David vs. Goliath- Surviving and Thriving as a Small Independent Retailer

Lynn Armstrong, ZOE Shoes + Objects

“If there is a Goliath in front of you, that means there is a David inside of you.”-Carlos A. Rodriguez

Walmart, Home Depot, Starbucks, Toys “R” Us, Shoppers Drug Mart, Amazon.  All have a brand we recognize and most of us have or will buy from them at some point.

They are examples of the power houses of retail shopping. They have the buying power, marketing budget and operational capacities to negotiate prices and influence suppliers. They have a significant say in what consumers buy through costly marketing campaigns. They possess the power to strongly influence what people buy, how they buy and when they buy.

Compare this to the small independent retailer. Does the little guy even stand a chance? In this day and age, it may be easy to get discouraged as a small entrepreneur and feel like you don’t stand a fair chance against the Walmarts, Home Depots and Amazons of today’s business environment.

Yet, small independent retailers can and do survive and thrive, and they are a vital and important part of the Canadian retail landscape.  According to a 2014 study published by the Retail Council of Canada, over a quarter (27%) of Canadian shoppers spend their dollars at independent retailers.[1] The same study also found that top reason for choosing an local store is ‘to support local economy’ and 89% of consumers who prefer shopping at a local retailer rate ‘personal recognition’ the top reason for going local. The question is how successful independent businesses level the playing field and what the ‘secrets’ to thriving are.

Tracey Bosche, Zippity Zoom Toys

Saskatchewan has many successful small independent businesses. Zippity Zoom Toys’ owner and founder, Tracy Bosche, knows very well what it means to be a small independent retailer and entrepreneur. Eight years ago, she opened a small toy store in Regina. The store offers quality products for the whole family, including toys for babies and kids, plus board games and puzzles the whole family can enjoy together.

There is no lack of competition in the toy store industry with giants like Walmart, Toys “R” Us, Amazon and Mastermind Toys all within reasonable driving distance or just a mouse click away. To stay competitive, Bosche says that instead of focusing on what other stores are doing she focuses on herself and what she wants to accomplish. “Yes, we have to stay competitive on pricing which might mean lower margins on certain items, but we can never compete on price with Walmart and other big box stores,” she says. Instead, she prides herself on offering great customer service and takes advantage of being quicker and nimbler in the purchasing process. She can bring in new products to the store faster than a large retailer. Bosche also believes in small independent retailers helping and complementing each other rather than simply viewing others as fierce competitors. She often refers customers to other toy stores for products she doesn’t carry. “In most cases, customers come back happy and it is a ‘win-win’ situation for everybody,” says Bosche.

Bosche’s passion for what she is doing is paying off. In 2012, Zippity Zoom Toys moved from its original location to Regina’s Albert Street with a much bigger space. “If you’re in a place where people have to find you, you spend more on advertising,” she explains. Instead of traditional advertising, Bosche and Zippity Zoom Toys choose to sponsor local community events or provide fundraiser giveaways. By doing so, Zippity Zoom’s name gets recognition while also supporting the community it serves.

At the end of the day, it’s the superior customer service, the products customers want and keeping up a great attitude that Bosche feels help her fend off the big guys. “The rewards are fantastic but you constantly have to keep moving to keep growing,” she concludes.

Michelle Strawford, Bella Chic

Michelle Strawford is the owner and operator of Bella Chic, a women’s fashion boutique in Emerald Park, located just outside Regina. Bella Chic started out as an online store, grew to pop up stores and later established a bricks-and-mortar location. The boutique is perhaps not what one might call ‘prime location’ for a fashion boutique; a semi-industrial area between a gym and a landscaping business.  Nevertheless, customers still find Bella Chic and Strawford elaborates on why. “People need to have a reason to find you,” she says. Strawford has a keen mind for entrepreneurship and knows that passion and staying unique are key components to stay ahead in the highly competitive,ever-changing fashion industry. The combination of experience and keeping an ear to the ground has developed Strawford’s gut feeling for what products will be successful.

Like Zippity Zoom Toys and most small retailers, Strawford knows she can’t generally compete on price. However, price can be used as a marketing tool. Strawford gives the example of a hair clip that she brought in to the store. It sells for $8- a fairly low-cost item. Because the clip is unique, it attracts customers who are likely to spend money on other products once they get interested in the store.

“I always think outside the box,” says Strawford. Bella Chic constantly works on features that will set the store apart. Strawford holds special events such as shopping parties, sets up pop-up stores, gets involved in local events and works together with other entrepreneurs to increase visibility and stay connected with the community. She is also the producer of the popular consumer show “What Women Want”, a three-day shopping experience featuring retailers, entertainment and services tailored to women.

The passion, the engagement and the drive to create something others don’t offer is the common thread running through everything Strawford does. “Be different, be unique and be present in as many places as possible,” she advises. “Do something different and something that scares you, every day!”

Lynn Armstrong, ZÖE Shoes + Objects

ZÖE Shoes + Objects’ owner Lynn Armstrong has an impressive career as a journalist/writer, corporate communicator and planner.

In February 2016, she became the new owner and operator of Regina’s ZÖE Shoes + Objects. The store was already well established and had been in business for almost 30 years. Armstrong’s love for shoes and beauty transformed the brand of ZOE’s Boutique into ZÖE (the Greek word for life), and within the first year, Armstrong renovated the retail space and moved to a new location.

The product selection in Armstrong’s store is focusing on beauty, rarity and specialty. The goal is to make ZÖE stand out as an experience where customer understanding and awareness is in focus, which most large chain retailers and department stores can’t as easily replicate.

Since the products are carefully curated and unique, most stores offering similar products are in other cities which carves out a niche for ZÖE. As a result, price becomes secondary even though Armstrong does her homework and ensures prices are consistent with similar stores in other locations.

As for so many other independent retailers, community involvement is vital to Armstrong. “It’s one of the strengths as an independent as we are part of the local community and want to help,” she says.

To stay connected, utilizing the internet and social media are important tools Armstrong takes clever advantage of. “Customers of my store don’t all live here anymore since the store has been in business for 30 years,” she explains. The online store lets these customers still shop at ZÖE. Online shopping also opens up for a bigger market reach, and it reaches a different type of customers who prefer online shopping over traditional store shopping. “It also allows me to serve our bricks-and-mortar customers who want to ‘pre-shop’ before making an actual purchase,” Armstrong adds. She uses social media- mainly Instagram and Facebook-to keep customers up to date on what’s new in-store.

Armstrong sees the biggest challenge as an independent retailer to create and maintain the unique environment and experience of ZÖE, while staying profitable. She sums up some advice to other independent stores in their quest of being successful against retail giants. “ Take time to understand what your vision is,” she says. “Then, stay true to your vision. Be smart and surround yourself with people who can help you. Last but not least, love what you do!”

Independent retailers will continue playing an important part of the retail environment in Saskatchewan. The stakes are high in starting and running an independent business successfully but the rewards can be great. Small independent retailers deal with many of the same challenges regardless of industry or product. Bosche, Strawford and Armstrong sum up their collective experience and advice from to being ‘Davids’ in the retail industry, holding their own against the ‘Goliaths’:

  • Be unique and special through product selection and superior customer service
  • Stay competitive on pricing but don’t compete solely on price
  • Engage with and support the local community
  • Capitalize on the online world through online shopping and social media to connect with customers and reach new ones
  • Be passionate and love what you are doing


[1] https://www.retailcouncil.org/sites/default/files/documents/research_4_Ways_To_Win_Independent_Retailers.pdf