Most merchants would go to the moon and back for a sales associate like Khloe. She’s loyal. She always arrives to her shift on time. She’s genuinely enthusiastic when customers enter.
Erik Miller owns the shop, Untied on Woodward, in downtown Birmingham, Michigan, and he acknowledges Khloe as being instrumental to the store’s success.
Open since September 2018, Untied was a rare breed of merchant pre-Covid: an independent men’s shop selling lesser-known brands and accessories, its aesthetic more sit-for-a-while than next-in-line. Today, post-lockdown, the store remains a rarity: welcoming, familiar – and new – faces, enjoying more good days than bad, and an owner-operator optimistic despite the looming holiday season.
Looming is an apt description. In a pandemic-free world we might say “upcoming” to describe the all-important weeks of gift-giving selling. But, with Covid cases spiking and talk of future lockdowns … well, pretty much anything and everything seems to be looming, and ominously so, for retailers.
Erik, though, isn’t cowering. Instead, he’s pragmatic about Christmas shopping thanks to a strategy heavy on promotion, investment in technology, and plenty of treats for Khloe, his golden retriever and the store’s social media star.
National Retail Federation chief economist Jack Kleinhenz echoes Erik’s mood. In a release from the trade association, Kleinhenz expressed cautious optimism “about the fourth quarter in terms of the economy and consumer spending,” but concedes this could change pending a surge in infections or issues surrounding the election. Meantime, Erik’s keeps Untied on Woodward humming.
Erik opened Untied after honing his eye for style and penchant for selling at retailers large and small. Most recently he worked in men’s better clothing at the now-defunct Carson’s department store in Rochester Hills. When the first rumblings of the chain’s financial troubles began circulating, Erik began planning his exit.
He recalled a mentor, a retailer in northern Michigan, who “put the fire in me” to open a shop, he explained.
There’s a warmth to Untied. The space is comfortable, small but not cramped with exposed brick walls and dark wood flooring. The white neon sign behind the cash desk reads: Today Was A Good Day. Indeed, Erik exudes a positive attitude, not only about his store and its future, but about his neighbors, too.
“We rely on each other for referrals,” he said, acknowledging the women’s apparel and shoe stores just south of Untied. “We only have ourselves to rely on for support, even more so now that networking events have been shelved … those really helped,” he added, referring to programs sponsored by Birmingham’s business district association.
Downtown Birmingham is friendly and supportive that way. So close are the bonds between Erik and his neighbors that one store manager alerted him to a Covid-related grant available for small businesses. Erik applied and was approved.
Most notably, customers are supportive. Erik said, “They’re happy we’re open, happy to see Khloe, pleased with the precautions we have in place. They like trying on the clothes … and feeling normal again.
Most of Untied’s business does, in fact, come from in-person shopping, a small step toward pre-Covid normalcy. The store’s website, still in its infancy, receives only “fair traffic,” Erik admits, so he’s working initiatives to draw more visits.
“But it’s tough to replicate the store experience online,” he said. I agree; I’ve been a customer of Untied since it opened. Khloe doesn’t greet you virtually, and the nuance of fit — no two brands of denim are alike — can’t be discerned. A second challenge: some brands prohibit Erik from selling or promoting their products online.
Still, Erik sees the benefit of enhancing his online presence for holiday, as well as the in-store experience.
Erik said online sales are a mix of local and out-of-state addresses, both repeat business and new customers, including three during our conversation.
Often, customers find Untied after searching a particular item. Among brands Untied stocks are Ben Sherman, Normal Brand, John Lennon Collection designed by Yoko Ono, footwear from Thursday Boot Company, and Detroit-themed T-shirts designed by Erik. Accessories include Maui Jim sunglasses. Hirsute customers discover beard balms, beard oils and grooming kits from Detroit Grooming Co. Stylish masks arrive soon.
Erik edited his buy for fall, shifting more toward “anything super comfortable” for WFH wardrobes. “No one really needs dressier pants,” he said. While for gift giving he’s come up with a buy-and-fly concept: curated gift boxes at multiple price points. “Call ahead, drive up, I bring it to the your car,” Erik said, adding, “and best of all there’s no sizes to worry about.”
He also hopes to get back to hosting in-store events with nibbles, drinks, and music. He’d seen success with those since opening and believes holiday is the right time to bring them back.
And as much as Erik relies on social media for promotions — which he’ll amplify in the coming weeks —he still utilizes classic marketing strategies including magazine advertising and promotions, as well as email blasts. But, his most successful driver of business: word of mouth.
Then there’s Khloe. People stop in specifically to visit with her, and end up making a purchase. She offers a paw, her belly … and Erik offers a ten percent discount to anyone shopping with their dogs.
Edward Nakfoor is a Birmingham, Michigan-based freelance writer and marketer for small businesses. How is your retail business preparing for holiday? Contact Ed at email@example.com.
Connect with Erik at @untiedonwoodward.