From a reader: Thanks so much for sharing your experience at the Atlanta Gift Show! You have NO idea how much I've learned from you and your blog! Background on me - I received my business license in August. I plan on opening a small retail home/lifestyle boutique this year. I have a few questions and any insight you are able to provide would be SO appreciated!... Tonya
Q: Is the Atlanta Gift Show the show you would recommend attending over all others? A: Yes, Atlanta has a better selection to choose from than the others. But- I like to attend all of them at least once to compare vendors as you never know what you will find. None are easy and they all have bad product somewhere. After you experience them all (and you should) you will decide on your favorites.
Q: Is it possible to initially buy for your store without attending a Market first? A: Sure, if you research and order catalogs. Vendors get inquiries all the time. I call and email for anyone I hear about all year long to add to my stash. Buying doesn't just happen during market, shop owners buy all day every day 24/7. The more resources the better.
Q: Would you delay opening a store until you COULD attend a Market? A: Depends on the style of your store. If you don't need a lot of new items there is no harm in it. But if you want unusual things no one has seen you need to do your homework and market is where that gets done. Keep in mind the saying: you have one chance to make a first impression. Opening your store while still building and creating it as you go along will take longer for a buzz to happen about your shop. Impress them right off the bat.
Also, many buyers are at market to buy for their store that will be opening soon. Have your retailers license, tax ID and a 'fake' business card with all your info for delivery. Look as legitimate as possible. Higher-end vendors will be more suspicious because they care how they are represented and the style and reputation of your store (and higher minimums), but smaller vendors just want to sell.
Q: I attended the Seattle Gift Show this summer - what a let down! I think there was only one vendor that shared the same vision as myself. A: Welcome to the world of retail!! This will happen even at the best shows only on a larger scale. This is why it is so much work to hunt for the items you need. Keep in mind these markets are supplying hospital gift shops, drug stores and all styles of gift and home decor shops. There is a lot of bad design out there. Keep your blinders on.
Q: Debbie: I know you've touched on this subject a bit already on your blog... but I was wondering if you could give me any more advice on this specific issue:
I am in the planning process of opening a small retail boutique in my small town. I had what I thought was a pretty solid list of vendors that I wanted to use and that no one else in town was carrying. In the meantime, another boutique in town has all of a sudden started carrying literally every vendor that is known to man. I hear it's because she plans on opening a variety of specialty stores in the near future. She's attempting to tie up any and all vendors. The visual style of store I am planning on opening is very different than her store. Is crossover on some product acceptable or should I start all over in regards to finding product that would fit my brand? Help! Much appreciation.
A: First, if this other store owner is a real concern or threat to you, call or write her a sincere letter and say you'd like to take her to lunch and discuss vendors as "you do not want to overlap or be competitors." She should immediately respect you for this and hopefully agree. Come prepared with a list of vendors and items you desire to sell. Negotiate some things if possible. For instance: If you both want the same vendor maybe you only buy the bath products in white and she buys in blue. Or you sell the frames and she sells the candlesticks. On the other hand, I actually like to leave this dirty work to the rep. I will complain to the manufacturer long before a store owner as they should be watching for territory protection. Recently a store across the street wanted to open with a line I have (but I do not buy consistently from) so I agreed via the rep they could sell it as I was tired of the line but- they had one product I couldn't find anywhere else (drawer liners). So I told the rep they could buy whatever they wanted except this one item. I think it worked out fine as the line has dozens of other products to choose from.
If this woman is on a mission to take any and all good vendors and she has the money to do it, you may be out of luck. On the other hand- if you are certain your style is different than her store(s), if you feel confident you are going to do it better than she will, then stick to your guns. Build your clientele based on your unique style while keeping your nose down. Buy what you want and do your best to display it more uniquely. Sometimes paying too much attention to your competition takes your eye off your own business.
Finally, you should ALWAYS be looking for great merchandise that no one else has. This will forever be your challenge. Not just for the competition, but more importantly- for your customers. Good luck! Deb
QUESTION: Can you do everything right and still have a lousy year? I figured out the best way was to increase money coming in was to increase every sale by $5. So, I brought in a few higher priced items, reorganized merchandise, stocked up in the areas working the best and cut back on the stuff that was taking up too much space but not bringing that high of a return. I made aggressive, but doable sales goals and bought according to the goals with a little room for error.
The first three months of the year it was great, as planned. Since April, we've had fewer sales and the summer has never really heated up. I've cancelled, reduced orders where I can but have been playing catch up with invoices for a couple months now. I don't have much room, financially, to maneuver to do anything drastic to increase business and, to be honest, don't know if it will help. Now here comes holidays and I'm starting to really worry. I've cut back on expenses (worked weekends by myself for 7 weeks, cancelled trip to NYC, etc.) and even considered taking a second job on my days off to help bolster my income. Now, I'm resorting to prayer (no joke)!
ANSWER: Your first mistake was to 'resort to prayer'. Honey, this should be priority #1. Every day, all day, for any season, in any state of your shop. How in the world can we predict when a sale is going to happen? We can't. We ALWAYS need Divine Intervention to stay afloat, buy smart, sell smart and keep it rolling.
Here are some other ideas: Do what it takes to stay open without borrowing too much money to do it. Swallow your pride and ask some of your neighbors how they are doing. Call customers and ask honestly why you haven't seen them lately. Email a coupon or sale event. Open an eBay store to help during these months. This is better than taking a job as you can still be in the store.
Three years is about the time when these emotions of yours start. Daily business starts to slack, the newness has worn off and customers are not easily impressed anymore. I am happy you are staying on top of the math. Calculating and estimating what it will take to meet goals. This is smart. But when it doesn't happen, it's very disheartening isn't it? If I knew what to do, I wouldn't be whining myself. So the answer to your question is- yes! You can do everything right and have a lousy year because you cannot predict consumer behavior. I think the key is to prepare for these low months because they do and will happen this year and in your 15th year. Every month I also analyze, strategies and try to get ready for what might be the calm before the storm. Sometimes it works, and other times it doesn't. I think the biggest issue (besides the money which is ALWAYS an issue) is your mental state. Try not to freak out. Try not to do anything drastic. Try not to lose sleep. This is retail. As I told my banker once, how in the world does anyone make money in retail when we have to keep spending it?!! Until we brand ourselves and have our products in every store USA, the small, private shops like ours simply need to learn to live on less, pray for more and ride with the tide.
I was recently asked to speak to a group of artists creating products for Demdaco. This is a wonderful company with inspired products based here in Kansas City and every two years they have a creative conference to keep their designers motivated and encouraged to create new, fresh product. I was honored to speak to them and share with them a retailers point of view. I came away with much more than I gave. Based on the questions that were asked at the end of my presentation, I thought other shop owners and creative types might like to read what I talked about. Keep in mind I was to adhere to an outline for my 30 minutes and discuss the topic for the event: Why Art Matters.
MY PRESENTATION TO DEMDACO:
I have to be honest with you. Last night I decided to rehearse this presentation because I wanted to time myself more than anything and make sure I didn’t rattle on for hours. Well 10 minutes into a candid conversation in my living room with only my dog Pearl as the audience, I became really bored with myself (Pearl fell asleep!) So I decided I better write a few things down to stay on point. You will be seeing me read a little and talk a little. I will also show you some slides of my store and then we will discuss the ever important state of retail and open up for any questions. But please feel free to interrupt me if you have a thought.
First off, I am really grateful to be here and share my retail story with you. Never in a million years did I think I would be talking to a group of artists about my small business. So this is a first for me. I am thankful a Kansas City based company is giving me my big break. I actually did some styling for a House of Lloyd catalogue many years ago, so this is somewhat of a full circle moment for me.
I was born and raised in Kansas City and have lived here all my life. My interests as a child always had to do with something artistic. From theatre to commercial art to photography it had to be visual and it had to be hands on or I wasn’t interested.
