close window Close Window

Key to Retail Success? Customer Contact

Whether they sell food, cosmetics, art, or furniture, young entrepreneurs agreed keeping that personal contact with customers is key in running a successful business.

“Listen to your customers,” said Jeff Wilcoxon, ’04, cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Bobtail Ice Cream Company. “The more you listen, the better your ideas.” Wilcoxon was among successful entrepreneurs who spoke to GSB students April 7 at an event hosted by the student-led Retail Group at the Hyde Park Center.

Noreen Abbasi, cofounder and president of Maven Cosmetics, said she spends time at her company’s sales counters, not only to sell product and hear what customers say, but also as part of her marketing strategy. Publicized on-site appearances, charitable events, and special customized product parties are elements of Maven’s portfolio, which also includes mailings, giveaways, and newsletters.

Still, Abbasi said, perhaps the most productive marketing tool has been the company’s publicist. It’s expensive, she admits, but it more than pays for itself in the advantages that perceived editorial endorsement provides. “Editorial coverage legitimizes the product in consumers’ eyes,” she said.

Panelists also agreed that the Internet is integral to establishing a brand in today’s marketplace. Each uses e-mail for marketing and places increasing importance on having a strong Web presence. In fact, said furniture importer Alma Gutierrez, founder and CEO of Cassona, “We’re redeveloping the Web site as if it’s a new store.”

Joshua Gartier, owner and manager of Poster Plus, differentiated both his Web site and retail store to distinguish the company from competitors; he diversified the product line, responded to customer requests, and capitalized on his consumer profile. “We focus on who’s walking by the store, and also on developing a sense of what they’re looking for.”

Reaching passers-by is also critical to Bobtail’s Wilcoxon. He uses street sandwich boards to advertise specials, constantly renews store window displays, and ensures that he’s up on market trends. “Watch what your competitors do,” he advised, “then copy them.”

Carmen Marti