In this latest installment of our Retailer Scope series, we gained some key insights from Sarah Culler, the branch manager of Fair Trade Winds. Fair Trade Winds is a family-run retail business with seven locations across the country and an online storefront. Their holistic view of the retail experience and supply chain and their dedication to the principles of Fair Trade make them a leader in the industry. Culler's people-first perspective on the retail experience is refreshing and inspiring. Read on to hear what she has to say about creative lasting impressions, growing your business, and staying invested.
What is the recipe for creating a positive lasting impression on your customers?
There’s a delicate balance between talking to or guiding customers and letting them explore on their own. Every visit should be a chance for customers to learn something new or find a product they will love or relate to in an authentic way. First, they are drawn to a product with their eyes, then they appreciate it even more when they pick it up, read the tag and discover how intricate it is. The connection a handmade product creates, between the artisan’s hands and the customer’s is truly a unique thing in today’s mass-produced society.
On the Fair Trade Winds site, you mention that the Fair Trade landscape has changed dramatically in a short time. What’s the future of Fair Trade?
Yes, in the 10 years we have been doing this, we have seen the fair trade movement grow quite a bit. There are more fair trade products available now than ever before, which is excellent, but for fair trade to really grow I think we will need to see the stories of fair trade presented to the larger public. People need to see how fair trade is connected to so many current issues in the world, from women’s empowerment and equality to children’s rights, environmental protection and a general respect for all cultural identities. Fair trade is more than just a cup of coffee, a delicious chocolate bar or a shirt you wear — it is a conscious lifestyle based on respecting the interconnected nature of our lives.
I think fair trade could really become more mainstream in the next few years, as more and more “conventional” brands embrace customers’ demands for transparency. This growing demand has been fueled a lot by the recent fashion revolution. Fashion is such a huge industry and something we all think about on some level. I think clothing will be a big catalyst in fair trade becoming more popular in the U.S.
You’ve done a successful job curating merchandise for your stores -- what’s your secret when it comes to picking winning products?
We always like to start by considering products that we would buy and use ourselves. We love that so many fair trade products are both beautiful and functional, whether it’s a kitchen towel, a birthday card, a pair of socks or a handy tote bag. We also know you have to learn your customers and put yourself in their shoes. For instance, right now we happen to be selling a lot of rings. They aren’t really my style, but now I have my eye out for them and keep them stocked! And more often than not, some of our most popular products are those that really have a unique story about the artisans that make them or the material or methods used.
There is a science to retail purchasing which we do embrace, however we also take into consideration the human element, both the changing “moods” or trends of consumer demand and the fact that we deeply respect the time each artisan spent crafting an item. Every product will find a happy home if it’s well made.
You started your business by selling products locally at fairs, events, and churches. Now you’ve grown to six locations nationwide. In terms of growth strategy, what worked and didn’t work as you’ve expanded?
We are a family-run business so, other than our sister store Momentum in CO, we have opened locations where our family members live. Running any small business requires a lot of time and attention so it helps tremendously to have people we can trust and count on running each location. We are all very invested in growing our business in a responsible way that supports the larger fair trade movement. One important aspect of that growth is location - the more people we can reach, the more we can support artisan communities around the world. To this end, we have recently re-located two of our stores to busier shopping areas. While a re-location certainly creates a time of transition for your current customers, we found these moves to be highly advantageous and will ultimately help us support more artisans!
One of our challenges has been learning the different customer demands in different geographic and economic areas. Our stores are spread throughout the country, so each is a little different. While we carry many of the same products in all our stores, we also tailor some inventory based on location. This is a continuous process, tweaking inventory as products fade in and out of popularity, and also sharing successful products between stores. Sometimes one store will try a new product out and if it does well, we’ll introduce it at other stores too if we think it’s a good fit.
What’s one small change retailers can make on the show floor to increase sales?
Move products around and change displays often. A stagnant product in one place may sell right away if you just display it in a new spot. You would be surprised. This is especially effective if you have a lot of regular local customers, as opposed to tourists or one time shoppers. We find that when we move product displays around, customers tend to “discover” products they may have missed before.
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