Q: I own a gallery/unique gift shop. Friends say I should get the word out by hosting an open house. Truthfully, I’m worried about having a large group of people congregating in my space. Are open houses successful in terms of making new sales and getting new customers? Or are they more trouble than they are worth?
— Frank P., via e-mail

A: Donald’s retail rule #1, “Use every means possible to get bodies into the shop.” Planning an open house at strategic times of the year is one great way to do this. An open house can be low-key and simple or part of a bigger idea. If you choose, there can be refreshments appropriate to your shop and to the theme. Remember, there’s something endearing about a hot glass of cider and a cookie at a holiday open house. It’s also true that the longer the shoppers stay in your shop, the more likely they are to make a purchase. Cookies help!

The most obvious and potentially profitable time for an open house is during the holiday season. I’d recommend the weekend before or just after Thanksgiving. Choosing these dates allows the returning customer to check out what’s new and allows the first time visitor to explore your shop and give them both time to fit your merchandise into their shopping plans. On the other hand you could choose a date closer to the holiday and bring in the last-minute folks. Holiday season is a great time to team up with other galleries to create a series of open houses on the same day. This creates a unique shopping experience for the shopper and allows you to share the work and resources with the other shops.

Events specific to your area would also be potential times to throw open the doors. Are you in a college town? Parents’ weekend and graduation season are always good choices. Is there a tourist season in your area that you could cash in on? Again, these would be opportune times to work with other galleries in your area to create an Art Walk.

Wherever your shop is located, other holidays may warrant an open-house celebration that would be determined by the nature of your merchandise. Valentine’s and Mother’s Day are great times to have an open house with a trunk show. Invite one of your jewelers or accessories makers to set up in the shop with items that enrich those you already have or if possible a work table and demonstrate their processes. Surely, you’re aware of the importance of wedding-gift buying. Although couples marry at about the same rate year round, we think of the season as May and June, so consider an open house geared to this market. Perhaps you could offer an open house that showcases your merchandise and allows couples to register for gifts from your shop.

You’ll have to decide how you want to announce and promote an open house. If you’re going alone on this, you’ll want to keep this as simple and cost effective as possible. You could send an e-mail to your customer list; it costs only the time to put it together. Perhaps a postcard? It costs the printing and postage. Be sure to have signage in the shop well ahead of the date. An Art Walk certainly would entail each shop promoting it to their customers. This could be with a joint e-mail, mailed post card, and a sign in each shop, or a combination of the three. You also might consider having a private invitation-only event for your customers. The invitation could be via e-mail or a postcard.

Perhaps your announcements could offer attendees some sort of reward. These can be a small gift from your inventory or a discount on one item. Often shoppers don’t become customers on their first visit. How about giving those who attend your open house a coupon good for a discount or free shipping on one item the next time they come in?

We can’t ever be certain of the rewards we’ll get for our hard work, but there’s no way to know if we don’t venture forth, so open the door!