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Independents Alive And Well In America

By Peter Gill, IRMA Communications Director
2/1/2010

George Whalin doesn't agree with what he reads in newspapers about the demise of independent retailing.

"Independent retailing is alive and well in the United States," said Whalin, a retail consultant and author. "Sure, the weak ones are going out of business, but the good ones are doing just fine."

Whalin should know. He has studied some of the top independents in the country, and recently published a book called "Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America."

Whalin talked about several of those 25 retailers during the National Retail Federation's Annual Convention in January gave high praise to Abt Electronics and Appliances, an IRMA member based in Glenview. Company President Michael Abt serves as an IRMA Director.

"They do it better than anyone," Whalin said. "Abt has the best-trained, best people in any retail store."

He introduced his audience to two of his featured retailers, Marta Benson of Gump's, a San Francisco-based seller of jewelry and fine art and Pam Majors of the Junkman's Daughter, a variety superstore based in Atlanta.

Benson said the key to success for independents is having a staff that is passionate about their work. One of the oldest retailers in the country, operating since 1861, Gump's specializes in custom jewelry and solid relationships with its customers.

"So much of our success is about relationships with our guests," Benson said.

The store sets itself apart not only with a unique mix of product, but with events such as book signings, gallery openings and even fundraisers for local charities. The staff is filled with experts in artwork and jewelry, making the store a true category expert.

"Their passion is their work," Benson said. "Our business is really about a love of the product and a passion for service."

Majors described the Junkman's Daughter as an alternative superstore offering a variety of product from memorabilia to costumes. Owner Pam Majors describes the store as "entertaining, outrageous and affordable."

"We try really hard to create a shopping experience that is both fun and affordable," she said.

Whalin said it is one of the most fun stores he has ever visited.

With little formal retail training, Majors has unique and unorthodox methods she uses to her advantage. She hires local musicians and artists as some of her buyers, and allows them to work the sales floor to have daily interaction with customers.

"There is a theme here," Whalin said. "If you're different than everyone else, you can succeed at this."

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