PORTLAND, Maine — Mara Higgins has kept the focus of MainelyMara.com, her style-focused deal website, limited to boutiques, salons and spas in the Portland area, but that hasn’t stopped her from finding prosperity and reaching 5,000 members in the two years it has been running.
“I always thought, ‘maybe I’ll have to expand — is Portland big enough? Does it have enough to offer?’” Higgins said in a recent interview with the Bangor Daily News. “But every day there is a new boutique or new salon contacting me that is just opening.”
Members of MainelyMara receive one or two emails a week about a deal for a local spa, salon, boutique or yoga studio. Higgins started the website in June 2010 after working in the fashion retail industry out of state and moving to Portland with her husband.
Membership for the website is free, and deals are only available to purchase for a week — and some of them are available only for a day — but it usually cuts the price of offered products and services in half.
A recent deal was for a $60,10-class yoga session at Greener Postures in South Portland — a session that typically costs double that amount.
“We’re a very busy studio and we get people in the door,” said Gretchen Folk, an instructor at the yoga studio. “This can be another way for people getting to know us. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Higgins said she prides herself in keeping MainelyMara’s focus on a narrow demographic — women between the ages of 25 and 45 — and local, independently run stores. She said the website has grown only by word-of-mouth.
“That’s one of the things I really pride myself in,” said Higgins, who now lives in Cape Elizabeth. “I walk into every single business I go to. I’ll never put an offer out without visiting the place. I used to literally buy everything that I put out, but it was a great way for me to try the business.”
In addition to keeping close relationships with all of the partner businesses, she also maintains a blog on MainelyMara, where she and guest bloggers write about local style and fashion.
The Cape Elizabeth woman said she is aware that some deal websites have come under scrutiny because of how the business model might undercut the bottom line. In an extreme case in July, an owner of a shuttered waffle house in Washington, D.C., accused Groupon of being bad for small businesses after he said a two-for-one waffle deal closed his place down.
“I don’t say you have to be 50 percent off,” said Higgins, adding that she takes 20 percent less commission than national websites. “I never let them do an offer where they’ll be losing money.”
Keriann Russell, a social media manager at Bliss — one of the boutiques Higgins works with — said their partnership has been beneficial for her store, because it helps highlight new items and attract new customers, who often become frequenters of the boutique.
“We originally just started doing a couple offers a year, but we saw such benefit in it that we started doing it once a month in 2012,” said Russell, who also helped Higgins run MainelyMara as a temporary gig when the website’s founder was having her first child.
The boutique’s social media manager also said the store’s owner sees the partnership as an advertising expense and a more direct way of attracting customers as opposed to traditional advertising venues.
“For us to do an offer every month, it puts our product in front of the customer base that we want and that we think already shops here,” Russell said.
Higgins said the way she decides on deals is a collaborative process with the businesses with whom she works. Sometimes the decisions are based on whether a store wants to move a certain product or service, but it also can depend on timing.
“What’s great, too, is I just did a hot yoga offer in July, and we had one of those sticky, hot weeks. And for them, it’s their slowest time,” the Cape Elizabeth woman said. “People during the holidays pour in there, and I was like, ‘let’s do it. I want to get people through your door,’ and it worked out perfectly.”
Despite opportunities to expand beyond Portland, Higgins said there is a virtue in staying small and local, and it helps that the city has a strong support network for small businesses.
“Because of the Buy Local movement, if you’re a local business and you see another local business, you have this bond,” said Higgins. “You want them to be successful, because you know it will benefit the community. I always say this couldn’t happen anywhere else.”