After some college I made my living as a production artist and landed a job in the advertising department of Macy's which lead to learning about fashion and still-photography and print advertising. Eventually, I went to work with a local photo studio for two years and later began my career as a freelance photo stylist doing film, TV and print.
For over 19 years I made my living making pictures look good- with people in them and without. From ironing sheets and basting turkeys, to tabletop design and room sets for fashion catalogues, TV commercials, Industrial videos and an occasional movie. I also did a lot of makeup and wardrobe on actors, models and TV personalities.
Although I was self employed, I found myself needing a diversion from my job and decided to pursue my love of junking by renting a space from a local antique mall. I basically sold stuff that was overflowing from my house. A year later a friend asked me to move into a new shop she was opening and for the first time I invested into a line of furniture and began my retail education on the buying and selling of new goods. I attended the High Point Market for the first time and was once again, like a child in a souvenir shop, was mesmerized with the amount of stuff available out there.
After two years, not being in complete control of the appearance and operations of someone else’s shop, I began to desire my own place. I searched and pondered and daydreamed about my own store not knowing how, when or where it might be. One day I finally admitted my frustration to a close friend saying that I was 43 years old and I finally know what I want to do with my life and I haven’t a dime to do it. “Well that’s how artists are”, she said. “They are always creating so they do not have time to think about that other stuff”. Her comment that I was an artist stopped me in my tracks as I had never thought of myself as one before. I was creative, I had been blessed with many talents, but I could not draw or paint so therefore I never thought of myself as an artist. My friends random analogy suddenly made my life make sense. Was this the reason I was never happy with my efforts as I was always looking, doing, seeing and trying to create something differently than others?
Still working my day job in photography along with the constant quest for a store I found myself praying for God to take away the desire for a shop as I was making myself crazy wondering how. The desire never left and days later I found the building that would become my first store. I think it is amazing how a thought can stir a desire, the desire makes us start seeing something differently and seeing makes us start doing. The natural progression starts to manifest itself into reality.
With an SBA loan in hand, I found the name for my store from a book written in 1961 by Edward Gorey and Curious Sofa opened on S.W. Blvd on September 16, 2000. I designed it to be a mix of new and old merchandise. A mix of flea market style and affordable goods. Similar to the stores I had found on my trips to New York and San Francisco. An array of painted antique furniture with easy slipcovered sofas, offbeat objects and unusual gifts. I wanted to carry a bit of everything from bedding and stationery to jewelry and chandeliers. I went to the Dallas Market and bought things I loved- keeping the Curious Sofa aesthetic in mind. I created a neutral store, nothing too colorful; I felt it was easier on the eyes with so much product on the floor. A collection of timeless pieces with an antique and informal feel about them. A little country, a little urban, something feminine, something utilitarian. THIS WAS CURIOUS SOFA STYLE.
At that time, carrying seasonal merchandise never crossed my mind except for some Xmas decorations, that is how naive I was in the beginning. And it never occurred to me to be prepared to reorder something! I had just enough product to be stocked for about a month! My confidence was with making the store look good. That is all I knew. I learned a lot those first 4 years.
I was not sure the store would support me, but I knew it could support itself. From day one, I never went back to my freelance job and ran the shop alone for 6 months, bought and sold and fixed antiques, paid the bills, redecorated, mopped the floor, shoveled snow, waited on customers and lived and breathed shop owning 24/7. I still do.
I started to receive national press just months after opening from Country Home, Elle magazine, Victoria and Travel and Leisure. Press is a glorious thing and can really put your business on the map but you must be doing something unusual and better than anyone else to warrant it. People were suddenly talking about this funky, cool little shop off the beaten path. A destination location. Little did I know, I would eventually become a full-on retailer.
After 4 1/2 successful years at my downtown location my mind started to wander. It was the summer of 2004 and August is not a good time for a retailer to make a drastic decision! My only employee had quit after 2 years, I was running the shop alone again, sales were slow and I began to blame my location. It was time to jump in or jump out if I was going to stay in this business. This was my job of choice. I knew I couldn’t work for anyone ever again. I needed to get serious.
After being courted by a commercial realtor, in February of 2005 I closed my 1500 square foot bohemian, downtown location and reopened in an outdoor shopping center in an old suburban neighborhood. 7 miles away. My new store was once a former GAP with 3700 square feet. I was nervous and excited all at the same time. Hiring 5 employees, paying health insurance and workmans comp. Signing a 16 page, 10 year, high dollar lease, - so off I went. I redesigned the space, went to two markets and slowly the new store came to life. Little did I know the lessons ahead for me.
SLIDE SHOW OF PV STORE
I learned that demographics are everything. Where you are located and who shops your store determines what you carry. My newer location warrants smaller, less expensive items as we get many people dropping in running a basic errand close to home. We are next to a grocery store and drug store so customers just pop in to see what’s new- not always wanting a sofa. Other shops around us might carry similar lines so I have to hunt for fresher product. I have more seasonal items as my customers decorate their homes and entertain more than my former location. In the beginning this was a struggle as I was stubborn and didn’t want to be one of those kind of stores. But things have to sell. So I have to compromise. Compromise is not a word artist like to hear. The Curious Sofa aesthetic, or my brand, is always first in my mind, but what will sell runs a close second. When I find the right combination, this is when retail is rewarding.
Having a new business takes a couple of years to fall into place. Reordering, learning the customers, giving up on the lines you love but are not selling, finding what works. Little did I know in the midst of all of this something else was changing- consumer behavior.
I do not think of myself as a well seasoned retailer. I am not sure I ever will as the lessons keep coming everyday. Once you think you’ve got it, something changes it. Now approaching my 7th year I am starting to see changes outside my store I cannot control but need to change with them. I have seen changes with lifestyle, spending habits and outside interests.
I have learned consumers are affected by three things:
Internal factors: The source of the purchase, the store, the employees, unique salesmanship, the experience!!! MAKING IT EMOTIONAL. For all of you in manufacturing and design, this can be used when showcasing items for retailers or at market or for artists when you make a presentation.
Marketing: Product (what is it), function (uses), longevity, uniqueness. price (value),
Let’s talk about price. Because right now, price is everything. Or almost everything. What will customers pay for? What will customers pay MORE for? They will pay more for great customer service. They will pay more for convenience. They will pay more if you’re nice. They will pay more if you make it personal, create a relationship.
I will have to say that when I put an item on my floor that I know is unique, I can charge what it is worth. Not less. I do not have to stop and think, “will I get this for it?” I know it is worth it. Not worth it in the sense it took so much time to create or the cost of materials are rare but because aesthetically IT IS WORTH IT. This is my new goal as a retailer. I need to find goods that are worth it. The customer always cares about price for everyday, common or not so common goods, but they will pay more for something if it is really unique or if it creates an emotional reaction.
Which leads me to discuss why we’re here. IT’S ALL ABOUT DESIGN. You are artists. I’m an artist. Creating your style, your design or your BRAND IS EVERYTHING. It is who you are.
Most buyers at the Atlanta market are already dreading it. Why? Because there is so much stuff to look at! There is a lot of bad design. We all know it when we see it right? The color is not right, the shape is wrong, the proportion is off, it’s made badly or displayed badly.
In my early years I used to try and see every single floor and every single showroom! Can you imagine? Now I have got my routine. I go to the showrooms that inspire. I go where the showrooms have great displays. Unusual props, antiques and funky items mixed in because 1. That is my kind of store. 2. I need ideas. I need to get recharged. The professional showrooms that bring in the A-Team to twirl their ordinary goods into an extraordinary display because I HAVE TO DO THIS TOO!!! I know my customers expect it and want to see it as well.
