Let’s Look to the Recovery for Dance Retail

ICYMI, here are some of the key takeaways (and inspiration) from Dance Business Weekly’s March webinar for dance retailers.

Five Zoom windows of women in conversation, some of whom are in their stores with dancewear products visible.
A still from the first session of the day—”COVID-19 Success Stories: How Some Retailers Stayed in the Green.”

Dance retailers gathered virtually on March 30 for a Dance Business Weekly webinar that left attendees with reason for optimism, practical tips and inspiration from fellow retailers, and some candid advice from business and dance industry experts.

The half-day webinar was sponsored by WhizBang! Retail Training and Ballet Rosa, whose video during the break summed up everything that makes dance retailers stick with their businesses even through the hard times: gorgeous dancers performing their art, the love of that art that unites the industry‚ and, of course, exciting dance fashionnew leos! a men’s collection!—to keep dancers happy.

The webinar had four sessions: COVID-19 Success Stories: How Some Retailers Stayed in the Green; an “Ask Me Anything” session with Bob Phibbs, otherwise known as The Retail Doctor; Marketing Your Dance Store in a Post-Pandemic World, with retail trainer Bob Negen, cofounder of WhizBang! Retail Training, which sponsored the session; and What’s in Store for the Rest of 2021, with perspectives from a competition company CEO, dance studio owners and two dance retailers.

After a year when “we’ve all been operating on the edge of chaos,” as Sandy Coyte, CEO of Starbound National Talent Competition put it, and when there’s still uncertainty (the pandemic isn’t over, after all), speakers conveyed a growing sense of confidence that the dance business is picking up and innovating anew. In case you missed the presentations, here are six key takeaways.

Get ready to get busy.

Requests for summer competitions bookings are up, Coyte said. “I was thinking that [running at] 50 to 60 percent would be a gift, but we’re at 100 percent, despite the restrictions. I wish there were more days in the week.” Dani Rosenberg and Becca Moore, owners of Rhythm Dance Center in Marietta, GA, reported that summer enrollments are double where they were at this time last year. The studio still has strict protocols in place, but it has participated in competitions and other events, with zero incidents of COVID cases. “Parents’ confidence level is up,” said Moore. “They are, bottom line, ready to get their kids back into dance.” Studios Coyte works with are also telling her enrollment is on the rise for summer, and September is looking like it’s going to be even bigger. “I’m predicting we’ll be booming for fall,” she said. “Make sure you’re ready.”

All this is good news for retailers, of course, whose businesses depend on people dancing. In fact, Emily Mayerhoff, owner of Attitude Dance Boutique in College Station, TX, said she saw a 20 percent growth in sales in March 2021 over March 2019 (a comparison to pre-pandemic, in other words). Kristin Ruggieri, owner of Attitude Dance & Active Wear in Norwalk, CT, also had record-breaking February and March 2021 sales.

When studios loosened up dress codes for virtual dance classes and went to “anything black,” that meant “dancers would shop their closet, which was a huge loss,” said Roshawn Buxton, owner of Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet in Atlanta, GA. Now, with studios ready to get back to more traditional looks and more competitions taking place, “we want our dancers to have new dancewear,” said Moore. Coyte also sees studios retiring old costumes and buying new dancewear, after making do last year.

Don’t be afraid to start afresh. In fact, it’s a must.

“People go into a [brick-and-mortar] store to discover,” said retail expert Bob Phibbs, who predicts the best back-to-school for retail in a generation. So give them something new to discover. “I would take everything out of the store, clean it completely. I would paint any wall white to bring in the light, change lamps on fixtures. I’d curate my assortment—you want to pique customers’ interest, not be a warehouse.”

Last fall, Ruggieri saw that commercial real estate prices were trending lower and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to move to a larger location. She sold her house and put her own money into renovating the new space. At a time when normal life seemed to be on hold, customers got a kick out of seeing the build-out in progress and the new store opened in February with strong sales. “I took a big risk,” said Ruggieri. “I gave away enough old merchandise as donations to make myself sick, and I brought in five new lines. But it’s about freshness and newness.”

Customer relationships never went on pause, even when selling did.

Successful retailers know that, at its core, customer service is not about trying to get people to buy stuff. It’s about asking yourself, said Phibbs, “How can I open my heart to another human being?” What do they need? Or, as Bob Negen, cofounder of WhizBang! Retail Training, put it: What would my customer want?  When studios were closed (and no one needed dancewear),  retailers hopped online. “I didn’t talk about products. I did live videos and posted online dance opportunities,” said Mayerhoff. “I wanted to stay relevant. And I wanted to share honest feelings.”

