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St . Kate’s students help local businesses

Abbey Lonski ’11 (left) and Clare Saunders ’11 (right) with Elinor Auge in her boutique.
Abbey Lonski ’11 (left) and Clare Saunders ’11 (right) with Elinor Auge in her boutique.
Pauline Oo

Colorful, warm and whimsical are adjectives that come to mind when you step into Elinor. The small boutique on the corner of Snelling and Randolph avenues in St. Paul carries a selection of garments and accessories by local fiber artists and jewelers. In fall 2010, owner Elinor Auge collaborated with two St. Catherine University students on a market research survey.

The result: more ideas for Auge on how to better reach potential customers.

Abbey Lonski ’11 and Clare Saunders ’11 conducted the survey as classmates of the four-credit upper-level marketing course “Buyer Behavior and Market Research.” In the class, Business Administration Lecturer Sara Kerr teaches fundamental business research strategies and market research tools (such as surveys) by requiring students to serve an actual client who has a real business dilemma or marketing concern.

“Students really learn the concepts when they’re working closely on a project with a local business or organization on campus,” Kerr says. “My students start by trying to find out what problem the business might have and then designing a research plan based on that. So, in the case of Elinor, it was how to best market the shop and how to get the word out about where it is.”

Kerr introduced Lonski and Saunders to Auge — the lecturer and proprietor are old friends — and after learning more about her low shop traffic, the students chose to design an online survey to gather more information from her current customer base.

“It was a very interactive process,” says Lonski, who’s majoring in marketing and management. “We were in touch a lot with Elinor by e-mail, and we discussed what the best questions were without forcing answers out of people.”

The trio came up with 10 questions. Auge sent an e-mail encouraging her customers to take the survey, which was posted on the free web-based software Survey Monkey, that the students had learned about in class.

“We were shooting for a total of 50 responses, and within a week of posting on Survey Monkey, we had 26,” says Saunders, a business and business administration major. “Not what we wanted, but at least we were seeing responses.”

A win-win for all
The students came close to their target by the survey deadline, another seven days later.

Among their findings: Most people knew of Elinor by word of mouth; its hours and parking were convenient; customer service stood out, as did the wide selection of accessories and jewelry; and the majority who shopped at a boutique, like Elinor, wanted one-of-a-kind or unique items.

“The first couple of pages of their results were interesting,” says Auge. “I have been thinking about how to best spend my small advertising budget and was considering upping my business membership with the Textile Center [a national coalition of textile artists based in Minneapolis]. The survey showed me that the Textile Center is the second highest way customers hear about my store, and I should continue investing in my membership.”

Auge is also going to have one less clothing rack in her store, after nearly 90 percent of her customers picked “jewelry” and “other accessories” as the last item they bought at the store.

Although Auge has an active blog, the students encouraged her to consider Twitter and Facebook as other inexpensive and easy means to reaching a larger population. More than half the population ages 25 and older uses Facebook, and 53 percent of active Twitter users are women.

In fact, Auge may get some help in setting up social media this winter from students in Kerr’s “Promotional Communications” course in the Weekend Program. Students must create a communications or advertising plan for a local business in that class and blog about the experience.

“The whole Selby-Snelling intersection has a lot of small local businesses; so does Selby and Dale and Snelling and Randolph," Kerr says. "The Twin Cities is lucky to have such unique retail areas. And Elinor is part of a larger trend in St. Paul of small boutique businesses.”

Lonski and Saunders also shared their survey findings in a PowerPoint presentation to their class. Other student clients included Mancini’s Char House and Lounge and the Groveland Park and Recreation Center.

“This project was a good challenge because I got to work on an online survey and get to know a local boutique owner — why she opened the store and what she wants to achieve and how she wants to get there,” Lonski says.

For Saunders, the class assignment meant “starting from nothing and getting some fabulous results.” It was also a lesson in understanding what consumers want or are looking for when they shop.

“I was really proud of the information and results we got,” she says. “To be successful, whether you’re selling clothing, a phone or Rice Krispies, you have to be able to put yourself into your customer’s mind because you’re not always going to sell to people your age.”

Nov. 30, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Business, Students