by Harry Sheff

Independent contemporary retailers may not have big-store budgets but Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have helped them to gain big-store reputations.

Social media has allowed smaller independent retailers to gain national followings without the benefit of traditional marketing and advertising for free. But it can be a lot of work. Social media has to tie into a greater strategy that unites a robust web presence with the physical store. We talked to some contemporary retailers about what works and what doesn’t.

Edward Armah at a Badowers trunk show in a photo on Instagram
Edward Armah at a Badowers trunk show in a photo on Instagram
Facebook and Instagram have been our main two focuses lately,” says Badowers manager Kevin Hansen. “Social media is our primary marketing tool. We don’t do traditional ads on TV, radio or newspapers; we haven’t for four or five years. Any retailer that does is probably getting some bad advice. It’s easier to control your message. We’re a small shop so I manage the store, do the buying and sell to my clients. If the message comes from me, it’s more genuine. I can wake up in the morning and decide what I want to talk about and it doesn’t have to go through four weeks of planning. It’s quicker and it’s free.”

Some retailers get more out of Twitter than others. “It allows us to share some interesting stories that aren’t necessarily apparel or menswear-centric (art, music, film interests, etc.), broaden the voice of our brand, and more than anything, it’s a great way to communicate with our customers,” said Steve Shuck of Stag in Austin, Texas. Recent tweets from @stagaustin were about the pizza joint next door, a restored 4×4 spotted in the neighborhood, SXSW and the new album from War on Drugs, on heavy rotation in the store. In many cases, those tweets started conversations, or were retweeted.

Stag's news stand during SXSW
Stag’s news stand during SXSW

However, Shuck adds, “We probably get our highest customer engagement with Instagram and make several posts every day. Some are product-based, some lifestyle-related (us at a concert for example), and then we have have a couple of ‘hash tagged’ series that have really gained traction. One’s called #intheneighborhood which features interesting photos and finds (old cars, cool houses, etc.) from the neighborhood around the shop, and then we have another called #stagrecommends that features restaurants, music venues, albums, and the like that we really enjoy as a brand and think our customers will also enjoy. It’s sometimes difficult to humanize one’s brand in a digital setting, and Instagram does the best job of all the social media platforms of letting customers behind the curtain a bit. It’s not just pages of product on a website or a mood board like Tumblr. It’s more ‘real life’ of real people and places.”

David Alperin at Goose Barnacle in Brooklyn uses Twitter mostly to promote new arrivals and upcoming sales and events; he gets more creative on Instagram. “I keep Instagram as a window into my personal life, like my inspiration and my travels,” says Alperin. “I’ll post where I find my artists or a visit to a factory where I’m sourcing fabric.”

Hudson Hawk Barbers shared a shot of the shop on Instagram
Hudson Hawk Barbers shared a shot of the shop on Instagram

Sharing photos on Instagram can be a powerful tool, connecting a store to new customers—and vendors. “I’ve found the most active platform for attracting new customers and people who are really enthusiastic about brands is Instagram,” said Thad Forrester of Hudson Hawk Barbers in Springfield, Mo. “It’s because of the visual nature of men’s style and grooming. It’s an easy place for guys to scroll through and say, that’s cool. And then they can comment and send feedback. It’s also a way for brands to contact me—they’ll see that we sell brands like Baldwin, General Knot, Ursa Major. They’ll say, hey, maybe these guys will be interested in my product line. I’ll try to keep a pulse on Facebook and I post a lot of things from Instagram on my Twitter account but as far as an active, engaging audience, it’s Instagram.”

Many retailers, like Goose Barnacle’s Alperin, found that since different people favor different media, the same information gets disseminated across outlets. “Everyone likes to follow a different thing so we literally post the same information to four different places,” he explains. “We’re just trying to capture as big an audience as we can. There are people who just love Twitter, but aren’t on Facebook or Instagram.”

Eric Dayton at Askov Finlayson is adamant about avoiding sales pitches on social media, a sentiment echoed by others. “The way we measure social media success is whether or not we’re putting out things of value for people,” says Dayton, who with his brother Andrew, also owns a restaurant and bar in the same building. “We’re insinuating ourselves into people’s personal feeds, so we take it seriously. We don’t like when people try to sell us things on social media, so we avoid doing that too. I know some see Twitter and Instagram as sales tools, but we don’t. It’s best to use them for storytelling—there’s a lot going on at our store, the restaurant and the bar.”

Askov Finlayson did an Instagram photo contest in March, asking followers via Facebook and Instagram to show how they were embracing winter. The winner got a $200 gift card and three runners-up were offered 20 percent off web purchases. In just a week, hundreds of entries came in.

“I advocate a multi-channel strategy in which stores should by all means dive in and try all social networks they have the capability to use,” says Jake Fell of eMarketing Logic. “A popular saying is, ‘content is fire and social media is gasoline.’ My opinion is retailers should make creating great content a priority and then they can promote that content on whichever social networks they determine produce a high ROI for them.”

Socializing in the Store

Social media and in-store events go hand in hand. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter help spread the word about events, but they can also give live coverage and broadcast post-event photos. Trunk shows and brand-focused events are important, but lifestyle-driven events can broaden a retailer’s appeal and add depth to its brand.

Bubblehockey 2014-6

Askov Finlayson has a biannual tournament in the store on its bubble-domed arcade hockey game. Twice a year during the colder months, 16 two-person teams compete for custom-engraved gold medals and a free dinner at the restaurant next door. Cocktails and snacks are served to an overflow crowd of competitors and spectators.

Artist Neil Callander at Goose Barnacle
Artist Neil Callander at Goose Barnacle

Goose Barnacle hosts art openings in March and September for emerging painters and sculptors. The art, which is always for sale, stays up long after the opening, decorating the store. Brooklyn Gin provides signature cocktails for each opening. “I like having events that aren’t necessarily about fashion,” says owner David Alperin. “What I’ve learned is that you don’t really get many sales during the parties, it’s more about introducing people to the art and to the store.”

Both retailers promoted their respective events on Facebook and Twitter and used social media to share event photos later.