Grand Openings vs. Soft Openings: Which Is Right for Your Store?



by Amanda Baltazar

How do you reintroduce your store to customers when you move 500 feet across the road?

There’s nothing like throwing a grand opening party to get the community talking. And that’s exactly what Matthew Burdeen did when he moved Burdeen’s Jewelry in Chicago from one side of Lake Cook Road to the other. 

“If you don’t do a grand opening when you open or relocate a jewelry store, you’re really missing an opportunity,” says John Torella, senior partner with global retailer advisers J.C. Williams Group in Toronto. “Everyone’s interested in what’s new.”

But rushing into an opening can be a huge error, “because you only get one time to make a first impression,” says Sherry Smith, business mentor at The Edge Retail Academy, a jewelry-business consultancy in Henderson, Nev. “You don’t get a do-over. You’re not necessarily going to lose customers if your grand opening fails, but you’re not going to leave the impression you want.” 

That’s why some retailers opt for a “soft opening” weeks or months before their grand event. Opening for business with minimum hoopla allows a “shakedown cruise” to see that every aspect of the retail operation is working properly and also gives staff time to become familiar with the new store. 

These days, retailers are using myriad tactics—including a hybrid soft-grand opening—to inform existing and potential clients of their new locations.

Iron out the kinks

For Burdeen, the grand opening of his relocated store wasn’t the first thing on his mind—it was the second. He planned to open and settle in with his staff and customers for six months before he created fanfare with a grand opening.

Burdeen needed his employees to know where everything was and to be at ease selling in a new environment—“because if we’re not, the customers are not,” he says. “We wanted to be able to understand our space and be comfortable in it. We wanted to provide the experience we hoped to provide.”

During the settling-in period, he came to understand how to best merchandise his products in the new space, where customers congregate, and which areas needed more privacy. He also rejiggered the lighting, adding more in some areas, subtracting in others; moved phones and computers; and restyled the gift-wrap area to make it user-friendly for staff. “That six months was invaluable,” Burdeen says.

Soft openings like Burdeen’s give owners an opportunity to give their stores a test-drive, of sorts. “This is about reducing risk,” Torella says. 

So many things can happen with a new store, and working in it is the only surefire way to see how everything goes, Smith says. With a soft launch, “you are hoping for the best and planning for the worst,” she explains. “It’s a dress rehearsal.” 

Burdeen’s Jewelry hosted two grand openings in May, six months after the store opened its doors. 

The first was a VIP party to which Burdeen invited his top 300 clients. The event took place in the evening on the store’s large patio, under a gazebo. Inside, he decorated the space like a nightclub, complete with custom lighting (including chandeliers), white lounge furniture, and a red carpet. The gathering featured three chefs cooking to order and a local celebrity DJ spinning until 1 a.m. 

Burdeen staged his second party the next day. He invited everyone on his mailing list. The daytime event also featured live entertainment, but the catering was more appropriate for afternoon: sandwiches, salads, and a Bloody Mary bar.

“You have to be careful that your grand opening is a relevant offering and isn’t just hype,” Torella says. “If you had a rock band outside your store and all it did was create confusion, it would probably turn people away. Openings have to fit into your grand scheme and further your brand.”

Corneau.jpg
Inside the low-key grand opening at Corneau Goldsmithing in Charleston, S.C. 

Consider a hybrid

Last November, two days before Corneau Goldsmithing in Charleston, S.C., officially opened its doors, the store staged what appeared to be a grand opening. But owner Michael Corneau insists that it was, in fact, a soft opening.

“We invited influential people in Charleston,” Corneau says. “In this town you have to get your name out there, so you invite wealthy socialites who have influence.”

He also asked family and friends and, as a result, drew about 60 people to the store. During the shindig, Corneau offered guests a discount of 10 percent, “but the event was more about getting people in and creating a positive first impression that would last.”

