Sunday, November 9, 2008

Viva La Retail!

{This funny-looking, cutie patutie belongs to a wardrobe stylist who does all the concert outfits
 for clients such as Christina Aguiliar. That tongue is always hanging out! I could just eat this face up!}

Many have inundated us in the shop or online or on this blog with "Why are you busy? What is your secret?"
Well OF COURSE there is no ONE secret. Just like losing weight, there is no one miracle answer. There is only hard, hard work. And then more hard work.
There are many, many, many tiers that add up to the big picture, and this is not the forum to go into all the opinions, ideas, and theories on how to build a successful small business. {Besides, I speak at a variety of business seminars so I'll leave my soapbox of theories for such a venue...}

Most of what I have to say on the subject would bore the French beret off these blog readers so I am leaving a lot out.   Most importantly, these tips are what work for ME. For my area. For my business. For my product. For my clientele. I by no means have all the answers. I once read a blog from a shop owner in the Midwest providing tips on running a small retail business and I remember thinking "Ok, I don't agree with ANY of these; none of these would work for the business I'm attempting to build".  You, above anyone else, understand your customer base the best.
Lastly, these only really apply to with those who have a brick and mortar store....

a) Location, Location, Location.
a1) It's no secret that spending habits differ vastly from region to region, city to city, store to store. Many retailers in Sausalito, Santa Fe, and other communities with a similar economic base are thriving. Vintageweave is located between the Hollywood Hills and Beverly Hills where many people are recession proof. 'Nuff said.

a2) If you aren't getting foot traffic: move. It's that simple. The best product in the worst location is death to retail. In my former life I was a wizard real estate broker so I have a leg up on this part. A good retail broker is a phone call away; ask friends, fellow business owners or drive around and get numbers off signs. If a broker represents a landlord of a building, chances are they can represent you, the tenant. Be sure to interview a couple of brokers and go with one you feel listens to your needs. As you do with medical needs, do your own research on areas/buildings and don't rely solely on your broker. My location is NOT by luck or by ACCIDENT. It is an area picked by design, by strategy. I don't live in either of the cities I hug and I sit in traffic to/from work every day. But since I knew I would be going after the set design community, my proximity to them was crucial.

b) Cater to your crowd. Many retailers do not have access to set designers, celebrities or high-end designers (with their own roster of high caliber of clientele). These groups don't make up our entire customer base nor would we want it to. Regardless of the customer base, your goal should always be to turn a customer into a client (i.e. someone who uses you as a source, obtains your advice, hires you for your expertise).  Nurture relationships with those loyal to your store.  I often hear "you're so lucky to have these clients".  Anyone running a business knows that luck as nothing to do with it!  I am not a former actress nor do I have a family member in the entertainment industry. Each and every relationship with a set designer or celebrity is through fortitude, extra effort, and lots and lots and lots of extra hard work. Ditto for ALL our clients, whether they are teachers (one of the most important jobs!!), nurses, executives or moms and dads (THE most important jobs of them all!!!).

c) Love what you do.
This seems obvious, but when you choose to run a retail store it can't be just one part that you like. You must love the shopping, restocking, rearranging, designing, selling, and meeting new people. I GENUINELY love interacting with truly interested customers, whether in person, by phone or by email. It is so much fun to know someone is checking in from time to time to fill their home or gift-giving pile with treasures I discovered. You have no idea how thrilling it is when someone inquires on an item; even if they don't purchase it, it shows they have an appreciation for the treasures I find beautiful. It's the loveliest of compliments. Be smart: Farm out what you don't love. (Bookkeeping anyone???)

d) Don't be an absentee owner.
I love to shop. There are countless and countless family-owned stores where I've spent a considerable amount of money and yet I've never met the owner despite frequent visits. Some owners I've only interacted with moderately even though I may have been in over a dozen times and spent $$$$$. I am so busy that I'm not always at the shop, but I guarantee you if you've been in my shop over a dozen times, I not only know your name, but I know your dog's name, too!  At the end of the day or week depending on schedule,  I review each and every phone and online order that comes in. I make myself familiar with the names of those who look to us for something special.

e) Run your retail store like a business, not a retail store!
So many fail in this arena. An eye-catching store with interesting vignettes is important, but you need to translate all of that into sales so that you can eat and keep a roof over your head. One of many simple, obvious tips: Have an employee manual setting forth your expectations on everything from how to package a sale to how to answer the phone. Are you the only employee? You should still have an employee manual. You know the saying: "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have". Use this wise advice as an analogy for all aspects of your business.

