In our instantly gratifying digital age, operating of a successful brick-and-mortar shop poses an evolving challenge. In this post, I've shared ideas about how to create the best real-world experience for your customers to keep them coming back for more.
Although online sales are in important component of many local businesses (and if you don't have an e-commerce wing to your street-side store you're missing a trick!) it's important to keep customers walking through the doors rather than purchasing online exclusively.
Why? Because selling things in person is the whole point of having a shop! And developing a loyal cadre of customers who love what you do so much that they check in regularly, buy regularly, and tell all their friends is really gratifying for you as a shop owner, and for your bottom line. Plus, in-person interactions are where you learn the most about what is and isn't working in your business.
In order to keep customers coming back to your brick-and-mortar store, they should be welcomed by physical experiences that are impossible to translate onto a screen. That means creating a product mix that is unique to your business... and that includes products that your customers haven't seen anywhere else. It also means styling the shop so each item feels special and creates an overarchingly aspirational aesthetic that your customer will long to recreate in their own home, closet, kitchen, or where ever in their lives your products end up.
1. CONTINUOUSLY UPDATE YOUR UNIQUE COLLECTION OF WARES
Remember that customers delight in coming back frequently to see what's new. Newness is one key. The less you have for them to discover, the less often they'll return and part with their money in your shop. I know all too well that continuously sourcing and updating your selection of unique items is a full time job in itself... so here are my best tips for getting it right.
Sourcing The Right Products
The hunt for merchandise is a big part of the fun of having your own shop... But it’s also nice to have a few go-to sources that you can count on to find new, super special items. These are my favourite places to hunt for inspirations... and some tip for navigating them.
Blogs. Blogs are a rabbit hole... You read a post about a maker... And that maker has a blog that then features another artist who has a blog... And the inspiration tunnel goes on in perpetuity. Which can be a time suck, for sure. But what's important about having your own list of favourite blogs and checking in on them periodically is that they help you to source ideas, and develop your aesthetic, from a broader perspective. Many cities have "a look" and micro-trends that emerge. You may want to join in on some or most of them... But if you want your shop to look different from everyone else's, then looking at different blogs from all over the place will help you craft a curatorial mix that's all you... And there's more value in that than in looking like everyone else.
Instagram. Instagram in a similar kind of rabbit hole, but it's another great tool for following the stylists, artists, influencers, and brands you love to help you decide on the direction you want your stock to take. This can get tricky if you're following too many other stores just like yours on the platform. Sourcing your stock from their latest arrivals is a bad look... People will start to notice the repetition. But if you do see something incredible that you and your customers would love - and you find that the only other place stocking it is nowhere near you - then go for it... That's how gold mines are discovered!
Etsy. I don’t turn to Etsy as much as I used to (there are just too many shops, it's overwhelming, and I find a lot of it is imported stuff I could get more cheaply elsewhere if I really wanted to), they do give everyone who signs up a chance to list their favourite shops. Use this to your advantage by finding makers whose style you love, and see who they're loving in return. You just might find a hidden gem to stock in your own shop.
Independent Design Markets. If you only hit up trade shows when shopping for your store, unfortunately your stock will be the same as everyone else's. That's why I recommend visiting independent markets (like The Finder's Keepers and The Big Design Market in Australia). Here's a list of the some of the best craft fairs you might want to visit on your quest for brands that may not already be stocked in a nearby shop. ROAD TRIP!
Walk-Ins. If you have a beautiful shop with a great social media presence and positive coverage in local media outlets, the people making cool things in your town or city will get to know about you quickly. And while not everyone who walks in off the street will have a product that fits your vibe or a business structure that's ready to be represented by your shop, I "discovered" a lot of great local makers when they walked through my front door and asked for a moment of my time. So be open to serendipity.
Making Exclusivity A Priority
Before you place a wholesale order, look at each maker's stockist page on their site. If they don’t have one, ask where they're already stocked. When I first opened Showroom, I made a point of stocking brands that were either impossible or very hard to find in Brisbane... I did choose to carry a few lines which were stocked in one or two boutiques in other suburbs, and in those cases I was able to let customers know that if I was sold out of a particular style that there was another shop that might carry it - and enquire for them. Having this information allowed me to provide better customer service, and make friends out of my competitors too.
