Doorbuster discounts unlikely at small retailers this season

Nov. 21, Jeff Hansen, CEO of Peter Manning, poses for a photo in the store's showroom in New York. The clothing retailer for men 5 feet 8 inches tall or under, tries to convey to shoppers that it offers quality at a fair price. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK — When Mark Aselstine started online wine retailer Uncorked Ventures, he thought he should offer discounts — so gave 30 percent off to people buying wine baskets or subscriptions for monthly deliveries. But as he analyzed the sales, he didn’t sense that the deal helped — and suspected that people who wanted top-of-the-line wine were actually turned off by it.

“People who were paying $50 or $70 per bottle of wine weren’t looking for a discount,” says Aselstine, whose business is based in Berkley, California.

Many small and independent retailers find that big markdowns don’t motivate people to shop at their stores or websites. Or, they can’t afford to use them — unlike national chains, they don’t have the high volume of sales allowing them to slash prices without hurting earnings. Retailers who want their stores to have a certain cachet also believe slashing prices may lessen their appeal. And some store owners don’t want to play cat and mouse with customers, continually lowering prices until shoppers finally buy. Those who do give holiday markdowns often make them modest, or limit them to big days like Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday.

Last year, Aselstine decided to experiment, ending all discounts except for 10 percent off during the Thanksgiving weekend. His revenue rose 20 percent from a year earlier, consistent with the previous year’s sales increases. His more-expensive wine sold better than when it was discounted. This year, he’s not offering markdowns; even without a Thanksgiving discount, sales were good.

Lea Thompson learned the hard way that being a small retailer and offering big discounts don’t mix. Wanting to be in line with other retailers during the 2016 holiday season, she gave customers of her online women’s fitness store 15 percent off plus free shipping.

“After many customers took advantage of that, including a few with insanely large orders, we realized such deals actually cut into our profits significantly rather than helped them,” says Thompson, owner of Fit Fly Fab, based in Dyer, Indiana.

This year, she did offer Cyber Monday deals, but they ended at midnight.

Profits aside, it can be risky for some small retailers to offer big discounts, says Elaine Kwon, an online retail consultant based in Seattle.

“The customer is debating between a brand they love that’s full price and a brand giving them the discount,” Kwon says. Shoppers may forgo the discounts if they believe they’re getting a good value, even at full price, she says.

Peter Manning, a clothing retailer for men 5 feet 8 inches tall or under, tries to convey to shoppers that it offers quality at a fair price.

“We are clear in our approach, that we’re not a traditional retailer offering big discounts. Once they understand our philosophy, they seem to be good with it,” CEO Jeff Hansen says.