine in your hand. People stay longer and they might see something they would have missed if they just whizzed in and whizzed out," said Karen Porterfield, owner of Plane Jane gift shop at 1104 Central Ave. "We'll see a little bump in sales but it's also just for the goodwill of it."
Independent stores can host holiday parties a lot easier than the big chains because they don't have multiple tiers of supervisors and lawyers that have to sign off on every glass of wine or finger sandwich.
Stores that sell packaged alcohol have the strictest rules. They aren't allowed to give it away on the premises even if the purpose is spreading holiday cheer, according to Rebecca Kert, senior assistant city attorney in Tampa.
Stores without an alcohol license can give it away as long as it isn't somehow built into the price of something else.
"The city only regulates the sale of alcoholic beverages, that's what requires a permit," she said. "If somebody is giving out alcohol they do not require a special use permit."
Seattle-based Nordstrom has a few small parties while the store is open, but most events are by invitation only after the store closes to the public, according to spokesman Dan Evans.
In a more controlled setting there is less chance to serve underage drinkers or over serve.
"We are always looking for ways to reward our best customers," he said. "During the holidays there are more events than at other times of the year. ... Anytime we host an event and alcohol is served we hire an outside catering company with a current liquor license."