Design is important in everything because as artists we can create beautiful things that evoke emotion, tell stories, make people see something for the first time in a way they had not imagined. And hopefully, in the process of creating it, we can see something different. This is why keeping our eyes fresh is so important.
Right now, I need to see something new!! If you wake up each day and do the same routine, go to the same coffee shop, read the same magazines, watch the same shows- you will most likely continue to create the same stuff. We need to keep the visual stimuli coming or else we will become boring. I see it in my store. If we do not continue to change displays, move furniture, add new product, light a different candle, change the color palette, have an event- I lose my customer. Because there are a lot of people out there trying to get her attention. I lose my staff too. They get bored. In this day and age of high speed Internet, information at our fingertips on any subject, anytime; we have to stay fresh, new and exciting. We have to work at it. There is too much competition. Someone is copying someone else as we speak, someone is making it better, cheaper and faster.
So to keep from going crazy in the midst of running a business and being an artist, I do a few things. 1. I pray a lot: "God show me something NEW". CREATE in me NEW ART! 2. Go back to the beginning. What did you love about art? What did you love about your art? What makes you different, what is your talent? 3. Remember the rules- then break them. When I was a photography student I picked up a magazine that said: The photography basics were: focus, center the subject, light it well. NOW CHANGE THEM: Don’t light it perfectly, don’t shoot it in focus, don’t crop it evenly.... do it different. 4. Change something. I LOVE interior design magazines. Especially European design magazines. Also graphic design, fashion, food- it is all art. It is all design. Pictures of how other people do things should trigger you to steal a portion and make it your own. Remember the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin William's made everyone stand up on their desks? This is a perfect example of trying to see things from a different perspective. Stand up in your chair if this is what it takes. Look at the Shatto Milk Co. Had they kept doing what they were doing they would be closed by now. But they did a 180 and looked at something differently.
When you begin designing a new line, where do you start? Do you grab the same pad and pencil? Sit in the same chair at the same desk? Listen to the same music? Do you always use the same colored pens? Have you tried changing your medium? If you work in clay try wood. If in wood try glass. If in glass try fabric. It may never end up a masterpiece but it could change the way you are doing something for the better.
Design is everywhere. Apple took a piece of metal and plastic and made it art. Art matters because it is a way to see the ordinary less ordinary. It is our job to make the average person stop and look. They may not know why or what it is but it is your job to make them take notice. It is the only way we can stand out from the crowd. It is the only way we can succeed to share the talent we’ve been given. So I encourage you to keep creating, keep educated and keep seeing the unusual in the usual.
Q: In the short amount of time that I have been in business, I already have a recurring problem with customers asking me to order or reorder things. As a new business, I really want to cater to my customers needs, but it is difficult to justify a $250 minimum order for four napkins that retail for $5 each. And sometimes it's even worse! Right now I need to place about $1,000 worth of product for a request of $50 in retail sales. I know this sounds like a no-brainer... but how do you avoid offending or irritating or losing the customer? I'd be interested to know how you and other shop owners handle this situation.
A: Isn't this a pain? I want to please customers too but sometimes this can really push the limit of customer service when you have to watch your money so closely. The real problem is the customer hasn't a clue there are minimums so I have learned to do a couple of things: 1. Learn how bad they want it. Sometimes customers just want to whine. They say they want it, then you ask for a deposit and you find out just how serious they are. They are really just mad at themselves that they didn't get it when they saw it the first time. 2. Fib a little. If it is a smaller item and far from meeting minimums I may tell them the item is no longer available or discontinued. This sounds silly but it separates the serious customers from the ones who are just talking, but more importantly it lets you off the hook. Take their phone number and say you'll check on it. (and do!) Call later and tell them the vendor is out of stock until- whenever. Let's face it, there are compulsive shoppers out there and they just want what they want when they want it and some especially want you to bend over backwards for them because they are used to getting their way. These are very few and far between but don't we always remember them? 3. Train your customer. My staff has learned to tell customers I do not buy deep into anything so they better jump on it right away as I seldom reorder because I do not want everyone in town to have one- which is true! This takes awhile but they start to learn and are glad the entire neighborhood doesn't have the same item and it makes them buy early and return often. 4. Call the vendor. Explain the situation as MANY times there is a only a $10 fee when you are under minimums and you can just charge it to the customer. Tell the vendor it is for a wedding or something so they understand the request. 5. Reorder on a schedule. But seriously, this is how I do it: First, if it is a popular vendor that I reorder from often I tell the customer we place orders on the 1st and the 15th. (or maybe once a month, or once a season). This way you can build up some special requests and hopefully meet minimums. This is especially good with bedding and jewelry. 6. Offer quantity discounts. I may offer the customer 15% off if they buy multiple items, a case of something or an ensemble- anything to entice them to help you meet the minimum with that vendor. I offer this a lot when we discontinue a line and someone has gotten addicted to it- like candles or soap. 7. Remember them. My staff takes a lot of names with special requests at the counter and they constantly call these customers when we are ready to order from a vendor or have received a shipment. This really pays off and they feel special we have taken the time to remember them.
I read recently that Sue Fisher King in San Francisco said she will reorder anything for a customer even if it is just one glass to complete a set. Of course the customer is thrilled but when you are small and starting out can you afford this? Take into consideration what always sells, if this is a really good customer and if you are fairly certain you will sell whatever the remainder of the order might be even if you may have to save it for the next season. All in all you have to draw the line somewhere. Ordering a $50 item for a customer when the reorder is $1000 is painful for relationships but not smart for finances. You must decide.
Q: Deb thanks for having your finger on the pulse of every new and not so new shop owner reading your blog. I am moving to a bigger shop which of course means much more inventory. I am trying to be careful not to get carried away. I would love to have you address pricing. Do you keystone everything? Do you price new merchandise differently than antiques? Any wisdom on this subject is much appreciated.
A: Some things are going to be tough to write about in this blog as my customers read this and they spend their hard earned money in my store. I don't want to reveal too much but I also know tons of business owners need to share and have questions on how to do this. Alas! This is one of those unspoken questions...
In reality, pricing is all across the map. I do not physically log in every single item that comes in the back door so my staff always asks, "What do you want to put on this?" There was a time I didn't even want my staff to know what I paid for something because I felt such guilt marking it up but they have become savvy and know how much work goes behind each and every item we have and how badly we need that profit to run the store and buy more. I was so naive when I first opened my store I had never heard the retail word 'keystone'. I know now it means to double the cost of an item. Six years ago I went to one of those fancy seminars they offer during the San Francisco Gift Show and the speaker told us if we only keystone our product we will lose. Shipping costs must be accounted for too.
I do not have a formula but I think I am in good company when I say you must know the market value of something. Shop your competitors and see how they may price a similar item. The Targets, Tuesday Mornings and T.J.Maxx's of the world do not count. It must be a store like yours. How many times have you seen something and noticed how much they have marked it up and vice versa. I think it's wise to be somewhere in between. Then again those 'experts' out there will tell you margin is one thing, but turning the product many times over is another which can keep the cost down. But then we aren't Wal-Mart. The hard thing in pricing is to find a balance.
I carry many antiques and one of a kind items. I have shopped for these things all my life from Thrift Stores to fancy Antique Shows. I have a good idea the price range I can sell this item for based on how many prices I have seen on a similar item. Lets take the ever popular little white side table: Did I find it on the curb for free or in an expensive antique mall? Did I rent a van, stay in a flea bag hotel, pay $3.00 a gallon for gas, walk 20 miles in the heat to hunt for it, take it home and clean it, re-glue it, paint, it, haul it out of this truck into this car into the store, etc. You can see the price just went up. I also cannot display two side tables, similar in style with a large variance in price even though one was cheaper than the other. That would be hard to explain to the customer so an average market value must be achieved. One table you will make a great profit on another a fair profit. And this is how the story goes.