Like many dance stores, Ashley Kelly, owner of Dance Depot in South Daytona, FL, stocked the masks people needed to stay safe (which also helped pay the bills). She launched personal shopping appointments and stayed in close contact, texting with customers and sharing news about virtual classes online. “I know how to love on people,” she said.

Tech can help nurture those relationships, too, panelists pointed out. To make customer interactions more seamless, Heather Aldi, president/CEO of Metronome Dancewear in Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA, invested in Salesforce, customer relationship management (CRM) software, so that conversations with customers can pick up right where they left off, even if a different staffer answers the phone the next time. “We can look and see, Oh, this customer is going to Kirov this summer, and then stay in touch and make sure we have what she needs,” Aldi said. Phibbs demonstrated how he uses BombBomb, a video email marketing app that lets you connect with customers in a much more personal way—via a video message from you instead of straight text, as if you’re having a face-to-face conversation.

Getting the products customers want may be harder than usual—but retailers find workarounds.

Retailers reported shipping delays and difficulty getting product, as manufacturers get up and running again or reestablish relationships with their own suppliers. “Certain companies used to be so reliable. I’d order on Monday, I’d get it on Wednesday,” said Buxton. Now, unreliable supply chains can put retailers in an awkward spot, where they don’t always have control. But that’s not what the customer cares about. “Bottom line, the customer wants the product. And I always want each customer to feel like a VIP,” said Buxton. She and other retailers go to extraordinary lengths to get a customer what she needs, even to the point of sending her over to another retailer or getting the item from “an army of other business owners who work together to serve their customers,” as Kelly put it.

Many retailers are buying cautiously in these still-uncertain times, which could lead to inventory shortages and lost sales when business picks up. Jennifer Watson, owner of Dancers’ Boutique in Williamsburg, VA, bulk-ordered 25 percent of her inventory up front this year, instead of the usual 40 to 60 percent. But as a workaround, she monitors inventory even more carefully and will order once a week, or even once a day, to stay stocked.

The purpose of marketing is not to drive traffic into your store (gasp).

Shopping (and, hence, marketing) is now an “omni-experiential web,” Negen told attendees. “Customers want to experience your brand the way they want to experience it. So how can you create more ways for the customer to do that?” he asked. Maybe they want to buy via a Facebook Live event, but then you post that event on your website with e-commerce links to the products. Then you email your customer list that the Facebook sales event is available there. Or maybe the customer wants to buy online and pick up in the store. Or at the curb. Or they like what they saw at the Facebook Live event, but want to see it at the store before they buy. Maybe they’re still most comfortable shopping by after-hours appointment, or by phone.

“Come at it from a place of love,” Negen said. “Ask, ‘Can we set something up for you?’” Text when a customer’s favorite brand comes in. Kelly, for instance, now has FaceTimes with customers between their fittings for pointe shoes, to troubleshoot problems or answer any questions that might come up.

Communicate directly. “However many likes you have on social media, they’re still rented names,” Negen said. “The name of the game is to convert those likes into text numbers and emails” and then use them to nurture and satisfy customers’ love of dance. “It’s your job to be remembered,” he said. Engage with customers in the places they like to be, whether it’s through social media, text marketing or email newsletters.

Why can’t I get good staff? Hiring and training tips

Hint: Your staff is your internal customer, Phibbs reminded attendees. Don’t just call in a bunch of resumés and then start weeding people out: They’re not this, they’re not that, he said. “Great employees know other great employees. Gen Z are very entrepreneurial, positive, educated. Show them what you’re doing as a small business,” and how they can be part of it. Make a point of having regular conversations with staff about their professional goals, and the path to achieving them (as lululemon does, Phibbs pointed out). He also described how Guitar Center featured its employees in video interviews on its website: One had a side gig as a DJ, the other was passionate about the cello, and so on—all creating the message that this was a cool bunch of people to work with.   

How to train staff? Phibbs offered a quick start: “Write down the 10 things that drive you nuts that you have to answer every week. That’s what you have to teach.” (For a deeper dive, his SalesRX is a comprehensive online sales training program.) During the slow pandemic months, Ruggieri decided to invest in training all her staff through WhizBang!. “That made a big difference in our bottom line,” she said.

Dance Business Weekly has an affiliate relationship with WhizBang! Retail Training, and may earn a commission from products and services bought through our links.

Basia Hellwig is a founding editor of Dance Business Weekly.