Rethinking Retail: Two retailers discover ladies nights are inviting

If you're looking to add a little buzz to your store's community vibe and a bit of kick to your bottom line, you might do well to start focusing on the ladies. As two retailers SNEWS® recently chatted with have found, when it is ladies' night, the feeling's right and it makes for quite a night -- with apologies to Kool & the Gang, naturally. Both Pennsylvania's Appalachian Ski & Outdoors and Bicycle Garage Indy (BGI Fitness) have attracted sell-out crowds to women's-only events that offer education, seminars and networking.
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If you're looking to add a little buzz to your store's community vibe and a bit of kick to your bottom line, you might do well to start focusing on the ladies. As two retailers SNEWS® recently chatted with have found, when it is ladies' night, the feeling's right and it makes for quite a night -- with apologies to Kool & the Gang, naturally.

Both Pennsylvania's Appalachian Ski & Outdoors and Bicycle Garage Indy (BGI Fitness) have attracted sell-out crowds to women's-only events that offer education, seminars and networking -- not to mention wine, champagne, food and chocolate.

"I think the fact that women were surrounded by women helped them feel less intimidated," said Connie Szabo Schmucker, BGI's advocacy director. "And women seem to like wine and chocolate, and it makes it something different; it's not just a sales pitch."

Appalachian Ski & Outdoors, which has done annual ladies' nights since 2007, said it has experienced the same effect. "An outdoor store can be kind of intimidating to folks too, and there are others who have preconceived notions about who we are," said storeowner Geoff Brugler.

Both specialty retailers got into the events with the help of vendors, but have kept them going on their own and even expanded them because of their success.

Appalachian Ski & Outdoors

For Appalachian Ski & Outdoors, an outdoor specialty retail store located in State College, Pa., the foray into ladies' night began with a 2007 initiative by Mountain Hardwear dubbed "Diva & Conquer Ladies' Night!"

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"It was fall 2007 and they provided gifts and helped us with images, posters and fliers. We were able to use some of our co-op money for refreshments for the event," said Brugler.

That first year was very successful, almost too successful on one front -- drinking. With wine and beer made available, the store quickly realized that in the fall when Penn State was in session, the store became an ideal place for students to hang out…and perhaps drink a bit too much.

"We moved the event into the spring in 2008 and when school was not in session to cater to a target market of graduate students, young professional women and older professionals," said Brugler.

In three short years, the event has taken on a life of its own. "We have nice food and we upscale that a bit with salmon, shrimp, cheese and meat trays, chocolate-covered strawberries and more," said Tom Mrotek, Appalachian Ski & Outdoors' buyer. "We served champagne the first year, but as it turns out, many of the ladies coming prefer a nice ale, so we now serve wine and beer and they are very happy."

Brugler told us the store policy is very strict during the event: attendees are limited to one drink at a time -- no picking up drinks for friends either.

The store also began offering massages last spring with five practitioners using massage chairs set up in the climbing area (Brugler's wife is a partner in Dragonfly Therapeutic Massage and Day Spa). Even with that, both Brugler and Mrotek told us they are amazed at how popular the event has become because of how little the store actually does effort-wise.

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"We offer 10 percent off all merchandise (including sale items) during the event, which is from 6 to 9 p.m.," said Brugler. "We also give folks a little gift bag when they register and an opportunity to enter a raffle for more gifts (in 2009, they provided The North Face tote bags, and the raffle was for product from Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear and Horny Toad)."

While it might not seem like much at all, women line up for the event, call in ahead of time to check on product, ask the store to put aside product to buy later if they can't attend (which Brugler tells us that they do, of course), and apologize by phone when they can't make it.

For both Brugler and Mrotek, the value in the event has become obvious, though it wasn't necessarily so when they launched the first party in 2007. "We see a lot of new faces at the events. Women email their friends and invite them to come who have never been in our store because of this event," said Brugler.

"We have quite a few women who think we're nothing more than an outdoor store they wouldn't normally be interested in visiting, but when they come into our store during this event and see all the cool and hip women's sportswear to the left of our entrance, they are blown away," he added.

And, because a number of women's stores have closed recently in the downtown area, that has put Appalachian Ski & Outdoor on the map as a great place for women to buy their sportswear from Lole to Patagonia to Horny Toad to Santiki.

Bottom line is 250 women -- the number who attended the most recent event -- spells success no matter how you evaluate it. And for those who care about bottom lines only: A number of vendors told SNEWS, clearly impressed, that in just a few hours this last spring, the store sold approximately $8,000 in product. While Brugler confirmed the number as close, noting the event was not as successful as a Christmas Saturday for comparison, he also added, "This is more about fun and goodwill for us. We gain new customers, and connect more deeply with our existing ones."

Bicycle Garage Indy / BGI Fitness

Although BGI's events have been focused on its larger cycling division so far, they have allowed the store to hone the details, with an eye to launch the concept in October for fitness.

The store's first ladies' night, in August 2008, was a "Trek Ladies' Night," and BGI limited it to 50 people because of space constraints. The first sign Schmucker had that this was going to be a winning idea was when 110 signed up. "I had the task of telling 60 people they couldn't come," Schmucker told SNEWS.

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Pearl Izumi brought in a local winery to provide tastings, which Schmucker told us was a big hit.

BGI's second event, "Giant for Women," in February 2009 was again limited to 50. The store started by inviting all 60 women who could not get into the first event and giving them first shot at the open spots, and then the store opened up registration to the public. Once again, a waiting list developed.

This time, the store upgraded the food menu a bit, bringing in Pairings, a wine and food specialty shop whose motto is, 'where wine and food meet.'

For the first two events, the limiting factor in attendance was store size. Each time, before the event, the store staff had to clear out all the fitness equipment and load it into a truck for the night. Then, the following morning, it was time to unload the fitness equipment from the truck and place it back in the store.

By event three on June 11, 2009, the store figured out a way to move the road bike displays to accommodate up to 100 people and in they poured (racing from the parking lot to escape a rainstorm outside, we were told) to participate in the "Trek Women Specific Design" clinic, as well as two other mini clinics put on by the BGI staff. Pairings again provided the wine and food.

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Schmucker told us that BGI's events are so successful and continue growing simply because "women are surrounded by other women, which helps them feel less intimidated. The fact they were asking questions they normally wouldn't in all likelihood indicates a high level of comfort."

Like Brugler, Schmucker told us the events for BGI were less about sales and more about goodwill. "Establishing a relationship is the key thing, because women will tell other women about the event, and then they too will feel comfortable coming in."

Of course, sales do happen too, though perhaps not yet on the impressive scale that Appalachian Ski & Outdoors experiences. Most everyone does buy something, Schmucker told us -- typically tools, tires, bike seats (if the bike clinic is on those), and some bike clothing. Best of all, since the women's events are held during hours the store wouldn't normally be open, those were sales that otherwise might not have happened.

Schmucker did offer one very valuable tip for any retailer thinking about putting on a women's night with alcohol. Check with your local or state officials regarding liquor laws pertaining to serving alcohol. BGI learned it had to fill out forms noting exactly where and how the wine would be served and the exact hours.

--Michael Hodgson with Therese Iknoian

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