5 Tactics to Thrive in This Complicated Year for Dance Retail

A veteran dance retailer and industry consultant shares five key operating principles to help you sort through the confusion of this constantly shifting business environment.

Gilbert Russell, man with gray hair, glasses, talking to woman on left with aqua dress
Gilbert Russell talks with a retail client. His dance store, Brio Bodywear, has two brick-and-mortar locations in Ottawa, Canada, along with e-commerce sales. Courtesy of Brio Bodywear.

2021 is going to be a complicated year. We will go from pandemic lockdowns to a period of uncertainty and then on to the recovery. Each period will be full of challenges and opportunities. You’ll have a million ideas about what to do (or none at all). From 30-plus years of running a dance-retail business myself, I’ve learned that focusing on what’s important will keep you on track and moving forward.

Here are five things to focus on now to help your store not just survive but thrive this year.

1. Protect your most important asset

For your store to win in 2021, you need to take good care of its most important asset: you.

This year, you will have to be agile and creative, and see and seize new opportunities. And you’re not going to be able to do any of this well if you are stressed.

The research is clear: Stress makes you dumb and blind. Under pressure, you won’t think of all the solutions. Under stress, your vision narrows, so you will miss significant opportunities.

You know you perform better when you’re not stressed. That’s why your best ideas come on a drive home from a weekend away. Or in the shower. 

To benefit from your best ideas in 2021, your store needs you to lower your stress levels. And there’s a lot of stress to lower. We’ve just been through a year of unprecedented uncertainty. We weren’t sure if our stores were going to survive. We worried about our health. And our family’s health. It was rough.

You need to accept that you’ve been through a lot. And that you’ve adapted. And you’re still standing. Accept that you are a bit beat up and that you may not be as productive. That’s OK. Just focus on the things that really matter. Get those done, and your store will be fine.

Double down on whatever stress-relief method works for you. Walking, yoga, exercise—whatever you do, do it more. Or try a meditation app. I find Headspace or Ten      Percent Happier are great (and they have free trials).

Yes, I know, you don’t have the time. Make the time. Lowering your stress levels is the single most important thing you can do for your store in 2021.

2. Keep a close eye on your cash flow

If there is one thing that is clear about 2021, it’s that nothing is clear about 2021. Pandemic restrictions are easing, but the variants may change that. There’ll be a burst of pent-up demand. Or not. For how long? Who knows. Dance schools have closed. New schools will open. Some competitors have gone. New competitors will appear.

Your store could end 2021 doing better than ever before. But only if you watch your financial numbers carefully. 

A volatile, fast-growth period can be more dangerous to your store than a slowdown. As you scramble to handle the sales growth, it’s easy to over-hire, over-spend and over-buy. I should know; I almost went bankrupt after a period of blistering growth. It’s so easy to lose control when things are ripping along.

A good cash-flow plan is your key to staying out of trouble. It will help you know exactly where you are financially at all times. You can see problems coming and plan for them. Or know that things are going great and take advantage of opportunities. Either way, the peace of mind you will gain is worth the effort.

We dancewear retailers tend to be creative and not numbers people. That’s why I suggest you use the cash flow spreadsheet from retail management expert Tom Shay. It’s easy to use, Shay explains everything well, and you can get it done in little time. It won’t be the most fun you’ve ever had, but a good mug of coffee should make the process relatively painless.

A good cash-flow plan should be adjusted regularly (more coffee). That way, however volatile and wild things get, you’ll have the information to keep your store safe and thriving.

3. Keep serving your customers, everywhere

You know all that scrambling we had to do at the start of the pandemic? The e-commerce, the social selling, the curbside pickup? Well, those new options are here to stay. Customers have gotten used to shopping where and when they want to shop.

And that’s good for us. Curbside, local delivery—these things give us the edge on Amazon. 

But they all take time and cost money. Before things get busy, we need to set up systems for these channels. We need to find ways to make them more efficient. 

You could assign the role of digital salesperson to one of your staff. Or buy lockers for curbside pickup. Or make your e-commerce site more user-friendly. Whatever you do, take this time to improve these new channels. They are going to be critical to your success in 2021.

Light wood shelves with racks of colorful swimwear.
Swimwear to entice customers at Brio Bodywear, as summer approaches. Courtesy of Brio Bodywear.

4. Bring your customers back

According to McKinsey & Company, 75 percent of consumers have changed where and how they shop during the pandemic. Your customers have been shopping around. It’s time to bring them back.

Launch a re-engagement campaign. Encourage customers to come back to the store by sending them an email with a gift card (not a percentage-off coupon). Customers treat gift cards like cash. It will be burning a hole in their pocket, and they’ll be anxious to come into your store and spend it. It’s a great way to reconnect.

We need to remind customers of our shared passion. Share your expertise. Do it on social media, but mostly do it with emails. Email is still how consumers prefer to hear from brands: 60 percent want to get promotions by email, and only 20 percent from social media. 

If you don’t have everyone’s email address, start a loyalty program that captures emails. But don’t offer an ongoing discount for membership. An ongoing discount becomes invisible. A reward reached after x purchases is memorable; it feels like a gift.

5. Get new customers with excellent marketing

In the recovery, there are going to be many new customers up for grabs. Competitors have closed. Parents want to get their kids off screens. New dance schools will open. You need a strong marketing campaign with a focused message to capture all that new business. A message that tells the customer why they should shop with you. That tells them what is unique about your shop and how it solves their problem.

A great marketing message isn’t “We have dancewear.” Nor is it even “We have great dancewear at x% off.” The customer’s problem isn’t that they can’t find dancewear or a discounted price. But it may be that they’re stressed about getting their child the right dance gear. Or the wrong size. Or maybe they’re tired of the same old dancewear and are looking for something new.

To come up with a message that matters, drill down by using the phrase “so that.” For example: 

  • “We have a big pointe shoe selection…” (weak)“
  • “…so that you can find the shoe that’s right for you” (better)
  • “…so that you can dance safely on pointe” (now you’re getting somewhere)

Pick your primary customer’s biggest problem. Show them how you have the solution. Do that, and you will win the customer. And the recovery.

This year is going to be wild. I hope that these five recommendations help you make 2021 one of your best years ever.

Gilbert Russell is president of Brio Bodywear, which has two brick-and-mortar stores that sell dancewear, swimwear and bras in Ottawa, Canada. He loves sharing his experience and knowledge to help other independent retailers through his firm, No Qualms Consulting Inc.