If you don't have a business background, invest in a community college class and/or books. The information is out there if you're truly willing to make an extra effort. If money is tight, remember a step back will yield four steps forward. Take an online course. Find a way.

f) Follow up!
I can't tell you how many times I've walked into a store that specializes in "widgets". I leave my name to contact me when they get more widgets in and I never hear a word. Be smart in this arena. You will lose money following up with every inquiry on a $20 item; use good judgement and time management in this regard.  While we can't follow up with everyone (sometimes we just never discover the particular "widget" they are looking for), we have an EXTREMELY active Wish List and sell an inordinate amount of items every week based on the various requests.

g) Get in the year 1999!
If you don't have a customer list of emails, do it NOW. Postal mailing is good to use for special events but email is invaluable. 

h) Make presentation a priority.
Our merchandise bags at Vintageweave are quite pricey, but since we're a specialty boutique and not a bargain basement, the extra touch is not wasted on our client base. If we were a card store or had a low average sale, pricey bags would not make sense. Use your best judgement and determine what you want your business to project and base it upon your average sale. If you ship product, try to translate presentation to those customers, too. Great examples of small wholesale/retail businesses that focus on presentation are Anna Corba who always wraps each set of items with lovely ribbon and recycled paper, and See Jane Work who has a great, fun sticker on the outside of their packages that sets them apart. Of course, the many, many small artists from whom we buy always make extra effort in this regard, too, and do so beautifully. Sometimes we get so busy trying to fill orders same day that we aren't always able to do this. But each package is wrapped with care by someone who is enjoying it. It matters. Positive molecules and energy can travel all over the world, which segues into....

i) Stay positive
I'm a naturally positive, highly-enthusiastic person so this is an area I never have to "work on", but I recognize others sometimes struggle. Energy is transferable so it's truly important to keep it positive. Remove the negative from your surroundings. Sometimes you need to walk away from a customer and/or lose a customer. Weigh the situation. If you have a friend or family member who is negative, it wouldn't necessarily make sense to remove them from you life! Merely learn to NOT  discuss business with them. Surround yourself and your business brain storming with positive forces only!

j) Work Ethic
I could write pages and pages on the topic of work ethic and give countless examples, but bottom line: you either have it or you don't. 
Ask yourself if you're having a tough economic time: "Am I really doing all I can?" I've walked into stores where the owner is reading a book or off on a leisurely lunch or chit chatting on the phone with her husband. Unsurprisingly, those three stores are no longer open for business. Bottom line: I work my ass off.  {And with all those Paris trips eating croissant after croissant, there's a LOT of  it!}

k) Like stocks, diversify.
You can not believe how important this is. I'm a big proponent of having a brick and mortar store AND an online store AND one or three other special services. Or in our case, seven. The actual retail brick and mortar store  is just a piece of the overall business. We have private clients, online customers, email customers, phone customers, boutique customers, boutique clients,  studio clients, designer clients and corporate clients. When one isn't buying, three of the others are...

l) Don't be above doing anything so long as the task will yield positive cash flow.
I recently helped one of my biggest clients find a dozen pine cones for her daughter's school project when she was in a pinch and needed them within the hour. I paid an employee to drive to the flower mart, and then messengered them to her assistant --all within 50 minutes. I made nothing off the pine cones of course, but was focused on the big picture. To this day she is an extremely loyal client of Vintageweave...She provides pages and pages of Gift Lists every holiday season.
So many think they do this, but are you really doing all you can? 
One highly-demanding (but extremely nice) client lives 3 hrs from my home during morning rush hour traffic. In LA, morning rush hour starts as early as 5:00a. To demonstrate I was up to the task of dealing with his crazy schedule, I offer to meet him at 7am knowing it would mean leaving my house at 3:45am (not to mention the time I have to actually get up!). I initially did this over a dozen times. He now turns to me for each and every design or gift need for all four of his houses. Be smart: Weigh the situation and evaluate your personal time management.

m) Don't try to be all things to all people.
We all are familiar with: " You can't please all the people all the time." It's a fact of life. This is hard especially for women, but the sooner you accept this, the better your business will be. This area has a direct impact on your time management.

n) Have quality, unique product.
I was recently in a relatively upscale city in Central California. Walking down the main streets and jaunting in and out of the speciality boutiques, I was floored at how disappointing the merchandise was. In a word: uninspiring and B.O.R.I.N.G. If you're unable to travel outside of the country for something unique, seek out talented artists offering up something special. Our country is chock full of them.

o) Be the best Janitor you can be.
Vintageweve doesn't POSE as a French lifestyle store, we ARE a French lifestyle store. I travel to France several times a year and I am on the phone or sending emails at ghastly hours with my French contacts. I  don't just buy from a catalog or third party for things that look French. I am digging through dirty boxes in raining France weather at 6am, schlepping things through metro stations, constantly getting bleeding knuckles and bruised legs, knocking on artist doors in remote villages, etc, etc. I sacrifice other things to be able to travel to the country I choose to specialize in.
I was once in a very nice boutique in Long Beach, CA where they specialize in gifts with a mixture of vintage furnishings. A customer asked the OWNER: "Could you tell me the age or anything about this vintage piece?". The owner answered--albeit very nicely--  but as if she was taken aback..... as if it was an unreasonable question: "Oh, how I would I know?? It's just vintage." 

I was floored. How disappointing that a retail owner would take the time to artfully place something in her store, yet not take the time and extra effort on her customers' behalf to be even remotely knowledgeable in what she is selling? If you don't know, say that, but make a mental note to do the research. This particular owner's tone and body language clearly was sending the message that she felt it wasn't a necessary part of her business to know.

