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Ease and Simplicity: The Saviors of Independent Retail

06/06/2013 12:11 EDT | Updated 06/06/2013 12:11 EDT

The world is changing and so is the way we shop: boutiques have closed up and wholesale business for the most part has dropped significantly over the past few years. Just ask any shop owner who has been around for a while, and most will share the same story -- even if they won't tell you outright, even if they brush off the loss of their store as a good change; the right change, even.

A new breed of entrepreneurs are cropping up, and they want to do it differently. They're going direct to the customer, cutting out the middleman, and building lean and mean vertical enterprises: companies like Everlane, an online shop bringing designer quality tees at mall-appropriate prices, yoga retailer Lululemon, who started from the very beginning selling exclusively their own product, and me, a girl who (once) had big dreams of being in the fashion business, doing it my own way. It's big business mentality meets small business heart.

The only ones who seem to be left out in this equation in this new era of consumerism are independent retail shops and boutiques. They're left in the dust as big retailers take over and brands go direct to their customers. The lesson seems to be: get big or get lean.

There's no room left for anyone else.

But, perhaps this isn't a question of one battle won over the other. Online business is booming but does that really mean we're all going to stop shopping brick and mortar? Will the whole idea of shopping a nice little boutique on a nice little street become a thing of nostalgia?

Most of us aren't black and white in our decisions -- we like the idea of supporting small business but when we need the cheapest deal on X, the mindless trek to Super-center-mart starts. Some us feel guilty over it, but if the numbers and takeovers are any indication, most of us don't. We flock in herds to get the best deals on the stuff we all need, and the stuff we don't. And indie brick and mortar seems to be bearing the brunt of it.

But this isn't about the perfect world. And if we think about it as being an either/or, indie retail won't stay for long. Big business is fast, easy, convenient and cheap. And in a world where everything is competing for our attention, where thousands of messages are being relayed to us every day, where we have a million and one things on our to-do lists and bucket lists, we can't help but be drawn furiously into a world of the quick and convenient. That's just how we live now.

Lifestyle aside, the new threat to independent brick and mortar shops aren't just big box retailers and discount sites -- it's also the brands who decide they're ready to venture out on their own, doing it all from design, manufacturing and retail, bypassing the stores who oftentimes have been the ones there from the beginning, helping them build the business that they now have the liberty to grow in a different direction. It's like having a partner who turns their back on you in search of something better. Sucks, doesn't it?

So it seems obvious. Indie retail is soon to be an anomaly -- right?

Kangaloop is an upcoming platform launching June 18 with one simple promise: to make it easier for retailers and brands to connect on the things that drive business. The weekly newsletter and website is specifically designed for the baby and kids industry, built to help designers get direct in front of retailers without having to attend a tradeshow, go through a rep, or even design and print a catalogue. Deals listed, launches shared, last calls ready to be snapped up right then and there. It doesn't take a genius to see that it's a complete shift from the archaic methods designers and retailers use to connect today.

In a world driven by convenience, it's about time they catch up and start to work together. It's been a tough few years and many designer/retailer partnerships have ended and parted ways. And unless they find a way to work together, indie retail will become a thing of the past.

The way to win seems to lie in simplicity and ease.

In my short term as the designer of my own fashion line, I never once made a catalogue, a buyer's kit or stepped foot inside a tradeshow. I chose to sell direct online. Why? Because it was easier. But the reality of business is that although there are times to go direct to the public, to cut out the middleman, there is also something magical about being in a store. And on the other side, as a shopper, there's just something intangibly different about browsing an independent shop. There's a certain curation that goes on, an atmosphere that's created, a from the ground approach that I and many others still appreciate and don't necessarily want to leave behind.

With big box stores taking over, the economy in what seems like permanent limbo, and shoppers flocking to discount sites, many independent stores and designers are left with a decision: either close down or find new ways to keep up. Cue the rise of social media to drive connection and engagement. No cost to implement, and if you're lucky, the brand starts to grow a little each day.

