Focus for independent retailers: Make shopping easy and fun

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Martin Goldman processes returned items at an evo store in Seattle. The sporting-goods retailer has arrangements with competitors.

When the sporting-goods retailer evo ships ski boots ahead of the winter season, some will be delivered to its competitors - who will then help evo customers be sure the boots are a good fit.

"We've reached out to the best independent shops and asked, 'Can you offer the same service to our customers using your store and your expertise?' " said Bryce Phillips, co-owner of Seattle-based evo, which has an online business and stores in Seattle, Denver, and Portland, Ore. The company, which tested the idea last holiday season and has continued it through the year, has more than 20 stores signed up and hopes to have 40 by the end of 2017.

It's a nontraditional approach, the kind of creativity that independent stores are using to be competitive and survive in an increasingly uncertain retail industry. Phillips says the arrangements benefit all the retailers involved, because customers who feel well-served are likely to buy something else in the store where they pick up their evo packages.

This has been a chaotic year for retail, with the internet taking more business and big-name retailers such as Macy's, J.C. Penney, and Payless ShoeSource closing stores.

It can be harder for smaller stores to match the selection, prices, and delivery offered by online retailers. So independents are strategizing for the fourth quarter - high shopping season - trying out unorthodox ideas or new services and building on ones they have had success with.

Evo, which sells surfing, snow sports, skating, and biking gear, gets 80 percent of its business online. But because it has plenty of competition online and off, "we need to do the things that made us different from the beginning," Phillips said.

That includes offering services like travel planning for customers who want to go on snowboarding, surfing, or other outdoor-sports-focused vacations.

Clothing stores are particularly vulnerable, as evidenced by the struggles of department stores that are heavily dependent on womenswear, and chains like Limited that have shut. Marcia Feller keeps looking for ways to keep customers coming back to her women's shop, Couleur Collection, even though 2016 was the most profitable of her 17 years in business.

Feller focuses not only on finding clothes customers want, but on making the store a place they want to be. The clothes are arranged by color, making it easier for shoppers with a specific palette in mind.

One wall of the shop in Falmouth, Maine, displays works by local artists.

She holds classes to teach women how to use the clothes they already own to create better looks, and Feller doesn't sell anything at those events. Her staff wraps holiday presents for free, with high-quality paper and bows.

"There's room for the good stores that take care of customers and offer products to women that make them feel great and an experience that makes them feel great," Feller said.

A part of that: an experienced staff that's been with her for years and treats shoppers like friends.

Alan Horowitz, owner of the men's suit maker Alan David, is increasing the services he offers. The company gives free alterations for the lifetime of its garments, and sends tailors from the Manhattan store to customers' homes into New Jersey and Connecticut to fit them.

With the fourth quarter coming up, he's planning which gifts he'll give his customers to thank them for their business.

"You don't want to let someone out of the store without the sale," says JD Woods, a senior executive at Dotcom Distribution, which fulfills and ships orders for e-commerce companies. "You want the ability to order the item and get it to the customer as fast as possible."

At eBags, which sells luggage, backpacks, and other travel accessories, CEO Mike Edwards has seen a big shift to mobile shopping and along with it, customers' heightened expectations of quick service.

Shoppers want to see merchandise they'll like, but not have to hunt through the whole site to find it. So eBags, like other companies, uses sophisticated software to make recommendations to shoppers. The Denver-based business monitors visitors to the website to be sure the merchandise they see is a good fit for them.

"You have to have a really incredible experience when they come to your site," Edwards says.