My wife and I recently completed a cross-country road trip, roughly 5,000 miles and more than a dozen states. And while the National Parks and family visits were the highlights, we did run into quite a few retail businesses that were doing things a little bit differently than most, a little more creatively, and – as far as I could tell – a bit more successfully.

Let’s start in Charleston, S.C. One of the great cities in this country, proud of their heritage and in many ways, still living the same way they did 100, or 200 years ago. On one of our walks, I stopped in a local bookstore, Buxton Books.

I’m a sucker for almost any small bookstore and as soon as I walked in, I fell in love. It was open, airy and all of the books were easily accessible. The woman working behind the counter happened to be the owner and we got to talking. She was selling new books only, which is unusual for a small, non-chain store these days and I wanted to find out how they were doing.

She said they’d been open a year and a half and things were going extremely well, but only since they had made a major shift. They started out selling all the same books you find at any chain bookstore and they discovered quickly they couldn’t compete on price with large chains and Amazon, and people weren’t willing to pay much of a premium for great service and atmosphere. So, she came up with another idea. All of the books in her store are new and all are Charleston-related — either about Charleston (current or historical), or by a Charleston-based author (living or dead). She had carved out a niche, did a great job of serving it and was rewarded with a successful business that provided the community with a valuable asset.

The second notable retail idea I came across was also from a Charleston store, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen. As we walked down Market Street, I was struck by two signs on the outside of the store. The first: “Free Praline Samples!”

“Free” almost always catches the eye and giving away free candy samples is almost always a guaranteed recipe for success. The second sign was equally important and probably just as large of a draw:

“Public Restrooms”

In most tourist areas, the single most common sign is: “Bathrooms for Customers Only.”

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