Boutiques thank customers with personal connection

With retailers competing for a smaller pool of consumer dollars, especially during the holidays, it's not easy to make their businesses stand out. Some local boutique owners have taken the opportunity to distinguish themselves from mass retailers by showing customers just how much their business is appreciated.

Each year for a decade, Shannon Kitchens owner of Sage boutiques, has held a holiday party for customers that has since become one of their biggest sale days of the year. But in the past two years, she has re-instituted the practice of sending handwritten notes to customers thanking them for their business. New customers. Regular customers. Customers who refer other customers. They all get a thank you from Sage. "Our niche has always been about setting ourselves apart with service," Kitchens said. "We said we need to go outside the box and make our customers really want to shop with us."

This summer, every Sage employee began keeping a client book and making calls to customers to tell them when merchandise comes in or invite them to events. In addition, a Sage VIP card entitles the top 500 customers to discounts throughout the year. And any of the 10,000 customers who have purchased the $5 Sage "Go Green" bag is entitled to a 10-percent discount whenever he or she shops.

It sounds like high-end service, but Sage is known for it's affordable prices. "We don't have to be high-end to treat you that way. It is a wow factor for all of our customers because we are not high-end," Kitchens said.

Treating customers like VIPs even if they aren't huge spenders is one of the primary ways local boutiques have managed to sustain themselves throughout the slumping economy. Forced to compete with specialty retailers who are able to offer volume discounts, boutique owners say all they have is their ability to personally connect with consumers.

"We have a lot of regular customers who come back because they make that personal connection with our staff," said Carrie Sellers, marketing coordinator for K-La boutiques which has four locations in the Atlanta metro area. If customers come in looking for a special outfit, sales associates follow up with a thank-you note making reference to the event, Sellers said.

At a K-La holiday shopping event this year, customers received 20 percent off regularly priced merchandise, free gift wrapping and a free gift of earrings with a purchase. They were also treated to sparkling cider, cupcakes and petit fours.

A number of other stores have also held private or semi-private holiday parties this year with invites mailed out to a database of customers. Lola's in Dunwoody held a holiday party and gave out swag bags with perfume samples, shapewear and gift cards to the first 20 customers to make a purchase. Nikki Vigilance owner of NV-U in Grant Park and Midtown will have a special party featuring designs from local fashion designer Natt Taylor.

Melissa Murdock, owner of Sandpiper boutique in Vinings, nixed the holiday party this year.

"We used to clear out the store and do a dinner party, but we couldn't include as many customers and it got to be way expensive when the bottom fell out," Murdock said. Instead, on Dec. 1 she began personally writing thank-you notes to 50 regular customers who will also receive a candle by Tibi, one of the brands that Murdock stocks in her store.

"At the end of the day, what's the difference between walking in here and walking into Neiman Marcus?" said Murdock. "I want customers to know I appreciate them. I want them to know if they spend their money in my store, I'm grateful."