Sometimes soap and candles can easily get a 2.2% markup sometimes a 2.5% sometimes not any of the above. I used to carry fancy laundry products and the shipping came in at 25% and I nearly flipped making a simple bottle of lavender detergent $28.00 or something. Things like this you need to consider. I just ordered 1,000 pounds worth of incredible iron urns and pots for the garden. It will be crated and a lift gate will be added and the shipping will run 28% or more. But these are hard to find, really fabulous and will make the store look great. So unfortunately they will have to be priced accordingly. I rarely do this but I am learning the rare items are worth the price. There are customers that will pay it.
Jewelry is an item that is hard for me to price. If special and handmade by an artist, the price is already up there. Sometimes I only double my jewelry. If I buy cheaper, I can add shipping costs. But the unusual designs are hard to make large profits on and it typically sits for awhile.
Large furniture (our sofas) can also be difficult as the manufacturers price keeps going up. Fabric costs, shipping costs, gas prices, foam, feathers, lumber- we have heard it all. Doubling a sofa price may seem like a huge profit to some, but we choose to pay the shipping and local delivery out of that so an actual keystone profit is never made. We have lowered the price before and then charged the customer shipping- I can't figure out what is best but I know the customer wants to hear one solid price without a bunch of extras. Expensive bedding can also fall into this category.
Cards and books are a big loser when it comes to profits as the manufacturer marks it accordingly so you cannot charge more. Books usually sell well but your profit is rarely doubled as quantity is the only way to make money from publishers. Consider the shipping, the percentage to your credit card company and you are lucky to profit 40%.
I do not know if I have helped much but here is another formula to look towards: If you have a POSsystem or are any good with your bookkeeping, your profit margin should come in at 52% or more. If it does, you are doing okay. So the average of all your sales combined need to come in around this amount- meaning some items you may only double the cost, some at a 2.2% markup and maybe up to a 3 or 4x if you can get that out of it. This is what smart market shopping is all about: finding items to make a good profit off of but still offer a greatvalue to the customer. I have always thought it would be lovely to charge 3x an item for this reason: 1/3 of that money pays it off, 1/3 buys it again, 1/3 runs the business. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could?
In 2007 Curious Sofa participated in a Holiday Mart Show at the local convention center. Sponsored by the Junior League of Kansas City, 230 vendors displayed their goods over four days to a crowd of 20,000 people and many lessons were learned. Although this was technically not a true trade show as it was open to the public, the set up, rules and logistics are very similar. Keep in mind as I write about my experience, this was a large, well attended show. You may be considering doing something on a smaller (or larger) sale. If the event you are doing is for only one day with small attendance, much of this advice will be unnecessary. However, I feel an event of this capacity is more crucial to our business than smaller venues. But more on that later.
In January of '07 the staff and I met for a State of the Sofa meeting. We voted that because of lackluster sales, the economy and the size of our store we needed to get our name out there. We chose to do three events that year: DIFFA, Symphony Showhouse and Junior League. (see my other blog entries about those events). Each and every one very different but none with the probable financially success as Junior League. The mere numbers of attendance speaks for itself.
You should know, I was not one for participating in anything like this. I had always wanted to stay secure behind my little counter downtown, or just hide in an antique mall buying my goodies, minding my own business. But when you see that you 'have to do what you have to do' to stay in business, the writing was on the wall. I gave in.
First off: Why do these shows? #1 reason: EXPOSURE. Print advertising doesn't always do it. It is rarely memorable, very expensive and fleeting. For the most part, turn the page, a quick look, then on a table to never be opened again. But to do something with an audience that can look, touch, feel, smell and experience your store- and hear you explain it, this is another thing all together.
#2 reason- MONEY. If done right, sales can soar at a time when desperately needed. I would have given anything for this show to have been in April or June as sales are slow, the shop needs a kick in the pants to get motivated and the timing is perfect. But then it wouldn't be a Holiday Mart. My only dread was it was 10 days before our Christmas redo so the staff and I are beat. But- it is also fresh in our minds and a great dress rehearsal for making our open House come together effortlessly. (well, easier anyway).
#3 reason- ROUTINE. Do ever feel like Bill Murray in Ground Hogs Day? Same hours, same parking spot, same lunch, same phone calls, same customers, same dialogue? Any event (outside the shop) helps to stir the pot for you and your staff. When owning a retail store you begin to think, 'How many ways can I do Spring? or Fall? or Christmas? What theme, or color, or product can entice this year?' When you stare at the four walls of your store, day after day after day, month after month- these events really help. It's like taking a working vacation (although there is nothing relaxing about it) and it helps your mind focus on something else. It feeds the retail buzz we got in this business for in the first place and educates your mind. If you like the business side as much as I do- there is so much to learn.
So before you think Curious Sofa rolled in the dough, be warned: this was our first time doing anything like this and many products worked, some did not and many ideas were expensive and did not pay off either. So, without exposing a spreadsheet to you right here, I would say we broke a little above even after all the lessons we're learned but we gained a significant amount of new customers for the rest of the year. So the longer we do this, the more financially successful it will become by the shear fact of experience. Many people make their living doing these shows and my eyes were wide open learning how they manage this momentary chaos. It was fascinating! The trucks, the gear, the displays, the condensing, the storage...
I am interviewed now and then by people in the trade and often they ask , "How do you keep customers interested in this economy?" I find myself saying the same thing, 'Take your show on the road." It is needed now more than ever. .
Q: (from a new store owner) I was thinking about the store this morning (day after Christmas)- and thought, now what? I did pretty good with the pre-holiday sales, pondered about opening today (and I am not). I am having a sale tomorrow through the 1st. (haven't decided if it should just be holiday stuff or not and don't know what percentage off). Then there is the issue with the lack of "stuff" until the spring stuff I ordered arrives... and that scares me. I will need some Valentine's goodies, but again, absolutely forgot that when ordering at the mart last July. Any advice?
A: You are not open today? Honey.... it's the DAY AFTER XMAS!!!! You should not wake up and ponder whether to open- YOU SHOULD KNOW. Are you in business or not? Are you trying to make an impression or not? Are you trying to learn and grow your business or not? Are you in this for the long haul or not?
Sometimes small stores close up early (for whatever reason; had a good day, had a slow day, was tired, had to run an errand...) If I was a potential customer and went out of my way to come to a store and they were closed- I would be annoyed. It would set a tone for the kind of business they have. Or more importantly, the kind of business they are. (Especially if the hours are posted on the door). They need to ask themselves: Do they want this to work or are you just experimenting? Is this a hobby or a business? I am not telling you how to do it as much as I am showing you what decisions you need to make to continue.
As far as what to put on sale now, yes, it should be all seasonal and Xmas stuff and it should be marked down at least 25%. Mine is 50% for the next 3 weeks because I want it out of here. I want customers to have an incentive to buy a lot. I want to get this look over with and go on to the next. But it has taken me 7 years to learn this. I also have stores all around me and newspapers advertising 50% off. If I do any less I will have some explaining to do. I have learned to strike while the iron is hot. You cannot pay for the national buzz that the Day After Xmas Sales can bring to you. It is historic so jump on board. This year I took advantage of some vendors offering 75% off Xmas product, bought into it mid December and marked it up to mark it down during the sale. It is still a bargain for everyone.
When you go into Wal-Mart or Michael's or Hobby Lobby and see all that stuff marked down to 50-75%, do you think they are losing money on that? Heck no. THEY PLANNED IT. They buy merchandise for a sale. They buy extra stuff and over-order just so they can get some money for it during the sale as it is about volume. When customers walk in for bargains, they walk in and buy stuff not on sale as well.
Now Curious Sofa does not want to be a Sam Walton. We are not into palettes of product piled to the ceiling to try and make only $1 on a $10 item. But, I have learned that when buying is in the air, use it for your good. This is why Xmas is out early in some stores and sales are inevitable during December. These are the lessons we do need to learn from the big box stores.