There's an old saying: if you are a janitor, mop better than anyone else. Be the best you can be no matter what your endeavor. I don't believe in pursuing any profession from an armchair. Become an expert in whatever your focus.

p) Passion is king!
Passion can not be taught or learned. If you aren't spilling over with passion, do something else. If you're waning in passion on your actual brick store, consider another avenue. Do you want to break into wholesale? Would you rather set up booths at speciality shows and craft fairs?
I once had a boss tell me "If I could bottle your passion, I'd be richer than Warren Buffett". I am passionate about life and about my interests, whether it's cooking, gardening, negotiating real estate leases or selling antiques. I get the same level of excitement if someone is marveling and buying a $1.50 French Sea Salt Carmel I first discovered in Marseilles (the best EH-VER I swear!) or a $11,500 French marble-topped table. I am truly passionate about each and every item I sell and love when others share that appreciation. { Of course in the case of the latter, THAT buyer would be getting some of those amazing carmels for FREE!}. Passion and enthusiasm are infectious!

q) Passion and enthusiasm are infectious.
Worth repeating. :)

If  your retail sales are slow, don't beat yourself up. Since the beginning of time there has been an ebb and flow to all things and the economy will be on an upswing again. Have faith. Unless you're Target or Wall Mart, you can adjust your overhead quite immediately, thus resulting in more positive cash flow.  
We now return to our regular programming of posting some fun treasures recently unearthed so if you have questions, privately email me at RETAIL in the subject line and the girls will make sure it gets printed out over to me!


Anonymous said...

What wonderful advice! Even though I have never gotten into the biz despite always toying mentally with the idea, your advice is something I will stash away in the event someday I can actually put it to use. You deserve your success.

Anonymous said...

I've said it a million times before, it is SO obvious from the moment that one sets foot in your shoppe that you have a business background. You are a GEM to work with and make MY job so much easier. You forgot one important item: you have to have great taste!!
Your eye is impeccable, Kathy

Anonymous said...

I love shopping iwth you. I agree. You deserve your success. But as much as I like you, I like your taste more!:) :)

Shannon said...

I am an online shopper, and I know why I love shopping at Vintageweave- wonderful customer service, enthusiasm, and unique vintage product. I always feel comfortable asking questions about items. You won't believe the number of times I have asked other store owners questions about their products (often through email, if I can't see the items in person), and I get curt, unenthusiastic responses, as if I am bothering them. I think, for some owners, it's easy to brush off online shoppers. Even if I'm buying a candle, you and your staff make it a treat to shop with you.

Oh, and thanks for making such a nice comment about teachers!

Lisa & Alfie said...

Hi Kathy,
Those are valuable words to live and work by.
Lisa & Alfie

Anonymous said...

Kathy: I used to own a business IN beverly hills (children's clothing). you aren't giving yourself enough credit or you are too humble. The area has something to do with it, but not everything as I have friends who are still in BH and struggling right now. YOU have unique product plus you specialize in something which is smart. Even those with money may decide not a great time to travel to France with the exchange rate and all, so they instead go where they can be immersed in the experience (speaking from experience!!). You give quality and while you aren't cheap, you provide quality and value. I don't know any place else where I go and I'm given a wonderful gift of hand cream because I spent a certain amount of money with you. the most I ever get is a warm thank you. You've got it going right. You said a nice thing about mums and nurses: thank you!
Janie G

Anonymous said...

Nicely said. Sage advice.

Anonymous said...

Trully unique shopping experience. You do have an eye for beautiful things and love sharing. Your worth, your knowledge and your passion are evident in all you do. Kudos my lady.

Kathy said...

You are all far too kind.
I am humbled.

Each and every one of you are appreciated beyond measure! Any success enjoyed by Vintageweave is DIRECTLY linked to all of you, not me.

Anonymous said...

This is the best advise I have EVER read! Can relate to everything you say. Would LOVE to hear more!
Great blog and website! Will visit when in LA to see my daughter.
xo Roberta

Fifi Flowers said...

ADORABLE face... would make a perfect painting! I will be unveiling another dog portrait SOON!

Anonymous said...

This is so fantastic. You should write a business book.
I have always been one of Vintage Weave's biggest fans. This solidified it.

Joe McKinley

Unknown said...

I am a store co-owner and believe in everything you are saying. Enthusiasm, a good attitude and putting your clients first will always set you apart from anyother retail establishment - its what gets me through the day at least and I always make it a point to remember even a name, an event, a moment in each of my clients lives to let them know they are special to me!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is THE BEST advice!! I really enjoyed reading this post.
You are so kind to take the time out of your busy day to write about your business tips.
Plus, thanks for the nice comments
about teachers and parents. As a homeschooling mom of two boys, I am both.

Ava Venson said...

That's what I always think of when it comes to putting up a business. We should not do it just to earn money and make a living. More importantly, we must love our business like we love our own kids. Everything will run smoothly if we love and enjoy our business.

Anonymous said...

This was a great post! I really enjoyed it. What advice would you give if you are in a business with a few partners but you have the least amount of space and least amount of profit? How do you know when to expand or go it alone?