Lanette Delaney lowered the arm of the sewing machine's presser foot and guided the calico fabric past the feed dog, stitching together the quilted design that will soon be made into a sweatshirt jacket.
"This is my first class I've taken here," said Ms. Delaney, one of three students hovering over sewing machines during a class at Branum's Sewing & Vacuum Center. "I have three daughters and I thought this would be a really neat thing to give each one of them for Christmas this year."
Like computer stores, craft stores and hardware stores, Branum's is teaching customers how to use its products. It's a marketing method that generates goodwill, enhances the relationship between store and customer, and provides a means to showcase certain products.
"The values are many. Name recognition for one," said Judy Boulware, Branum's education coordinator. "...Anyone that darkens our door is a potential customer. If they come here to take classes, they are going to buy machines, needles, rulers, threads, sergers and irons."
Pamela Rucker, National Retail Federation vice president for public relations, said retailers must have the right products and good customer service, but must make shopping at an event, an experience.
"Retailing is really focusing more on experience right now,," she said. "Experience retailing is just as important as what a retailer carries."
Experience retailing is a trend that's been strong over the past five years as competition has increased and retailers seek ways to differentiate themselves from competitors, Ms. Rucker.
"The one downside of (retail) consolidation is that there is a lot of sameness," she said.
Kim Mock, owner of Say Cheese scrapbook store in Martinez, said getting products into customers' hands is the first step in moving them out the door.
"It helps us feel better about what we sell if somebody knows what they're buying and knows how to use it," Ms. Mock said.
Marsha Ferguson, a spokeswoman for Home Depot, said her store was a pioneer in how-to retailing, a practice that began with the opening of the first store in 1979.
The store's classes - such as how to install a ceiling fan, lay tile or install a Pergo floor - are more than just marketing tools, they are a way to educate do-it-yourselfers and keep them coming back for more.
"We want to empower the customer," Ms. Ferguson said. "We want the do-it-yourselfer to know that a lot of the things that they think are difficult tasks are pretty simple."
Chris Ahearn, spokeswoman for Lowe's, said the hands-on experience customers get through their classes gives them confidence to try projects on their own.
"If they can spend an hour with us and get tips from an expert, then they can go into that project and are less likely to make mistakes. Then it's a much more satisfying project for them, and everytime a customer has a success, they are more likely to try the next project," she said.
At Lowe's, the company is bringing up the next generation of potential customers offering children's classes on weekends.
"They are gaining some do-it-yourself skills that will help them become do-it-yourselfers when they grow up," Ms. Ahearn said.
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.
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