Small shops who are trying to be unique and different do not always follow these sale methods. Why? Because we want to think of ourselves as more special. Our products took a lot more work, we hunted feverously for them- why get rid of them so soon? Why lose money? So we wait it out. We mark something 10% off, then 20%, then a month later 30%... then it looks tired and old and really out of season and we are sick of seeing it and now we want to just give it away. (Do you see where I am going with this?) I had one person tell it to me like this and it made a lot of sense: Mark it to 50% off right away, get your money back, now take that money and buy something that will sell and make a profit faster rather than wait to squeeze the last morsel of money out of something no one wanted anyway!
I had another friend say, when marking something down, ask yourself: Do you still believe in it? That line has saved me a lot as I buy something that I KNOW is great but the right person just hasn't been in yet. I still believe in it. My staff may think it is tired and needs to go in the trash, but I BELIEVE IN IT. This is much easier to say when dealing with a one of a kind item rather than Xmas merch. Don't forget this too: 90% of the time you can reorder it so it is not that special. The store down the street may also have one.
Lastly, not having Valentines or Spring stuff in yet is just lack of experience. Don't beat yourself up. You'll get the hang of it over time. I didn't either my first few years in business. Now I order Spring, Valentines Day and Easter at the July markets and request a December ship date. 85% of my Xmas '08 will be ordered next month at the January market. It took me awhile to learn this but more importantly- to want to order early. I swore I would not be ahead of the game like that. I would not be a store that had Xmas out in September or October, Heavens! My first year in business I did not put Christmas out until the day after Thanksgiving!!!! I WAS AN IDIOT!!! I was trying to make some kind of significant statement that I was not like other stores. That was true. I was not seeing what the consumer wanted or working my business for my benefit. ($$$)
Since then, I have learned to plan, plan, plan. Your VIP customers do the bulk of your business. They come in a lot and they want to see something new. Get it ready for them. Be the first kid on the block with the new toy. After you get the hang of it, you will see how it pays off.
Q: Now that we have all returned from the mart and have put ourselves out there financially again, should we be scared about what the financial experts are saying about the economy? Are you planning to forge on or in this case do you consider canceling some of your orders? I am on the fence and could use some solid advice and hand-holding. Thanks in advance.
A: Remember when I went to San Diego and did that retail conference? The guest speaker was a guy names Max Carey. He had an interesting theory about all the things the 'experts' tell us about our economy or the state of the union. He asked us how many people are in the world? Billions, right? How many of those people do we need to keep our businesses successful? Then he got us and we knew where he was going.... .00001%! We do not need to be everything to everybody. We do not need to have all the residents in our city be our customers. We need very few to keep us going. This helps to keep it in perspective. Or as I like to think "Everything to everybody means nothing special to no one."
It is very common to come home after a buying trip and panic. I am doing it too because sales, well- suck right now. And, I am writing from the Dallas Market which I came to right after Atlanta! I am terrified to order anything here. One morning I wake up and I am freaking out and the next minute I am telling myself I will not think this way, it will be fine, it will be great, I will survive, I always have.... the mantra goes on. I survived after September 11th so I feel I can survive any fluctuation that may happen now.
I have definitely come home from a buying trip and canceled a few orders before. But usually it is not so much from the financial burden it may bring as it is because I ordered something down right stupid or too quickly or too deep or found something I liked better. Before you make any drastic cancellations go through your orders item by item and cancel the ITEM you are not 80% sure of- or the quantity. This will not only knock your spending back a little but perhaps save you from carrying something that you don't believe in. Also, instead of a final cancellation, spread out the deliveries. Lay out your orders and think of the dates or months you want them to come in and call the vendor to confirm. We should do this anyway but pacing ourselves when times are tough is crucial.
Lastly, the next time you go to market try to be as clear as you can about ordering. I make charts and files and outlines so I can keep track of how many ornaments I buy or garland I need or frames or whatever. Especially for Christmas buying. Things start coming in 8 months later and you realize you have a dozen mercury ornaments that are very similar. Now before you think I am a buying librarian- I am not. But I do go back to my hotel and scribble notes and go through orders and try to see how many wreaths I am getting or discover I did not order enough soap. Then I am a little more prepared for what I still need to order or need to cancel. I know one business owner who never buys at market! They take many notes, get catalogs and go home and review after the emotional aspect and impulse of market has left. Very smart.
To All My Valued Employees, There have been some rumblings around the office about the future of this company, and more specifically, your job. As you know, the economy has changed for the worse and presents many challenges. However, the good news is this: The economy doesn't pose a threat to your job. What does threaten your job however, is the changing political landscape in this country.However, let me tell you some little tidbits of fact which might help you decide what is in your best interests. First, while it is easy to spew rhetoric that casts employers against employees, you have to understand that for every business owner there is a back story. This back story is often neglected and overshadowed by what you see and hear. Sure, you see me park my Mercedes outside. You've seen my big home at last years Christmas party. I'm sure; all these flashy icons of luxury conjure up some idealized thoughts about my life. However, what you don't see is the back story.
I started this company 28 years ago. At that time, I lived in a 300 square foot studio apartment for 3 years. My entire living apartment was converted into an office so I could put forth 100% effort into building a company, which by the way, would eventually employ you. My diet consisted of Ramen Pride noodles because every dollar I spent went back into this company. I drove a rusty Toyota Corolla with a defective transmission. I didn't have time to date. Often times, I stayed home on weekends, while my friends went out drinking and partying. In fact, I was married to my business - hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. Meanwhile, my friends got jobs. They worked 40 hours a week and made a modest $50K a year and spent every dime they earned. They drove flashy cars and lived in expensive homes and wore fancy designer clothes. Instead of hitting the Nordstrom's for the latest hot fashion item, I was trolling through the discount store extracting any clothing item that didn't look like it was birthed in the 70's. My friends refinanced their mortgages and lived a life of luxury. I, however, did not. I put my time, my money, and my life into a business with a vision that eventually, some day, I too, will be able to afford these luxuries my friends supposedly had. So, while you physically arrive at the office at 9am, mentally check in at about noon, and then leave at 5pm, I don't. There is no "off" button for me. When you leave the office, you are done and you have a weekend all to yourself. I unfortunately do not have the freedom. I eat, and breathe this company every minute of the day. There is no rest. There is no weekend. There is no happy hour. Every day this business is attached to my hip like a 1 year old special-needs child. You, of course, only see the fruits of that garden - the nice house, the Mercedes, the vacations ... You never realize the back story and the sacrifices I've made.
Now, the economy is falling apart and I, the guy that made all the right decisions and saved his money, have to bail-out all the people who didn't. The people that overspent their paychecks suddenly feel entitled to the same luxuries that I earned and sacrificed a decade of my life for. Yes, business ownership has is benefits but the price I've paid is steep and not without wounds. Unfortunately, the cost of running this business, and employing you, is starting to eclipse the threshold of marginal benefit and let me tell you why: I am being taxed to death and the government thinks I don't pay enough. I have state taxes. Federal taxes. Property taxes. Sales and use taxes. Payroll taxes. Workers compensation taxes. Unemployment taxes. Taxes on taxes. I have to hire a tax man to manage all these taxes and then guess what? I have to pay taxes for employing him. Government mandates and regulations and all the accounting that goes with it, now occupy most of my time. On Oct 15th, I wrote a check to the US Treasury for $288,000 for quarterly taxes. You know what my "stimulus" check was? Zero. Nada. Zilch.
