Sale mail: New biz helps boutiques

It's a modern-day version of David and Goliath: mom-and-pop shops testing customers' long-term loyalty vs. big box stores, armed with well-padded ad budgets. Now, thanks to a new business, mom-and-pops have an extra stone for their slingshot.

The brainchild of Aurelia Lewis, a former marketing exec with Richmond's prestigious Martin Agency, aims to connect locally owned boutiques with their target customer base.

"It's pretty tough for these smaller retailers," says Lewis. "I'm a firm believer that small retail stores make it exciting for someone coming into town to shop."

Lewis teamed with Richmond software designer Ken Cloud to come up with the concept: a weekly email featuring graphic-heavy ads from up to eight boutiques offering sales of at least 20 percent off.

Launched in Richmond in July, now has a Richmond subscriber list of 1,400 shopaholics who receive the free emails, and 33 Richmond-area stores that pay $75 for inclusion in the weekly message. An additional Wednesday email that spotlights one business costs a store approximately $200.

That cost is "negligible" compared to the cost of print, radio, or television advertising, says Steve Metz, who co-owns Three Monkeys and Lynn Goldman Studio with partner Lynn Goldman, and who plans to use for both stores when the emails launch in Charlottesville in October.

"I think it's a great idea," he says. "A lot of smaller stores are trying to figure out how to reach customers who are so jaded about all the advertising that hits them. This is great because it's people who've signed up because they want the information– it's very targeted."

Steve Levy, co-owner of Levy's in Barracks Road, also calls a "great idea," particularly because, at this point, Levy's hasn't capitalized on email for communication with customers. "We're not really computer literate here," he says. Levy's Richmond store is on the website, and Levy directs his Charlottesville customers to, where they can sign up for the service.

Metz admits he's a bit worried that by signing his customers up, he may be encouraging them to shop elsewhere, but it's a risk he's willing to take.

"I want to see independent boutiques flourish," he says.

Lewis says she already has 330 Charlottesville shoppers signed up and hopes to see that number grow to 750 before the first email goes out October 24. In the meantime, she's also set her immediate sights on spreading the service to Virginia Beach, and Charlotte and Durham, North Carolina, as well as a host of other cities across the country.

"We want to go national," she says.

If everyone loves a sale, that shouldn't be too big an order.