A few weeks ago we chatted with Nicole Leinbach-Reyhle, founder and editor of Retail Minded, a magazine and news site targeted towards small, independent retailers. In addition to Retail Minded, she is the founder of the Independent Retailer Conference, another resource for smaller businesses.

Read more about the different resources available to these businesses and her forecasts for 2016:

How did you get started in the retail business?

Nicole Leinbach-Reyhle: I was always interested in retail and fortunate to live in a community that had a lot of great high school extracurricular activities, which included some specialty retail programs. Those launched my ideas of the path I could take, because at that age, you think working retail is simply selling on the sales floor. I started to understand all the dynamics that went into retail, including behind-the-scene efforts, in-store efforts, marketing, and community networking.

I ended up studying the business of retail fashion in college, because they did not have a core retail concentration, and was fortunate to work with Sears Holdings Corporation after graduation. At the time, they had Sears University within their corporate offices and that gave me even more opportunities to learn. But throughout that entire experience, I always gravitated to supporting smaller businesses and independent retailers.

After Sears, I had the opportunity to work for a footwear wholesaler, Franco Sarto. That position allowed me to travel the whole country, working with Franco Sarto himself, small independent boutiques, and magazines, which gave me a taste of editorial as well.

By 2007, I was ready to leave the big box world, take what I’d learned, and apply it to smaller businesses. One of the things I had identified along the way was that most of these big box retailers contract separate companies for marketing, merchandizing, inventory management, and so forth, but independents only have themselves. That’s what brought Retail Minded to life. Since then, it’s evolved to become a great destination for retailers.

How do you market to retailers?

Leinbach-Reyhle: Because I’m a small business owner myself, my marketing efforts have had to stay within my own budget, both in time and expense. One of the things I started to do early on was blog and contribute as a writer to a lot of other places. Content has really been my number one driver of marketing and I’ve been very fortunate because content through Google Search is very powerful, particularly through SEO. I’ve tried to build partnerships with some strong leaders in the industry, like trade shows, other retail magazines, and companies that support like-minded audiences. Too often people think that anybody who has a like-minded audience is a threat or a competitor. However, I’ve always looked at them as friends and allies. Retailers are going to be in lots of places, so I try to be in lots of places as well.

What topics does Retail Minded cover?

Leinbach-Reyhle: Retail Minded’s tag line is “News, Education, and Support.” In addition to our blog, we have a magazine that publishes eight times a year, and has been for the past six years. Much information in retail is specific to big box stores, whether it’s Target, Walmart, or Macy’s, but the news we share is very specific to independent businesses. For example, we talk about taxes, what might impact overhead, and employee management. This past October, there was a big EMV deadline that got nationwide press coverage. We wanted to educate retailers on how they could prepare for it. We focus on how we can educate and apply practical knowledge to our retailers, so that they’re not left in the dust.

Over the years I’ve built a resource guide through Retail Minded, which consists of companies that are 100 percent Retail Minded-approved. We have some fantastic resources that deal with processing checks, credit cards, as well as in-store merchandising, and consultants, among others.

Retail Minded is the official publication of the Independent Retailer Conference, a pop-up conference that takes place at various trade shows across the country, which I also co-founded. This is a platform for retailers to connect face-to-face with some of the industry’s top leaders and resources. For example, we just had Square joining us a few weeks ago. They’ll join us again at our upcoming conference.

Why did you establish the Independent Retailer Conference?

Leinbach-Reyhle: Retail Minded is fantastic for content, but doesn’t allow for the back and forth conversation. We decided to create a presence at a place where retailers already exist, like trade shows. The tagline of the conference is “Engage, Learn, Connect.” It’s just a fantastic tool that brings together industry leaders and these smaller retailers, which we’re so proud of. We were recognized recently as one of the Top 20 Retail Events in the entire world by point-of-sale (POS) company Vend.

For each Independent Retailer Conference, we partner with a trade show. For example, we partner with ASD Market Week (Affordable Shopping Destination) twice a year. It has 40,000+ attendees at each show. We put our conference right in the middle of their show floor or lobby. This allows the attendees to engage and connect, but also continue with their trade show experience. We don’t want to take away from what’s happening at the trade show; we’re considered an added value.

While at the show, we have somebody new taking our stage and delivering an educational session every 30 minutes. For example, we might have Square take the stage and talk for only 15 minutes, with time afterwards for questions. The power of 15 minutes is that the attendees are encouraged to come and go as they please, visit a table, and learn more.

What other trade shows should small retailers attend?

Leinbach-Reyhle: I am a huge fan of anything to do with local and state-level retail associations. The Council of State Retail Associations represents all 50 states and has an annual event every year. I think it’s fantastic. These state-level associations deliver insights that apply not only to the operational needs of a retailer, but also look at state-specific details that people don’t often talk about, such as legislation and the impact of taxes. These are huge influencers in retailers’ businesses, their overhead, and their success or failure. Every single state has one, so there’s no shortage of events to attend.

I’m also a huge fan of the National Retail Federation (NRF), which has a big event every year. While it doesn’t have that unique, independent spin to it that some of the other tradeshows do, I think it’s a great event to follow because of the trends that comes out of it that might eventually trickle down into independent retail.

What is your advice for 2016 business tips?

Leinbach-Reyhle: We all have heard about data. But data is available more so than ever for independent retailers. Historically, it was something that only big box stores could utilize. Nowadays, it’s everywhere. Even your Facebook page is going to tell you what post got the most traffic. This goes across all the channels that businesses now use. Whether it’s social media or email marketing efforts, all details are being tracked.

In-store POS transactions can also be systemized to produce data. I speak at various events throughout the year and I always ask attendees, “When was the last time you checked your data?” It amazes me how many people shy away and admit to never checking it. I think 2016 is the year that people actually have to analyze their data. That’s the message that independent retailers need to grasp and put into action.

IBM recently came out with a free app called Watson Trend that collects human language data through 10,000+ sources to generate what’s trending in current consumer conversations. If I’m a retailer, I need to know what consumers are looking at and what they want to do. Looking at the app’s top 100 right now, LG TVs, Go-Pro cameras, Sony cameras, and Lego City are among the trends. Watson Trend will also tell you emerging products, like yoga, organic foods, and types of diets. You can also filter results by choosing a category, like health or toys. A retailer could apply this to have a better understanding of what consumers are reacting to, and tailor their business accordingly.

Another tip is that weather will continue to influence consumer spending. All businesses should have a plan for when weather makes a huge impact, particularly in climates that are known to experience highs and lows. Have a promotional campaign ready to push through social media if you have a heavy storm. These are things that we put in our back pocket, because customers react to weather. We know that when weather happens, customers spend differently. The goal is to embrace weather to increase sales, instead of letting it scare you.

Often small retailers have this mindset that they have to wear 100 hats and have to do everything well. For my final tip, I’d advise independent retail owners to wear their strongest hat. Lean on others to do what you’re not excelling at and let others’ strengths come through. Perhaps you have a part-time employee who might excel at social media. Of course you’re going to oversee the efforts, but don’t accept the responsibility of doing it all by yourself. Take advantage of the various resources and vendors that can help you run your business better. A lot of times I’ll hear retailers say, “Well I can’t afford to get an updated point-of-sale system.” The better question is “How can you not afford to?” It’s going to help you analyze your inventory sales and ultimately improve product buys for your store, which is going to lead to stronger sales.

This has been an installment of StoreFront, an interview series with leaders of successful retail businesses. For more interviews, visit the StoreFront page. To learn how you can be featured, email us. We’d love to hear from you.