I've always dreamed of opening my own shop with fabulous home decor pieces like I use in my clients' homes. I know, however, that it most likely looks easier than it really is! So, I've decided to ask for advice from some of my successful Facebook and blogging friends -- my new "virtual peer group!" -- who own some wonderful shops themselves.
Joanie Ballard, of RH Ballard, Art, Rug, and Home, has graciously offered her wonderful tips and advice for us today. If you've ever dreamed of opening your own boutique business, you will just eat up her wise words below! -- Carla Aston
HOW TO START A BOUTIQUE BUSINESS | VALUABLE ADVICE FROM ART GALLERY & SHOP OWNER, JOANIE BALLARD
Owning a shop is a lot of work. But, because I love it and my gallery so much, all the effort I put into it is well worth it.
My growth as a business owner has been organic. I didn't have a business background when I came into all this, so I've had to learn everything I now know by way of my day-to-day experiences within the store. Now, I'm proud to say my business background is quite extensive!
Our shop, R.H. Ballard Shop & Gallery, started in 1997 as a result of our passion for Paris and beautiful things, and it's grown steadily ever since. My husband, Robert H. Ballard, first began the business by selling original French lithographs and oriental rugs. I then introduced Le Jacquard Francais and Garnier Thiebaut French Jacquard tablecloths, as well as with fine gifts, once we purchased a 2-story, 1929 house on Main Street in “Little” Washington, Virginia. Our historic, two-street town is home to the world-famous Inn at Little Washington, and there are only a few other businesses here.
Throughout my life, I've been kind of a free-spirit.
I’ve worked in various professions: theatre, music, and once as a Fabric Librarian for Brunschwig & Fils (a major turning point in my love for French textiles and fabrics). Having a desire to know more about the world and the people who inhabit it, I moved around a lot - New York, DC, Nashville, Los Angeles, Boulder, just to name a few places. All of that life experience led to the opening of the shop and gallery in 1997 with my husband Robert. Together we have dealt with all the ups and downs, but have ultimately created a business that we love.
For me, owning a retail shop has been a chance to create my own colorful world, fill it with beautiful objects, fine art, accessories and gifts, infuse the air with divine scents, and hope that whoever walks in the door will be transported a bit. I want customers' first experience to be one filled with joy and unexpected delights. (Can you tell I spent a little time in the theatre?)
For me, the shop is a little stage of sorts. The joy is in searching for the props, scenery, and costumes. Inspiration came from the many Parisian shops I visited on the Left Bank of Paris where little boutiques are filled with everything from soaps to tablecloths, from scarves to glassware. I try to create an experience where people can not only enjoy beauty, art and design, but also have the opportunity to take something home with them and make it part of their life. That little, beautiful thing that they purchased in my shop is something they will put in their home, something they will hang on their wall, something they will use, and hopefully something they will love (a romantic notion, yes, but a joyful objective for a shop owner). Why do anything if you can't have joy while doing it?
So much of the retail world has changed in the last few years.
I am running my shop and gallery with a much closer attention to the bottom line, making harder choices when buying and selling, and keeping the operation costs lean (this has been the most challenging).
We've cut back, trimmed staff, rearranged the shop and merchandise mix many times, and focused on best-selling items. This may all seem like obvious things to do, but the recession changed everything. There is much more focused attention to all the little things that make the shop run.
We are also expanding our website reach, and the cost for this is higher and more complicated than owning just a brick and mortar — it’s basically owning and running a second shop (Carla, you need to publish another article about running an online store!). In fact, I think I might be able to write a book by now. There is just so much to tell! We started small, but our website is getting bigger. It’s been obvious and necessary to expand in this way as a large portion of the world shops on the internet. However, I believe there will always be people who must touch and feel their merchandise before buying. And there will be customers who crave direct contact and experience from an unexpected environment – such as a small town shop.
As for my advice to you...
In regards to the specific advice Carla invited me to share with you, I am speaking from the perspective of owning my brick and mortar shop & gallery that has been in operations for a long time here in a tiny historic town that is nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
Here is my list of 3 things to consider before opening your own boutique business:
1. Have a clear vision of what you want your shop to do and to provide, and know where you want to be in 5 years time.
I think, above all, this is a key issue for some new businesses. Do you have a niche? What do you have that is unique and stands out from all the rest? What problem are you trying to solve, and who is your audience?
Know exactly why you want to own your own shop. Know your customer base really, really well - know everything about them and learn what they love and yearn for. In the end, people matter, and your relationships with your customers will be ones that you cherish the most.
2. Be prepared to work 7 days a week, or at least to be thinking about your shop 7 days a week.
I did not know that I would spend most of my waking, sleeping (dreaming) moments thinking about the shop, the merchandise, the displays, the product mix, the
customers, the employees, the finances, the buying, the researching. It really is all-consuming for me, and I believe this is true for most shop owners. In fact, I do not think I have met a shop owner who is not completely engrossed in their business 24/7. Sometimes it is taxing, sometimes it is exhilarating.
If you decide to open a shop, be sure you love everything that happens unconditionally. Be positive - this is key - as there will be many highs and lows along the way.
3. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you in your areas of weakness.
For me they are bookkeeping, marketing, and website management, and we have contracted out a number
of these specialties. This leaves me more time to do what I am good at: creating shop displays, researching and finding unique products, organizing special events, developing work outside of the shop like TV stage setting and photo shoots for magazines, blogging about the shop, doing some social media tasks and interacting with customers every day.
Be sure you like human beings, and that you love knowing and learning all about them. Every day on the floor of your shop you will meet extraordinary people who live amazing lives. You need to love people if you open a shop of your own.
Thanks again, Carla, for letting me share my perspective!
I want to thank Joanie so much for offering up her wonderful and sage words of wisdom!
Be sure to check out her charming shop. It has beautiful gifts, home decor and stunning artwork! Her passion for her business really shows, and it is - I must admit - incredibly contagious! -- Carla