For the grand opening, held a month later—“so we could reorganize and create public awareness,” says Corneau—the store cast a wider net. During a weekend in December, Courneau ran a trunk show and offered a 15 percent discount for that weekend only. He brought in a snow machine for its novelty and hired a Santa who interacted with guests. Catering was simple—cider, coffee, and homemade pastries. “It was all about creating public awareness,” he says.

Corneau invited VIPs to the soft opening with hand-addressed invitations. For the grand opening, he sent out emails, postcards, and flyers and networked with other local business owners, which was key, he says. “The idea was to match ourselves up with art galleries or boutiques that we feel we are compatible with,” he says. “People need to know you exist, to meet you one-on-one, and say, ‘I like this person,’ so they can recommend your store.”

Retailers have a number of communication strategies at their fingertips for communicating their grand opening—the idea is to personalize the occasion as much as possible, Torella says. And when you’re looking for new customers, do so carefully, not willy-nilly, he says. Research nearby neighborhoods and find areas that have the demographics you are seeking to attract.

marilyn.jpg
A Marilyn Monroe impersonator croons a jewelry-themed tune at Grogan Jewelers’ new store.

Embrace your grandest ambitions

Grogan Jewelers softly opened its new store in Florence, Ala., in May 2013 and held a grand opening three weeks later. “It takes the first two weeks to figure out where everything is, and there’s a list a mile long of all the things you need to do,” says owner Jay Klos, who moved his business about five miles from its former location.

“If you’re thinking you’re going to be missing a lot of business, you’re not, and you have to take that time,” he says.

During the first three weeks of business, Klos determined where to place catalogs, bags, and boxes; fine-tuned his marketing; cleaned the store; and found a home for all the bits and bobs that pile up during a move.

Klos pulled out all the stops for his grand opening. He hired a young girl dressed as Marilyn Monroe to sing—to the guests’ surprise—“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the middle of the store. A group of tuxedo-clad young men also sang and appeared in a skit. Artists performed aerial acrobatics with red ribbons hanging from the store’s 30-foot ceilings. Klos served an upscale catered menu, and some guests were picked up and delivered to the store in his vintage Rolls-Royce. 

While aerial acrobatics may seem, well, over the top, there’s value to going all out for a grand opening, as Billy and Lauren Metzer discovered last year when they moved The Diamondaire from Naperville, Ill., to St. Charles, Ill., 16 miles away, where Billy’s parents ran a jewelry store from 1994 to 2008. 

gambling.jpg
The Diamondaire gambled on a grand opening party the night of the town’s Christmas parade. 

The soft opening was essential “to get the kinks worked out,” says Lauren—referring, most notably, to the decor—and to attract walk-in traffic. They placed signage outside and offered coffee and hot chocolate inside. Three weeks later, on Nov. 29, the night of the town’s Christmas parade, the Metzers held the grand opening. They invited friends, family, and existing customers; about 15 percent of the evening’s traffic came from passersby.

“We made the grand opening as grand as possible,” Lauren says, with music, decorations, catered food, and a bar in the corner. They even had a blackjack table. 

Shooting for the stars with your grand opening is a great idea, Smith says. “Make as big of a splash as you can. You want there to be a buzz, you want people to be wowed. You want to be differentiated.” 

Top: the very grand opening to celebrate Burdeen’s Jewelry’s big across-the-street move; inset: between ogling jewels, Burdeen’s guests could nosh on, among other things, specialty cheeses.

 

Human Resources

Reach out to people in your community to help promote your grand opening. Start with the following groups:

1 Your local Chamber of Commerce, which will probably promote your event for free if you are a member. Find yours at uschamber.com/chamber/directory.

2 Your local downtown development office

3 Members of the local media—print, radio, television—who can help spread the buzz

4 Your vendor reps. Invite them to attend the opening, so they can help talk up and show their collections, measure ring sizes, and clean jewelry.

5 A jewelry trade association, such as Jewelers of America (800-223-0673; jewelers.org)

Source: Manistee, Mich.–based retail management consultant Judy Crockett