But that's not enough. Leaving the retailers behind in search of the greener grass -- the direct public -- is not the only (or even best) way.

"We were inspired actually by how easy it was for buyers to shop online sample sales. And we wondered why nobody had thought of doing the same for the wholesale industry? Indie retail isn't dead. It just needs to get unstuck," says Kangaloop co-founder Brad Ellis.

Getting unstuck is the key. The wholesale-to-retail industry is huge still, believe it or not, but it was, to be honest, intimidating. I told people that I didn't want to start there because I thought I could get things up faster and easier, and lower cost, the other way. By myself, straight to customers. It was the easier choice, but I would've loved to be in a shop on LA or Brooklyn or even my hometown of Vancouver. The reality was, as a new designer, time and money were both limited, and getting into wholesale was a whole other thing to tackle that I just wasn't equipped to handle. I wouldn't even know where I'd start.

I did okay, but not well enough to keep going. I wanted things to be even simpler. (I tend to run the other way when it comes to anything complicated.) But I did see the love, and I saw it in spades.

My own jaunt in the world of design aside, signs of revival and growth for small businesses are popping up elsewhere. In my own turf -- fashion -- Boticca operates on a different level. They go direct to public, but operate as the middleman between independent jewellery and accessory designers who are artists perhaps moreso than they are big business engines, providing the retail "space" in exchange for an audience hungry for indie design. And there is an audience for it. They've found a way to build the brand and the numbers to support a site selling indie designers, hunting down designers from all over the world and bringing them into one, convenient shopping experience. It's a new way to look at indie retail, sure, but perhaps it's a simply a sign of the changing times, and a proverbial kick in the pants for everyone still in the game -- or wanting to get in the game -- to get fast, get easy, and get convenient.

Etsy, the handmade behemoth of the world, is bringing in big business. While not every small business is necessarily as homespun as many of the brands on Etsy, the demand for products and brands with a clear small time appeal is huge. The outright truth: it's not "small-ness" that's making business hard. It's something else, and in my very humble opinion, it's the way business works, not the business itself. And business in the 21st century needs to keep up with the pace of life we are so accustomed to. There is no room for hoops to jump through to be an ethical consumer.

That's something the big box retailers have mastered. They make it so easy to shop that it's no wonder they've taken over. Convenience, simplicity, and reach comes easy to those with larger than life budgets and worker bees at their beck and call. But the illusion that the smaller companies can't do it is false.

If we take a closer look, the interesting thing is that many big businesses are trying to emulate the very thing that we love about small business: heart, personal connection, and engagement. (Look! They want to be just like us!) Big brands such as Anthropologie even hunt down select emerging independent designers to feature and sell in collaboration on their site. Why would a retail giant do that? Because these designers have a cache of cool that no matter what, big business can't replicate, even with the biggest budgets in the world. They're bringing a new level of cool to the brand, and these designers reach a whole new audience.

Most of us have got it all wrong, thinking that small business needs to get big to survive and thrive. But fast, easy convenience is something small lean businesses are even better equipped to handle. No bureaucracies, no complicated infrastructures, no teams or higher-ups to approve a move. They just need to find the way.

It doesn't matter that the designers are each playing a smaller game. All that matters it seems is that they find the easiest, fastest, and most direct way to connect with the people that provide revenue and make it possible for a small company to keep going, giving the magic of something made from the heart back to the world.

At the end of the day, the only resource we're all really lacking isn't money, but time. (Think about that for a second: We're all really just trying to buy either a) more time or b) a better time.) Most of us have reversed the thinking on this, seeking out cheap discounts and sales because we think we want we save money, when really, what we really need to be doing is saving time and spending it better.

If independent retailers and designers can make it easy (in other words: less time and energy-consuming) to shop good and shop well, and to do business together, then they're competing on just a grand a scale as the big guys. Perhaps even grander - after all, who doesn't love a good David vs. Goliath story?

Put it all together -- heart and ease -- and you've got the magic formula for success in business and in life.

Time to bring back the magic.