Help me open the vintage store of my dreams.
June 19, 2011 11:25 AM   Subscribe

I want to start a small business (a vintage clothing store) in the Washington, DC area. I have a location in mind and I'm saving up the money. My hope is to be open within a year. What do I need to know?

I have little-to-no experience with running a small business. I currently sell vintage clothes on Etsy, but that's very different. I know a ton about the things I'll be selling-- I can date any item of clothing made in the last century to within five years-- but not a whole lot about how to open a brick-and-mortar store, what paperwork I'll need to do, how to get the information I need for my business plan, etc. I'm currently apprenticing at a local vintage store to learn the ropes a little.

The empty storefront I have my eye on is not in a heavily foot-trafficked area, but the rent is ridiculously cheap and it's less than a mile from a major college campus. Is it the right place for me? Would I be better off in a higher-rent, trendier part of DC?

What should I be doing that I'm not doing already? What do you wish you'd known before you opened your small business? Or should I just stick to Etsy and wait until the economy gets better?
posted by nonasuch to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What area of DC are you referring to?
posted by brynna at 11:35 AM on June 19, 2011

This is too hard to answer with te information given.

You currently sellclothes on Etsy...but noe you want to take on the overhead of a physical store? And all the attendant paperwork associated with business permits, taxes, licenses, etc.?

I would start by asking yourself what you gain by taking on all these ancillary costs and administrative burdens. Perhaps there is some scale to be gained by having a physical presence--but I doubt it.
posted by dfriedman at 11:55 AM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get involved in local small business networks and talk to people who run the sort of physical businesses you are talking about. Ask them these questions. Ask them about the best and worst aspects of life as small business proprietor. Ask them what resources they use to ensure they comply with relevant rules and regulations. And ask them for recommendations about small business friendly banks, good accountants etc - if you do proceed you'll need both eventually.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:13 PM on June 19, 2011

"I have little-to-no experience with running a small business. / What should I be doing that I'm not doing already?"

Take a close look at this book - The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It, as it is an eye-opener to anyone considering starting a small business. Do you really want to 'purchase a job'?

If you could read and apply the principles in this book, then you would have something worthwhile, sustainable, and profitable.

Another book that I'm enjoying right now is The Personal MBA: A World-Class Business Education in a Single Volume and it is also an eye-opener.
posted by scooterdog at 12:16 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

It would probably help to know why you want to switch from Etsy to brick-and-mortar. Do you want to interact with the people purchasing your clothes? Do you want this to be your primary source of income? Do you just really love working in a store?

In the mean time: there was a woman who lived near my college campus who sold vintage clothes online but had trunk show-type events at her apartment. You could do that or, perhaps, rent space periodically for one-off events if you didn't want people coming to your home, rather than opening a full store--at least at first.

Also, one thing to consider with your current favored location: maybe this is less the case in DC, but the college campuses and towns I've lived in have tended to be much quieter over the summer than during the school year. Could your business handle a regular decrease in student customers for three months every year?
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:22 PM on June 19, 2011

Where in DC? Can give you an idea then. For vintage, you would want to be near other vintage stores---its hit or miss shopping, so you get foot traffic from people visiting the other stores. This is the opposite of most places.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:28 PM on June 19, 2011

For new entrepreneurs, I routinely recommend getting a free counselor from your local chapter of SCORE. And early on, get a lawyer, an accountant and a commercial banker in your area who you feel comfortable working with (most legal and accounting firms offer special "start up" rates for new business clients, that cover a package of incorporation work, setting up books, etc., with the idea that helping new businesses become successful is a good way of getting new business themselves). If you're not going to have a partner or other ownership interests, at least get a number of experienced local merchants or small business people to act as an advisory board, and meet with them quarterly or semi-annually to get their feedback on the performance of your business, and to advise on strategic questions (major expenditures like advertising, opening additional locations, seasonal markdown strategies, etc.).

And then, for the first year or two, put as much of your energies into acquiring stock, working with customers, and running your shop as you can, and leave the bookkeeping to your accountant, any legal questions (leases, incorporation, business licenses, etc.) to your attorney, and as much of your profits as possible to your banker. If you make it profitably to your third year, you'll have developed enough experience to perhaps rely less on your accountant for bookkeeping, etc. but until then, keep experienced outsiders involved in your business, and keep measuring it by their standards of financial success.
posted by paulsc at 12:33 PM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My worry is whether you'll be able to find enough inventory--both before and after opening day--to make your remote location worth the trip for your customers and deal with turnover, especially since you'll be spending so much time at the location. You'll need an enormous number of items and you'll have to pay cash for them I suspect. A few other thoughts...