The question I have is this: Who is stimulating the economy? Me, the guy who has provided 14 people good paying jobs and serves over 2,200,000 people per year with a flourishing business? Or, the single mother sitting at home pregnant with her fourth child waiting for her next welfare check? Obviously, government feels the latter is the economic stimulus of this country. The fact is, if I deducted (Read: Stole) 50% of your paycheck you'd quit and you wouldn't work here. I mean, why should you? That's nuts. Who wants to get rewarded only 50% of their hard work? Well, I agree which is why your job is in jeopardy. Here is what many of you don't understand ... to stimulate the economy you need to stimulate what runs the economy. Had suddenly government mandated to me that I didn't need to pay taxes, guess what? Instead of depositing that $288,000 into the Washington black-hole, I would have spent it, hired more employees, and generated substantial economic growth. My employees would have enjoyed the wealth of that tax cut in the form of promotions and better salaries. But you can forget it now. When you have a comatose man on the verge of death, you don't defibrillate and shock his thumb thinking that will bring him back to life, do you? Or, do you defibrillate his heart? Business is at the heart of America and always has been. To restart it, you must stimulate it, not kill it. Suddenly, the power brokers in Washington believe the poor of America are the essential drivers of the American economic engine. Nothing could be further from the truth and this is the type of change you can keep.
So where am I going with all this? It's quite simple. If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, my reaction will be swift and simple. I fire you. I fire your co-workers. You can then plead with the government to pay for your mortgage, your SUV, and your child's future. Frankly, it isn't my problem any more. Then, I will close this company down, move to another country, and retire. You see, I'm done. I'm done with a country that penalizes the productive and gives to the unproductive. My motivation to work and to provide jobs will be destroyed, and with it, will be my citizenship. So, if you lose your job, it won't be at the hands of the economy; it will be at the hands of a political hurricane that swept through this country, steamrolled the constitution, and will have changed its landscape forever. If that happens, you can find me sitting on a beach, retired, and with no employees to worry about ...
Q: When it comes to ordering, how frequently is advisable and in what quantities? For our 1,500 square feet of selling space, we are pretty much ordering continuously--replenishing fast-moving merchandise, ordering "just in case" replacements for items that set the tone in a display that we would be sad to lose and bringing in new lines. This means we are perusing catalogues, writing up "fantasy orders," then whittling them down and putting in reality orders, if not every day, then at least three days a week. Sometimes I think it'd be better to set a goal date for ordering an entire season, as in, all my Fall ordering for every category needs to be done by July 1st and I'll space out my ship dates. That way, maybe our ordering would be more focused and our spending would happen in big chunks rather than going out little by little on a weekly basis. By the way, we have a lot of variety in our merchandise mix but keep to a pretty tight look. I don't know if other retailers have these kinds of questions; I'm just wondering what a more seasoned retailer would advise. A: Hmmm, I love to think of myself as well seasoned- like a big ham. Anyway, believe it or not- you are already doing what I am doing and have been doing forever. It makes my accountant nuts as he wishes I had a budget, a plan, a routine. But I keep telling him, "How can I?" You never know when the shelf is empty, when an order will ship, when a customer will buy- I have to flow with it.
Sometimes I order every day. Other times I place small orders ($200) every other day, sometimes large ones ($1,800) sometimes very large for furniture ($5,000) and once an enormous order for a new furniture line ($45,000). Sometimes I'll stop all buying for two weeks to build some cash. It is always about cash flow, supply and demand and inventory level. I have tried to be more scheduled but we're always too busy to do that. We order when we need to, period.
Large items: I carry sofas so I always have to be on the lookout for coffee tables, side tables or trunks as when one sells, the layout looks weird. I also need to have a plan B if a large display unit sells, I need to have backup if a large armoire sells- these items you should buy when you can and always have it in the back of your mind what you will do when something needs replaced.
In a perfect financial world I would love one of everything like this stored away to replace. We sell a particular style of sofa often and I have always wanted to have a matching sofa and chair in a neutral color ready to deliver so the customer doesn't have to wait- but I have never gotten around to it. Again, all about money.
Home decor: Tables and chairs, end tables, dressers, chandeliers, art, mirrors, lamps; for me these items, although shop staples, can be seasonal. I want to change things up and always have a color or design theme up my sleeve for the next quarter so I order these items based on a new design for the coming season. For instance, every year I do a red, white and blue thing come May 15-July 4. I love it. The flags, the country thing, galvanized buckets, lawn chairs, sand, sea shells. This year the staff said maybe not. So we are doing something else. My order of flags was thrown out and something has replaced it at the last minute. If I had preorderd this, I'd be stuck. I do fly by the seat of my pants a bit as my style and taste and plan can change on a dime because something will influence me.
Seasonal is always preordered months in advance. I have finally learned to order Xmas in January and garden in August. But I will still order more Xmas in August and the bulk of garden in January. It is my other seasons that get overlooked and I always seen to scramble for last minute things. Take advantage of volume discounts and invoice dating for these seasons.
Bath, Body & Candles: These are constantly reordered. Sometimes we no more get an order in and on the shelf than it is reordered again. Other times we try out a new line or scent and it sits awhile. My goal has always been to have a second batch of all these items in the storage room and reorder when that stash goes down- not the products on the selling floor. I am sure this is how the big guns do it as then your customers never see a shortage. Nothing pains me more than to be out of a staple item but we are a lot and the staff has to do a song and dance to please the customer, take their names and make excuses why we're out. I hate that I have put them in that position.
Stationery and Jewelry: This seems to be the two categories I cannot stay on top of as I want to order differently everytime and not carry the same thing. Right now I am struggling with jewelry as we are terribly low and it is a great seller- I should never let it get like this but I always want different vendors and they are hard to find. We have a boutique next to us and all hell breaks loose if they see me carry the same line. Which I don't want to do but sometimes a line carries a color or design that is really our style. Nothing gets me going than a retailer spat or a vendor who does not check the territory.
Another "professional retail way' is the Open To Buy plan where you divide your year into 4 parts spreading out your budget to purchase within each quarter, equal dollar amounts of product. What this means is that Nov. & Dec. could be one 'quarter', Jan., Feb. March & April another quarter, May, June July another and August, September, October another. Your spending is divided among the quarters you have named based on sales (each 'quarter' having about the same dollar in sales) and you order accordingly. Does this make sense as it took me awhile to learn this. Doesn't mean I do it either!
All in all I say buy what you can, when you can. When the backroom has more merch than the front, this is not a good thing- especially if you are not a high volume store. If it is Xmas and 5 wreaths are selling every day then yes, keep them stocked. I personally hate deep orders as I get bored and worry my customer sees too much of the same thing. But, I also believe in being prepared for good sellers so you can make some money on it. Maybe a loose schedule is more your style. For me I have a weekly To Do list. On it is something to take care of every day of the week. Each day we are to check a certain department (or vendor) for inventory. Not a lot of work but it helps me to get a stickie note on my desk of what we are low of. We also have a daily totals sheet we do at the end of everyday. On it we attach a hot item list. The gals write down what seems to be the hot seller so I can make a note and reorder if I think it has a second life. Sometimes one customer buys 6 of something and there goes our stock. Again, try a formula that works best for you. Right now our POS system sucks (that's another entire blog entry!) so a lot of manual work is being done, but good systems can do all this work for you.
Q: I am in the process of a potential square footage expansion of my retail store....yikes. Have put it off as long as possible, and we just flat out need the space, to work, to merchandise, to pee in private, to eat lunch without a mitre saw running next to us...well, you get the picture.
Did your sales really kick in shortly after advertising and completing your move to a bigger location? I am staying where I am, just doubling from 1400 to 2800 sq. ft.
A: So you are expanding? Well congratulations. This is a huge step. If the desire to do this has been on your mind, then business must be good.
Unfortunately, now is probably not the best time to ask my advice as I am in a funk. Sales feel slow, my space seems too big for me, I drive past little shop vacancies and start to daydream... I am second guessing I ever expanded and well, there you have it. I am being truthful although it pains my staff when I tell anyone so. So shoot me, I am human. But, I will pull through, I always do and lots of lessons have been learned. My mood and business and sales can turn on a dime. It only takes one customer to make my day- or yours, remember that.