CreatE Unique Collaborations
Is there a maker you love whose incredible wares are cropping up in all the coolest shops and insta feeds? If your shop has a decent online profile and the ability to garnish good PR, chances are they'll entertain the possibility of creating a unique range just for sale in your shop. If you're a maker who wants to get into a particular store, offer them a unique collaborative line. The bonus is these ranges give your best customers something extra special to collect - so give them first dibs with a subscriber only pre-sale, or at a special sip and shop launch event.
For Example... I love this 10 print range that graphic artist Annabelle Lambie made exclusively for The Arthouse Collective:
2. CULTIVATE EVER CHANGING MERCHANDISING DISPLAYS
My store's motto was: We're curated like a magazine, ever changing like a gallery, and we sell things like a shop. This played into every facet of what I stocked, and how I chose to display it.
You know how you walk into some retail spaces and every object feels like a piece of art... whereas in others it all just feels like stuff on a shelf? In my experience, the more special you make each item seem, the more valuable your customer will assume it is, and the happier they'll be to pay for it. The trick is to curate and style - to mix different types of things from different price points together, in a well lit space that feels full, but at the same time gives each object a little room to breathe. And do have some plants.
The effect this creates for the person who walks in is not to notice how many different things are on the shelves, but to notice how beautiful everything looks on the shelf next to something else. It gives that customer a sense of loving everything, of not knowing where to focus at first, and the frisson of knowing there's so much of interest there for them to explore. It leads them to linger, and savour, and want to return.
When you walk into a shop you can feel how the display flows, or doesn't. If it's not done well you may feel immediately claustrophobic, or overly exposed, and want to leave. Creating a flow that engages the customer is important and something to work at through trial and error in your own space... Your perception of how it feels may be skewed as the owner, so don't be afraid to ask friends and customers how it feels to them if you want a truthful answer.
Use Visual Tools To Ensure Your Shop Has A Coherent Aesthetic
I think the goal of excellent merchandising is when everything in your shop could look really great next to anything else currently in stock. But that kind of aesthetic continuity doesn't happen by accident. To help your collection hang together, use Pinterest's secret board function to get a visual sense of how items you're planning to stock would look when mixed in with your existing offerings. If you want to know if an item would appear out of place, pin it next to what you already have to immediately find out. You can actually map your whole store out like this if you want to.
Curating Your Shelves
My merchandising method at Showroom was to create beautiful "shefies" around the perimeter of the store that represented the way products might sit together on a kitchen counter, a bedroom dresser, or a living room mantel piece. This gave our customers an aspirational sense of the aesthetic the store could help them achieve in their own homes. Then, on tables floating at different heights in the centre of the shop, I arranged items according to the categories the pieces belongs to on our e-commerce site. If a specific artist was featured that week on the website banner, their products were styled together on a table near the front door. Around Christmas I had tables with signs indicating "gifts for her" "gifts for him" "gifts under $25" "gifts under $50" and "gifts under $100" because those were the categories we promoting on the front page of the website. The point was to make customers who'd done their research online feel instantly comfortable and familiar, as though they'd visited before.
3. BE A PRESENCE IN YOUR RETAIL BUSINESS
Your shop needs you
If you've written it into your business plan to hire employees so you don't have to work behind the counter, it'll be very hard for you to learn who your customers are and what they really want from you. Of course POS data can tell you a lot, but it's the conversations that take place on the shop floor that are so vital for connecting with everyone who walks through the door. What are they looking for? What do they stop to look at? What questions keep coming up? What stories resonate more strongly? If you're operating largely as an absentee owner you miss the chance to know what’s working. And, assuming you do your own buying, you're the one who really knows the stories of where each product is from, how it's made, and why it's special. Even the best-trained employee can’t know your business the way you do, nor can she know what you want for your business. All of which is to say, your shop needs you to be a presence in your retail business.
The Shop Is An Extension Of Your Personal Brand
As your shop's curator-in-chief, your personal style, perspective, and voice are central to your brand. I urge you to see your store as an extension of your home. Welcome customers into a space that feels comfortable, personal, and demonstrably where you love to be. If you can cultivate that warmth, your customers and staff will pick up on it, and they'll be happy to keep coming back.