If you're relying on the college market, you want the store to be en route between popular student neighborhoods (if many live off-campus) and the school. If they live on-campus, then you need to be near other businesses they frequent. Vintage clothing stores necessitate many visits since the goods are inherently one-of-a-kind and turn over frequently. You want it to be easy for your customers to check in often and to comparison shop; vintage stores are an example of a retail type that benefits from agglomeration, like shoes or cars. NARTS, which is the professional association of resale professionals, is having an annual conference next week if you can make it.

To see whether this idea has legs, first, figure out your start up costs, e.g., inventory, first/last/security, legal, etc. Then for operating, start by calculating your total nut: rent, utilities, pay for you/your employees, internet/phone, insurance, necessary service providers (e.g., accountants, lawyers, tax advisor, cleaner), advertising, supplies, etc. plus a share of the start-up costs to repay yourself over a reasonable period of time. Now divide by a reasonable per-item profit margin discounted by, say, 15 percent to reflect that you'll be forced to market down non-selling items; I would bet that this number won't be more than $15 if you think your customers are students. Now divide that number by the number of days per month you'll be open. Does this result make sense given your experience at the place where you're working now?
posted by carmicha at 12:34 PM on June 19, 2011

Oh and NARTS, which I mentioned above, publishes a guide to opening a resale shop. Order here.
posted by carmicha at 12:38 PM on June 19, 2011

Response by poster: The storefront I'm looking at is in College Park, on Berwyn Road, for the record. Thanks so much for the responses so far; these are all really helpful.

One of the reasons I'd like to move from Etsy to real life is that I literally have no room in my house for more vintage clothes, and I don't have a whole lot of stock on hand (I share a house with roommates, and I think they'd object if I installed clothing racks in the dining room or something). I could continue selling online if I had a store, but I'd have room for a lot more stock and have the chance to make in-person sales. I also like selling things in person, and I'm pretty good at it. I sell vintage books at Eastern Market already, and I'm good at matching people to the books they didn't know they needed, and at selling people on the merits of my wares. So those are skills that would serve me well if I had a store. But I don't know if I could get enough people in the door to have a chance at selling to them, if that makes sense.
posted by nonasuch at 12:56 PM on June 19, 2011

I sell vintage online too, and would love a b&m store. The worst parts about selling online are all of the time it takes to pack and ship things, and all of the storage space you need for all of the wrapping and shipping materials. It's ridiculous.

What about renting a space in a bigger shop? I have a friend who sells vintage farm equipment and also cans her own veggies and bakes pies. She rents a space in a large antique mall to sell them and does extremely well. She has all of the space and none of the hassle.
posted by iconomy at 1:14 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Side issues:

I don't know where I read this but it was by someone who tried to open a vintage clothes store and realized that most people now cannot fit clothes made for people in the 50s and 60s. So I think that would be very limiting for you as far as customers. BUT, I think you should hook up with others (Etsy sellers?) who make reproduction vintage clothing in larger sizes to widen your customer base.

Also - you should network, if you aren't already, with people in the film industry who buy vintage clothes for costumes.
posted by cda at 1:16 PM on June 19, 2011

I used to have a successful retail bookstore. I bought an existing store, ran it, sold it profitably. Location, location, location. Vintage clothes will have some "draw," getting people to come to you, but it will be hard to get started in an out-of-the-way location. There has to be parking. There are a couple of storefronts in my town that seem appealing due to the traffic going by, but there are serial business failures due to lack of parking. Really, location is critical.

Inventory. If you have great inventory, you have an excellent chance of success. A good friend of mine had a vintage clothing store, and for a while had a 2nd location where the manager was a seamstress. Having somebody on hand to tailor clothes, for a price, completed many a sale.

Be very disciplined about taking clothes for consignment; lots of crap dilutes inventory. Not enough inventory is also a problem. It's not easy to find the sweet spot. One consignment store in my town has a great mix of vintage, used and funky new clothes and accessories. They're successful enough to make a living for all involved, and they have fun.