I didn't do any advertising with our move to the new location two years ago, except to our current customer base to simply to tell them I was relocating. The day before we were open to the public we had a private party for VIP customers and hired help, landlords, etc. There was already quite the buzz going on about our new store so that is always good. But yes, sales were through the roof the first year as everyone loves something fresh. I could only hope to do those numbers again. It's a drag to see sales fall after you are not the new kid on the block anymore. That and the world/retail/economy situation is adding it's toll as well. I feel like I am reinventing myself everyday. You want the numbers to reflect you are doing something right but sometimes they do not. So you try something else and maybe it works and maybe it doesn't. Your staff starts to think you're not focused because you keep trying all these things to bring money in- like buying something unique or expensive or real cheap or simple or trendy. I can't seem to please anyone especially me. When I do and buy what I really want a customer comes in that remembers something from last year (that didn't sell) and is disappointed we no longer carry it. How do you explain all of this to her? You don't. It's one big experiment.
If you are fairly certain the current sales you have can support both spaces, hurray for you. I would say since this isn't a full-on relocate that you might expect a 20% increase but then I do not know if you are adding more retail or some other kind of money drawing idea. 100% more space may not bring in 100% more money. Unless there is a significant 'wow' factor to the new space, people start to talk, it's easier to shop and you can offer better service. I do not know anything about your type of business so it's hard to offer advice. If the expansion is just for storage or a kitchen, etc. stay on the low side for your projections. If you are adding a lot more showroom space (cash in), expect higher. Also, check out the blog entry below about inventory levels.
I have been asked many times by young women for advice on how to open a small store. Some of you have learned the business books out there are not quite right for your type of venture. They talk of a much bigger picture than many of you are looking for. The majority of these publications have been written with so much expert advice, they forget to talk to women in words they can understand. I feel you want to know the real nuts and bolts of daily operations, or how to take the very first steps from money to leasing to buying the right products. I think the 'retail rules' can be simplified in an easy to understand formula with helpful information to make you aware and prepared for what you might be getting into.
I will start here with this blog by telling you the steps I went through from the first time I showed any talent for retail until now. With over seven years under my belt, I am still new at this, but that is good, as the trials and errors are still fresh in my mind. Maybe your idea for a store is smaller, maybe bigger. But I would guess most of you are coming from a place with a heart for stuff, a talent for design and a desire to do it yourselves. You may think this is all it takes, but I will show you, it is so much more.
Please stay tuned for a full-on chapter about what I learned doing the Junior League Holiday Mart Show. It could fill volumes! The staff and I are resting up to prepare for our Holiday Open House next weekend. (Somebody shoot me). But when I have a moment I need to jot down these lessons to remind me about doing big events. More later....
What a wonderful turnout at the Atlanta summer market Curious Cocktail Party! Despite the sometimes shabby service of the Westin staff (sorry, but I call ‘em like I see ’em) we managed to consume adult beverages, nosh, network, share war wounds and laugh for over four hours.
At 6:00 pm Sunday evening, Sandee and I were greeted by my Boston trip guide and gal pal Carol and then others emerged after market to the Lobby Bar at the hotel. I counted 27 of us at one point and realized half were veterans from the Curious Sofa Dinner last January and the other half were new friends who heard about the event or read the blog invitation.
It is amazing to see the mix: new shops, old shops, 3 months to 35 years! All of us with aching feet, heavy burdens and empty wallets. But how encouraging it was to share vendors, marketing ideas, travel tips and squeal and squeal about our love for magazines, our files of tear sheets and love of this retail chaos we are all in. How many times that night did I hear, “Have you been to that store? It’s my favorite”, or squeals of an article we saw or a designer we love.
Laurie from Bittersweet and the team from Angel Court were the invited manufacturers and we loved hearing about the other side of the business as many of us carry their lines. Laurie was featured on the back cover of our Curious Sofa Country Living issue so we shared what has happened to us since the article.
I tried to spend some quality time with each and every gal but some had to leave or I had to interrupt others, but all in all I think it was a success and a tradition in the making.
As I stumbled to my room that night I am sure I felt as everyone did which is that it is just good to meet others that are going though some of the issues we are all facing right now. Although the evening was entertaining there was certainly a lot of education being thrown around. For instance: I awoke at nine the next day and there are already two emails telling me thank you and , “Oh by the way, you must see this vendor in building one, she has a product you will want”. This is what it is all about. Looking out for one another with ideas, good product and encouragement. (and boy were they right!!!!)
On one level this July Market was what I had expected: slower attendance with a lot of moaning in the isles about the state of the union (from vendors and buyers). On the other hand I also heard that though the volume of ordering was down, the dollar amount of those orders was steady. The lookers were minimal and the buyers that were there were being smart. I heard of careful planning and exact ship dates, minimum quantities to be certain and spreading the reorders out. This is just smart retailing and if it takes a slight dip in our economy to make us ’straighten up and buy right’- then hooray for us for taking our business this seriously.
The final day of my trip I met with my friend Cinda of the GHTA and self proclaimed retail enabler and we discussed these very issues. Maybe because of this blog or the press I had in Country Living but I have been emailed by many over the years who want to open a shop or already have a shop or think it would be fun to have one. The reality of it all hits them when after the first few months of opening customers stop coming or maybe they never came in or an employee leaves or gas prices hit $4.00 a gallon. What do they do? My friend and I confirmed many women are simple shell shocked and realize this is a full-on BUSINESS. It is not about being cute or popular or chatting with customers.... (although it is about that too). There is a mindset that must come with being a successful business owner. Its work and study and endurance and then one year it starts making sense. You stop bitching as much and get in a flow with the economy, the customers, the employees, the buying and the general rollercoaster ride of it all. This is when the heroes emerge.
On the plane Sandee and I were discussing the on slot of closed shops that are happening. (By the way, since the Curious Sofa Dinner Party last January, four of those 24 retailers have closed their store). Does this mean they failed? No! Does this mean they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Maybe. I think if I were to interview each one I would hear many different things. Yes, it is always about money or lack of sales, but I am betting they would all have a different strategy if they were to do it all over again. Different location, different theme, bigger space, smaller space, more education- the list goes on.
What I realized about most of the guests at the cocktail party were that they have gotten into a groove of making it work. I told Sandee I cannot judge anyone who closes their store because I know how hard it is. But then I added, "Closing is not an option for me. If things were tough for me, I still wouldn't. I have business loans to pay off for another 5 years! I have no alternative. I would end up cutting back on buying, letting employees go, renting out some space if I had to, selling my house - whatever it took to keep it going. But then, I have no life! If there was a husband or kids or extra income coming in, I might close the store to take it easy for awhile.
I applaud all of you for the time, effort and hard work involved in shop keeping. Whether you are a new shop old shop, open three months or 35 years.... it's all hard work to keep at it.
Q: I got your name and shop owner blog from a friend of mine. She knows that I am trying to open up a women's boutique. My question to you is, while I am in the process of finding a location for my store, what can I be doing in the mean time to get things set up, and started?
