Secrets to a Successful Shop

It’s true — people shop online more and more each year. So how does a brick and mortar shop make it in today’s world?

I was downtown in my town of 40,000 people (in a commuter corridor of the Bay Area) the other day, and parked on the main street in front of a little gift shop. After I’d had lunch with my son, I climbed into my car and goofed around with some stuff in the passenger seat. The next thing I knew the owner of the gift shop was knocking on my car window.

“Are you the Polka Dot Attic?” she said.

Of course I am. It says so on the car magnet.

“Do you want to buy some pioneer clothes?” she asked.

“No, thank you,” I said. “How’s business?”

I could see that no one was in her shop.

“Not so great,” she said.

Just then my phone rang, and she said, “Let’s keep in touch.”

It was a robo call, so I hung up, went inside her shop and said, “Give me your phone number.”

By the time I’d left, I’d given her the four key ingredients to my success as an antique store -turned gift shop & costume store (I have been closed for seven years).

  1. Give away lollipops. The word got out, and every kid in town came into my shop, many with their parents in tow. Lollipops put me on the map.
  2. Give a coupon to each buyer for the following month. This ensures repeat customers. Mine was for 20% off one item. I printed them up on the vistaprint.com website, a pretty cheap marketing technique.
  3. Sell things that people want. For me it was things with polka dots on them. I sold Kay Dee aprons and Gloveables rubber gloves. I only bought the polka dot ones. Black and white was the number one color choice. Red and white was second.
  4. Sell that one thing that will pay the rent every month. For me it was Smokehouse barn signs from Missouri. Sure, it was expensive to ship them to California but so worth it. I marked them up three to five times what I paid for them, and they flew out the door. I also stocked the smaller gift-sized ones and sold them for $19.99 each. Of the two hundred slogans, I figured out pretty quickly which ones would sell the fastest.

My average sale was $18.00. That was the price of one pair of Gloveables, one pretty tea cup and saucer in a cellophane bag with a bow on it, one small sign with a 20% off coupon, or one pioneer bonnet.

I made my rent every month for six and a half years except July of 2008. I had just moved around the corner, had no sign out front, and the recession was kicking in.

Owning and running a store is a whole lot of work. You meet some great people, some shoplifters, and some irate customers since you don’t give back cash refunds (store credit only), and you get to figure out how to make money from a 2800 sq foot space with no heat and no bathroom.

I opened it the year I turned 50.  I was never in such great shape as when I was running around selling, stocking, moving, and marketing that shop. I learned a lot about myself.  I learned a lot about people (even rich people shoplift). I met Sully Sullenberger and got his autograph when he charged two wooden signs on his Visa card.

Running a shop is that thing you do once and then never again. Closing up was a huge endeavor. Keeping it staffed with honest people was a huge endeavor.  Staying cheerful when people spilled coffee, complained, stood in front of me and told a potential customer that she could borrow her neighbor’s pioneer outfit instead of buying one from me, and when the landlord rented out the parking lot  to the Veterans’ Hall construction trailer thereby taking up all available parking, wasn’t easy.

The last week one of my teenagers took a bad check for $140.00. I tried to cash it at two banks and finally gave up.  I chalked it up to what a pain in the ass it is to run a shop. My philosophy is that Karma will do unto that woman what she did unto me.

And then I let it go.

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