To learn how to budget, and to decide on buying the business, I did a ProForma Cash Flow Analysis. Estimated rent, utilities, cost of inventory advertizing, postage, professional services (accountant), insurance, cleaning, employees, etc. It was incredibly useful. I had an idea what my sales had to be in order to pay the rent and make a living.

I borrowed money from the seller and a family member and paid it back faithfully, so I had startup money, a huge help. Find out where the Small Business Administration is, and seek their help. They can give you training and hook you up with knowledgeable people, and maybe help you find loans. Go visit vintage stores who will not be in direct competition, usually because of distance. Pick their brains. In reality an area with several vintage stores will do well, because it becomes a destination, but people don't always see it that way.

In your case, a storefront is partly a storage space to support your online business, so it's not a total leap into the void. Consider looking for a partner who wants to do the same thing so that you spread out the risk and reward. Or look for an antique store that has too much space and will let you sublet a corner.

I worked my tail off, learned a lot, and had fun. I sold my business profitably. If you go onto this well prepared, youo stand a good chance of success.
posted by theora55 at 1:58 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As an intermediate measure, to save space and your sanity, a storage bin organized like a store stockroom can work. In a 5'x15' space, for about $70 a month, I have a long hanging rack for listed items, labeled plastic tubs for everything else, and a shelving unit for shipping supplies. Garment bags for hanging items and plastic trash bags for the folded clothes in the tubs keep everything mothless. It's not glamorous, but it holds everything I've got with room to spare and lets me enjoy an uncluttered apartment, at least.
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:11 PM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

You know what? I really wouldn't do this. I buy and occasionally sell vintage clothes (and as you know, a single item can be very profitable - prices have really spiked since the 1990s) and so I keep an eye on vintage clothing shops around town in Minneapolis. There are a lot more failures than successes, and the successes have almost all been heavily capitalized with prime locations near where rich folks AND students hang out, plus very high-end merchandise. Even a good-foot-traffic space that sold lower-end hipster vintage folded recently. (I also helped run a small bookstore for years, and it was all heartbreak all the time.)

Maybe see if you can rent storage and step up your around-town presence by doing more trunk shows and upscale flea-ish things, etc? Could you partner with either antique dealers or local small studenty businesses to host short-term events? We had a long-term successful multi-dealer vintage/antique place on a well-trafficked street that had a really great selection. (The landlord jacked the rent on the space, lost the tenants and has had an empty, weirdly-shaped space for a couple of years now.)

A shop is going to complexify your business and raise your overhead like crazy, and based on my bookstore experience plus some other small business stuff, I feel very strongly that an out-of-the-way location is a death knell.

Oh, do you have a friend who would rent you a room in their house or apartment for storage? I've done that once or twice.
posted by Frowner at 3:23 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do college students buy vintage? It seems like you would be missing out on the most lucrative market share in dc if you locate in college park.
posted by yarly at 5:41 PM on June 19, 2011

One trend you have in Washington, D.C., more so than in the rest of America, outside of perhaps NYC and LA, is a growing culture of personal image and style consultants. Even in a down economy, it's important for Washington's pols, bureaucrats and influencers to look good in public, and they spend money to do so. So, if you can market successfully to the intermediaries who dress the pols, bureaucrats and influencers, you may be less dependent on foot traffic, and other retail customer sources, than you might be in locations other than Washington.
posted by paulsc at 7:53 PM on June 19, 2011

Best answer: I am familiar with that exact area (I bet I even can guess what building you're looking at) and I really don't think it gets much traffic. I used to be what you might call a frequent shopper in that area, going to Berwyn Cafe and Smile Herb Shop a lot, but that really meant only about once a month at most. It's far out of the way of both foot traffic and car traffic, and you want both.

Have you considered a stall at an antique mall? I see a lot of vintage clothes being sold this way, and the rent is not terrible. Not like a real store! And you'd already get some foot traffic. The downside is that there is rarely a place where people can try on stuff in an antique mall. But as a person who loves vintage furnishings, I can tell you that I am much more likely to stop at an antique mall than to stop at a one-off vintage store.
In the area where I live now, people might rent stalls at multiple antique malls in the area, or multiple stalls in the same antique mall (all right next to each other, decorated so that it functions as a store-like space) with a sign over their stall with a business name and business cards and all of it. I can tell you that this kind of branding makes me remember that they are there, and I will go out of my way to visit their "store" in the antique mall to see what's new.
posted by aabbbiee at 8:34 AM on June 20, 2011

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