A: 1. Get a name for your business and and apply for a Resale Tax number. If you do not have a store name yet, file under your own name like 'Jane Doe Boutique'. You'll need this to do any wholesale buying. Use this to make a dummy business card with your home address, etc. 2. Prepare your money. Do a business plan, meet with a bank, get a feeling for your budget. 3. Learn your demographics so you are able to be more certain of the neighborhood you might be starting a shop in. This is crucial when determining what merchandise and style to carry as well. 4. Start a file on interior ideas for your store and a file for the merchandise. Study magazines, get vendors names and websites, ask for catalogs. 5. Start searching and buying supplies if you are certain you are doing this: Fixtures, cash registers, display pieces. You'll save money if you have time to search. 6. Go to a wholesale market somewhere and do some homework on vendors. In your case the Las Vegas Magic Show is good for clothing and the Moda, Fame and Accessories Show in NY. 7. Get to know some people that can possibly work for you. Develop a relationship with a salesgirl you might have your eye on at another store. Do not share much, just shop there often and start a friendship. When you are certain, get someone involved from the ground up to learn as much as you will. Not necessarily a partner but a manager. This will help you to breathe. 8. Shop a lot at stores similar to yours and notice everything. 9. Spend spare hours at the bookstore reading about business, retail and employees. 10. Pray a lot for Divine intervention. Good Luck!
. I decided to share a December sales idea after receiving a few emails from several retailers asking what I do about Christmas markdowns. It's hard for all of us to compete when every big box store is offering massive discounts already but a fun gimmick is always good.
I started this idea last year and it was a hit with customers so we are doing it again. Beginning December 12 Curious Sofa begins their 12 Days of Christmas Sale. The discounts start at 12% off on all Christmas merchandise and continues from 13% to 24% on the appropriate date thru Xmas eve. Then the day after Xmas we start our 50% off Christmas sale.
On December 26th we also begin our Winter Clearance Sale marking a lot of winter items, gifts and decor down 20-75% off (basically stuff we're all tired of looking at and has not moved fast enough). I used to have this sale until January 31 but by Jan. 15 the store looked pathetic and customers were ready for something new so now we end it in three weeks, which is plenty of time. I have also started to order new merch to keep the inventory level up but I am focusing more on larger furniture pieces (lamps, mirrors, art, chairs) than a ton of smalls. I am however, keeping the jewelry, winter scarves and candles stocked because it is still cold out there and those smaller items are good impulse purchases no matter what time of year.
Pass on any sale ideas you might have and get your calendar year ready for your staff. The momentum of Christmas energy needs to keep us going!
Also, Curious Cocktails Sunday, January 13 in Atlanta at the Westin Lobby Lounge, 6:30 p.m. More later!
Okay, the response to the 'Eating Crow' blog post has me thinking of what I can do for all of us. Here is a thought: If you are a shop owner, email me directly your email address. Hopefully from your email address I can see that you own a real brick & mortar store. If not, send me all your info.
1. Shop name, address, etc. (Some of you I know so this won't be necessary). 2. Web site or blog site so I can see you really are a business owner. 3. Email
Send to firstname.lastname@example.org
I do not want to post all that I am learning on this blog as I know some customers and competitors check this. But to all of you business owners wanting to learn like I am, I have a plan. .
Pictured above. The Curious Retailers. Unfortunately, nine of the girls had already left- so you can just imagine the crowd!
Now that the dust has settled from the Atlanta show and the Curious Dinner Party is over, I have thought long and hard about all the gals that were there and have also received a few e-mails from others wanting to know more about that evening. Other than the delight of just meeting these other store owners, one thing is crystal clear: we all need someone to listen to us. We all wanted to share and learn and talk and know we are not alone. Today I ran into one of the dinner gals at the mart and the first thing we said to one another was, “Why are we still here?!” Then we laughed as we agreed it was just too hard to shop for a lifestyle store in six days because this trip basically stocks our store for six months and it is just not enough time to buy for two seasons.
We continued to talk about the dinner party and how exhilarating it was, and now days later, how much more we wanted to say and ask and share. I felt it was a huge hit for a first time event, but now looking back, I wish I had spent so much more time with everyone by really getting to know their stores, their situation and their history. Some even came with a list of questions for me and then I knew, they all had questions and I wanted so badly to answer them all. Not that I am any expert, but many just wanted to talk to other shop owners because in your own town we all keep quiet and do not dare share the highs and lows of this business when in reality- we are all going through uncertainty. And none of us here were competitors. I also l have yet to meet anyone who has gone to a retail university.
What all this meant for me was the ability to take a deep breath and know that we are all going through the retail angst together. We are not alone although we feel like we are. Later that night, one of the gals (Karen) gave myself, Michelle and Stephanie a ride back to our hotel. We sat in the lobby until 2 a.m. and shared more stories, advice and anguish. From employees to vendors to being robbed to accountants to clients... it could have lasted all weekend. I also came away knowing I was not the wise one. There were years of experience at the dining table that night; from one who owned a store for 32 years to another for two months. Others had multiple stores but most of us owned one. Some with large stores in the city to 600 square feet in the country. Some also sell products online, some do not. Some had partners and some didn’t. It didn’t matter because we all learned from each other. It really was amazing. Some of us have distinct looks, others offer services, others are filled to the brim, others are struggling, while others keep reinventing themselves. But one thing is clear: we all want to find the secret to success. Is there an easier, bigger, better, faster way to do this? Can we buy and sell in any sort of logical way? Can we get press, stay ahead of the game, pay bills, travel, hire, pay ourselves and not go nuts all at the same time? For me, I came away with my answer and although it may not be the right answer, it was good to have some clarity. Each and every one of these girls were obsessed with their business and trying to make it the best it can be. This for me was so magnificent because we ALL thought that way. Not once that night did I hear anyone talk of their husbands or kids or fashion or current events because we are all consumed by our stores. Just breathing the same air was calming. So although we are nuts with doing this, knowing we are all nuts doing this was such a comfort. NO ONE has it figured out and it's okay!
A perfect example was later that night at the hotel I shared that my accountant (Ira) does not understand why I keep spending money when we may have had a slow month at the store. I explained how he is going to freak out that I finally (and I do mean- finally) have zero credit card debt which was my goal by January 1. Now, after this market, it is back up there again. I explained, “He is going to freak!” All the gals sitting with me shook their heads and just nodded. “I know, my accountant doesn’t understand that either,” said Karen. “They just don’t get it”. And all this time I thought I was managing my purchasing badly. Aren’t I supposed to make more than I spend? (well yes, but if the shelves are low, customers aren’t buying or seeing anything new then I have to spend to keep it interesting). My accountant just does not get this.
Case in point: Ira and I meet at our local Starbucks once a month to discuss the State of the Sofa. The last meeting was about two weeks ago when Starbucks had just removed all the red and white Holiday decor and put up what I describe to be their new zen design. I noticed it earlier that day and had to walk right up and touch the new signage because it looked as though it had burlap fabric behind it. But it’s not. They photographed burlap and layered the graphic over the photo. Brilliant I thought, because it really did look like fabric which you never see in Starbucks signage. I also noticed how their theme for the New Year was to ‘rejuvenation, reinvent, be calm,’ etc. Perfect for January as this is when we all want to try a fresh start. So I am taking in all this retail styling at Starbucks and analyzing it for my store because earlier that week I had decided to buy deeper into candles and soap and jewelry for the first quarter; smaller impulse items that women may want since gift giving had stopped- my attempt to try and keep the sales up. So I make the connection that Starbucks is sort of doing the same thing with their tranquil, ‘all about you’ campaign. I’m feeling kind of puffed up because my theory was not that far off to what they were targeting...
So when Ira and I meet there later that day, I say to him, “Did you notice their new signage? Isn’t it great? It looks like burlap fabric doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s a photo of burlap." He could have cared less, didn’t blink an eye, not even looking up, but did manage to say, “No I didn’t notice. I did however notice how many people are in here and how much money they are making from them.” -So notice who is thinking like a retailer and who is thinking like an accountant.
I too, have sat in Starbucks and studied the crowd. Especially when I knew I was moving my business into the neighborhood. I sat and counted bodies in 30 minutes and realized each person probably spent $5 a head. A cash cow business if ever there was one.
So to think someone else on the outside is going to understand your passion for retail is just not going to happen. But for a few hours on one lovely Sunday night, I was with my peeps. I was home.
More answers to some of their questions in future blogs.