A: At one time or another, this will happen in your store. I used to get so bent out of shape when a stranger would come in and say, "My friend is opening a store just like this!" Each time I heard this I was the first person in line when the new store opened and each and every time I was miffed at how they could think I looked anything like that store. We weren't even close! This falls into the category of 'customers say the darndest things'. I eventually learned to stick to what I do, maybe investigate a little if the rumors where ongoing, but let it go.
Getting 'shopped' or spied on is something we all do. If you are a shop owner reading this blog we cannot go into a store anymore, whether it be a Crate and Barrel or the Cute Shop Around the Corner without studying, learning, listening and educating ourselves. It is a natural habit. But doing it for education and doing it so you can get your neighbors sources are two different things. In the end, the Golden Rule applies.
When I moved to my new location three years ago, I researched all the other stores in my center to learn what to carry and not carry to be fair to the established retailers here as it was I who was moving in. Only on one occasion did I call a vendor and ask for them to make an exception and let me also carry a line (of small decor items) as what I ordered was a little different than the other neighborhood store. I had also been in business for 5 years and had established a lot of vendors already, so to not continue to carry certain lines was painful but I wanted to be fair to those who carried it here (in a different zip code than I use to have).
Months after I moved in, I ordered a line of jewelry I used to carry at my old location. Then one retail neighbor knocked at my back door and threw a fit that I had ordered it too. The vendor actually mailed it to her store by mistake and the store kept it, opened it and tagged it and would not return it to me as they were that mad! Needless to say I am condensing this story but I will never forgot the ordeal that transpired. When I saw this childish behavior I decided never again would I care who had what. I was over it. I was going to be as fair as possible, contact reps, but a show down was not going to happen. I was just going to serve my customers who come to my store and buy what I have. Period. Yes, shops to my left and right might have a line of soap or ornaments or candles, but I do not care anymore. I move on. I have had MANY customers say they would rather come here than go anywhere else (over a number of lines I carry)- so remember that.
After this nasty experience I came up with my own theory: Forget about it. Spying will always happen, some people are down right rude about it and others are more discreet. If I am in another shop I simply buy the item and research it later or I may write it down when I get to my car. If I am out of town, I introduce myself and tell them who I am and if they would have a problem with my asking for their contact. I have even offered to pay the person for a contact as I want to assure them I am not competing.
One retailer I know had to ask a group of researchers to leave as they were literally walking around, taking notes and having a meeting among themselves in her store! That is another problem altogether and should be handled with the company leader professionally. Hallmark is a major manufacturer here in Kansas City and I for one love their support and the friendships I have made with them, but some store owners feel they are spying for new product ideas. My take on it is this: I am not a Hallmark store. Little of my products look like their brand and if they 'stole' an idea of mine, in the end would it really look like my design? Most likely, no. It will be worked and reworked and messed with and focused group to death and it will end up completely different than my original (like the "store that looks just like yours!").
If you are an artist and worried about other artists stealing your ideas you also must move on. My friend David who owns Vagabond Vintage told me when he first discovered Cody Foster (of Backporch Friends) he told him, "Watch out. Everyone will copy you now. So keep moving on. Go on to the next design, the next idea. Always move forward and be proud you were the first with that idea. It's the nature of the business." He is so right and if you are a creative type, this should keep us thinking and on our toes to come up with something else to wow the crowds. Challenge yourself to be a trendsetter. (But it doesn't mean it won't hurt a little to see your hard work being copied).
Customers will always ask where you get your stuff. You and your staff should have a set answer. Ours is, "From all over!". We tell customers I find a lot of things on my travels, from research or from secret sources and this pretty much stops the investigation. Most customers comment from sheer amusement, not realizing they have asked a loaded question, so respond accordingly. If we are asked about a particular artist or vendor we sometimes play dumb or maybe we will even share it- it all depends on the line. If another retailer asks my staff for vendor info, we ask them to email me directly. Then I can check them out.
When it comes to a bigger, more wealthy store taking a line you were loyal to, that is a vendor issue. If that vendor does not honor that you opened with them first, move on. Find another one and maybe another. I carry a line of bedding that only a few have in K.C. Yet I cannot look sideways without one local retailer throwing fits if I carry a pillow like hers. At first I rolled my eyes, then I shrugged it off, then I called the president and told him to tell her to get a life. It was bordering on the ridiculous. I am absolutely, 100% no threat to her business and miles away, yet she has made it a major issue and you know what? Everyone in town talks of her and her nasty reputation and how she handles herself in her business- THIS speaks volumes. Time and again customers say they do not want to buy from her and it has nothing to do with what she carries. Keep this in mind.
In anytown USA a retailers reputation must be as honest, fair and as businesslike as you can make it. Pay your bills on time, return calls, be fair, be courteous, keep appointments. Don't be a scatter brain; organize your selling, your buying, your shelves, your backroom- work on YOUR business and customers will notice and love you for it. Finally, watch what you say about customers, retailers and reps as they all talk and they all shop in the same places. If people do not hear bad junk about you- that will speak volumes about how you handle your business and longevity as a retailer to admire.