NEW YORK -- As Amy Witt prepared for the grand opening of her Dallas clothing store, she read up on the demise of thousands of chain stores this past year so she wouldn't repeat their mistakes.
"Big box retailers are selling 20,000 square feet of, what? Stuff. There's no connection, no experience, no service," says Witt, who opened A Velvet Window earlier this month. "That model no longer works."
So Witt has created a store that aims to feel like a home. She serves food and snacks, and helps shoppers put outfits together. She's invited other local businesses to sell in her store, giving her customers something else to consider if they don't feel like buying clothes.
As small and independent retailers begin the holiday shopping season, they're finding ways to give shoppers a reason to spend with them, not at the big stores like Target, Walmart and not with Amazon and other online merchants. For many store owners, the answer is to give customers a unique experience, one that's more personal and emotional than at the big boxes, and to provide services that outweigh the convenience of ordering from online sellers. The steps they take can be obvious, like offering special holiday merchandise, or they can be subtle, like changing signs in stores or the look of a website.
Aware that customers might prefer shopping on Amazon because they don't have to leave the house, Witt has added a shopping service. She and her staff take a customer's gift list and finds items that fit.
"If we do not have it, we will still source items from other retailers for them," Witt says.
Many toy retailers create a unique experience for shoppers by allowing them, even younger ones, to play with the merchandise. At Finnegan's Toys and Gifts, there are age and size appropriate tables and chairs so children and adults can engage with the toys and the store itself, says Karen Leppmann, owner of the Portland, Oregon, shop.
Leppmann may not be able to compete on price, especially for toys available in big boxes online. So she won't carry merchandise that gets big discounts elsewhere.
"I don't want people to have to pay more than they would pay down the road at Target," Leppmann says.
Instead, the store offers services unlikely to be found at big box retailers. Customers can call up and order a toy, then drop in to get it a few hours later -- usually on their way to a birthday party.
Small retailers may not be able to make dramatic changes to their stores for the holidays but they can win on very personal service, says Carlos Castelan, managing director of The Navio Group, a management consultancy based in Minneapolis. For example, a small hardware store staff often helps customers decide what to buy.
"If I share with them what I need, they'll say, 'here are some things you should consider,' and talk me through the different brands in terms of price and quality," Castelan says.
In many small cities and towns, retail groups, chambers of commerce and business improvement officials support local stores during the holidays, often by helping to provide shopper-friendly services.
In Burlington, Vermont, the Church Street Marketplace, a business improvement district, helps shoppers find parking with digital maps, signs and greeters at garages. Executive Director Ron Redmond is aware that finding a parking spot close to stores is a must for many people -- difficult parking can be a deterrent to downtown shopping.
"We are competing with people's couches and warm homes and want them to come away from that so that they can enjoy a festive experience," Redmond says.
Customers may not be aware of the subtle things retailers do to make the shopping experience better.
Katerina Iliades has changed shelf labels in her store that sells Greek and Mediterranean food; the new labels give shoppers tips about using the products in recipes for healthy meals.
"We attract both foodies and health-conscious consumers who want to make the Mediterranean diet a way of life," says Iliades, owner of Greek International Food Market in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The labels are inspiring home cooks who are buying more of Iliades' products.
Consumers increasingly want to know more about what they're buying -- where it comes from and why a retailer chose it, Castelan says. Many owners like Iliades are sharing the stories behind their merchandise.
"It makes people excited about purchasing that product," Castelan says.
Online retailers can also give shoppers a more positive experience. When artist David Bridburg gave his website a more upscale feel, using photos of minimalist furniture and neutral colors, he found that visitors stayed longer and were more inclined to buy.
The changes have helped Bridburg, who's based in Avon, Connecticut, compete not just with other artists, but any company selling decor.
Many small retailers thrive by offering unique merchandise, often clothing or other products from small manufacturers or their own creations. Or they target an underserved market. Superfit Hero, an online seller of active wear for women, offers garments in sizes up to 5XL. The models on the website are plus size, minorities and/or transgender.
"Businesses that aren't serving these niche communities are leaving money on the table," says Rachel Johnston, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based company.
Many owners also realize that while they depend on holiday sales for a sizeable portion of their annual revenue, they must stock items cheaper than their usual merchandise. Ocelot Market, an online clothing and home furnishings retailer, has added gifts around $50 for the holidays alongside merchandise that averages between $150 to $180.
Elise DeCamp, who owns the Brooklyn, New York-based company, says lower prices help build the business.
"It's easier to reach a new customer at around the $50 price point," she says.