Here are 25 tips for small shop owners I’ve learned from opening (and subsequently closing) my first boutique. Some are things I knew and worked well, some are lessons learned the hard way.
Owning a shop has been a lifelong dream. I went into it wholeheartedly and intent on succeeding. But as with any new venture, you don’t know what you don’t know.
- Greet every single person within a few seconds of them entering the store.
- Have security cameras, preferably wifi so you can peek in on things remotely. Being a small shop owner means caring about your store 24 hours a day.
- Don’t be on the phone if it can be helped. Let the machine get it if there are customers in the shop. Don’t take or make personal calls unless they understand you may need to hang up at a moment’s notice.
- Open and close your shop at the same time every day. This is harder than it sounds, especially when you’re a one-person-show. Trains happen. Loading trucks in the alley happen. The flu happens.
- Get together with other small shop owners in your town independently of your business association. Those folks will keep you sane on bad days, give great advice and encouragement, and celebrate when you’re all doing well.
- If you invite anyone you know to sell in your shop, make sure they’re someone you could live with. If you have consignors, make sure they understand the level of professionalism you expect. They should be promoting the location of their wares, be in routinely to straighten up and keep their area well-stocked. If they go MIA, box their items up and let them to know when to come get them. That floor space is rent money. You assume all the risk. You do not work for them. They should care about their success as much as you do. Don’t go out of your way to give the best of your energy to someone who doesn’t value it.
- Just like in any business, if a vendor is a time suck, cut them loose and find a better relationship to work with. This could be a vendor who can’t keep you reliably stocked to never seeming to be able to get your order right or sent out in time. You need vendors you can count on.
- If you’re just at one location, don’t take on a partner. If you don’t start from the exact same place, they’ll never feel like it’s their baby. And you’ll have to earn twice as much until you make a living wage to split.
- Have a business plan that includes how to close the business even if you think it’ll never happen. I ended up working a second full-time job and driving myself into the ground because my partner just walked out, leaving all the debt in my lap. If we had a plan for that event, it would not have been nearly as disruptive or burdensome.
- Research reasonable pricing on your goods. If it sits for 6 months, it didn’t pay it’s rent. Price stuff to sell.
- Have a zero tolerance policy for negative energy. People who work for you or with you will infect your business environment with their energy and attitude. Make sure it’s positive!
- Shop your neighbor’s stores. Think of it as seeding good karma. I had a neighbor who used to joke that we just kept passing the same $50 back and forth.
- There will be people who, for whatever reason, will be aggressive or ugly to you. It’s going to happen. Don’t take it personally. There isn’t one successful person in this world who doesn’t have to endure that backlash. Hold your head high and keep being awesome. A very sweet friend of mine has her own show on HGTV and said people write ugly notes about how she wriggles her nose when she talks. Think about that. People actually take the time to sit down and spew venom about a perfectly lovely person because she wriggles her nose. Just know it’s going to happen so it doesn’t come out of nowhere and upset you. Blow it off. It happens to the best of ’em.
- Spot the town gossip. Now avoid them like the plague.
- Your shop will become a place for people to stop in a couple times a week. Keep a comfy chair handy and cherish those relationships.
- Never underestimate the power of a happy customer. Or an unhappy one. I had so many folks who came in and told me their girlfriend told them about my shop. Probably more than anyone who saw any advertisement.
- Be careful who you let into your store’s little world. I once knew a local woman who I thought was a very talented artisan. She wasn’t selling anywhere and I couldn’t understand why. But I did know she was a pretty negative person. I thought if I encouraged her to get her stuff out there that it might be a positive thing for her. Nope. I soon had to tell her it wasn’t working out asked her to come get her things. This was 2 years ago. She’s vandalized my house & car, terrorized my family, and spent an awful lot of time spreading a horrible smear campaign. It’s still going on. Lesson learned: Scrutinize anyone you invite “in” with a microscope. If something seems off, it’s off. Listen to your inner voice. Your business isn’t the place to extend a lifeline to people bent on dead ends. That’s not your job. You have other work to do.
- Hire an accountant. You’ll want to use Quickbooks. That’s cool, but do you want to be awesome at Quickbooks or awesome at running a shop?
- Love your shop every day. Walk around it, handle and straighten up your wares. Care for it.
- Play fun music that your customers like. It may not be your favorite, but think about what may be generally enjoyable, soothing, and make folks want to linger. It’s for them, not really for you. I played a lot of big band swing music. People would sing as they meandered through the shop or comment, “My mother loved this song!” –which was appropriate for a shop selling vintage home decor. Play music that is appropriate for the aesthetic of your business.
- Advertise, but don’t automatically jump on the old traditional media. We got zero traction from newspapers. We got tons of response from social media. If you advertise on any websites, get their analytics reports and accept no excuses for why their traffic is low. If it’s low, it’s low. It’s not going to get better because you’re paying $800 a month to advertise there. Put your money where it’ll work.
- On that topic, fully engage in social media. Read all those articles out there about how to use it well.
- Have a real estate attorney review your lease before you sign it. Do not sign any lease which makes you responsible for major components of the landlord’s building. -For example, the HVAC system. My first landlord was excellent about his maintenance and was extremely responsive. Equally as important, watch those lines about rent hikes and how frequently they’ll be imposed. Ask around town to see what your landlord’s reputation is. Is he known to be a great guy? Is he known to be a bear to deal with? No matter how great the location, your landlord is going to be a partner of sorts in your business’ success. Make sure they’re good folks to deal with.
- Choose your town and location carefully. Make sure that what you do is part of the vibe there. If you’re a gift shop on restaurant row, your customers aren’t going to start showing up until dinnertime. And then they’ll be there for a different purpose in mind, not to browse or shop. You want to be the right shop in the right place for the right folks when they’ll be looking for you.
- Love what you sell. These are long days full of hard work that begins and ends way outside of your store hours. If you love it, it won’t feel like work.
I could probably go on and on. I made lots of mistakes and learned an awful lot. I’ll do it again someday. But in the meantime, I’ll share these 25 tips for small shop owners and hope it helps someone else as they start out on their path. Give it your best and I hope you succeed.
I will say that the hardest thing about closing a store that you loved with all you heart is sorting out the postmortem business. I avoided it way too long. Thankfully my sweet, supportive friends understand how painful a process it’s been. But if you ever have to close your business, just be kind to yourself and manage people’s expectations. Tell people, “Once the doors close I will not be doing anything for a month.” -Or however long you need. Maybe less, maybe more. But you’ll need some time to regroup.
*Lucky me…I did get to move my vintage wares over into a new booth at Jackson Square Antique Mall, so please be sure to check it out!
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— Alana Waters-Piper (@alanawpiper) August 4, 2014