What sorts of retail stores do you view as healthy and not on a path of decay wrought by the internet?
March 26, 2012 9:45 AM   Subscribe

What sorts of retail stores do you view as healthy and not on a path of decay wrought by the internet? More details inside.

I've recently determined I'd find some joy running a shop - an actual, physical storefront with hours and products and employees and inventory and customers and a counter. I'd be able to work my own hours (albeit many of them), hire my own employees, and experience the so-called dream of self-employment.

(If anyone has any thoughts on the above, I'd welcome them, although my actual question is below.)

That being said, the internet has obviously changed shopping behavior. In a culture where almost anything is available for purchase online, what kinds of products can you actually sell on a physical retail level and find success?

Useful to consider:

1. I have a zillion ideas for products to sell in a tourist town - unfortunately, I don't live in a tourist town and do not want to uproot my life/family to one - thus, I'd be opening my shop in suburbia (suburban Detroit, if if matters).

2. I want to avoid having to sell food - i.e., no small grocery store/market. (By extension, so we're clear, no restaurant or bar.)

3. Ideally, this is something I'd like to operate year-round.

4. I personally don't have expertise in a field that would make me an "expert" and plan on making sure I hire at least one expert.
posted by st starseed to Work & Money (40 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
posted by oceanjesse at 9:51 AM on March 26, 2012

Anything that requires immediacy is really the only thing not subject to the internet take over of retail. So yeah, you mentioned bars and cafes as being out, but that's the type of thing. You just have to think about things that people would need RIGHT NOW.

Auto parts - when your car breaks, you often can't wait to order something.

Medical supplies.

Hardware and home improvement type stuff (when you need a light bulb, you need a light bulb).

Batteries, printer cartridges, phone chargers, etc.

Boutique-y type clothing stores can sometimes survive because of the seeing, feeling and trying on factor, but it's highly location dependent.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:56 AM on March 26, 2012

I feel a bit weird saying hardware store in the era of Home Depot & Lowes crowding out all the little guys, but... near me there is an Ace hardware store run like an old school general store. You come in the door, pass just a few small displays of products, and walk up to the counter. You describe what you're looking for, the helpful, knowledgeable employees ask you a few questions about your needs, then go into the back shelves and pull you a few options. This has three things going for it: one, their sales are of items often needed to solve an immediate problem (e.g., "I'm going to plant tomatoes today, and I have no gloves," or "I need to fix my sink, pronto."). Two, you absolutely feel like you're getting your money's worth in knowledge and customer service. And three, it must save them a small fortune in stocking, and they can operate in a much smaller square footage.

It's all around kinda neat.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:01 AM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Shipping (UPS, FedEx, fax, PO Boxes, etc). You could offer internet stations, too.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:05 AM on March 26, 2012

If you go with clothing, I wouldn't do the boutique route -- I only see those surviving for a year, 2 at the most, because the items are generally pricier and they never carry enough sizes. Some sort of consignment shop, depending on the demand for that in your area. There are pretty successful clothing and furniture consignments around here (Philly), and those seem to do better in the suburbs. If you live in a nice suburb, you'll often get really good items to re-sell.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:08 AM on March 26, 2012

Green housewares.
posted by batmonkey at 10:08 AM on March 26, 2012

Thrift stores are still doing a brisk business, but you'd be competing with Goodwill and other non-profit organizations. Maybe a consignment store where people could bring in their expensive but still wearable clothes for resale?

Expensive clothes have some emotional investment along with the financial investment for many people, and it hurts to just stuff them into a bag and drop 'em into a donation bin. Provide a way for people to get a little money back (and validation that others appreciate their good taste) and you might provide a popular service in your area. Craigslist would be your competition here, but it can be a hassle to take pictures and post stuff, and potential buyers are notoriously flaky, so a brick & mortar resale place could be popular for people who don't want the bother.
posted by Quietgal at 10:09 AM on March 26, 2012

Radio Shack. It can't be killed. For 30 years, in spite of some bad managements, they follow trends and sell the accessories. Whatever becomes hot, that will always need high margin accessories available on the spot, not by mail. Started in 1921, at its core it has always done this in the retail stores.
posted by caclwmr4 at 10:13 AM on March 26, 2012

a small store that sells jewelry and home good like 10,000 villages or pier 1.
a clothing store.
a soap store like lush or body shop (are you interested in franchise?)
posted by TestamentToGrace at 10:15 AM on March 26, 2012

One group of businesses which are relatively internet proof are storefronts that provide a service: repair shops, garages, salons, hotels, tax preparers, eyeglass/optometrists, internet cafes, pet stores, gyms, daycare, etc. I don't know if running a store-based service appeals to you or not.

Since you want to run a shop but don't know what kind, maybe you could look at the exhibitors lists at franchising conferences to get some ideas. It's true that franchising is dominated by food and services, but there are also retail ones. Maybe an Apple authorized reseller, a Dollar Store.

(crossposted with TestamentToGrace, who also suggested franchising)
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:21 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of the more popular shops among new moms here is a business that sells baby carriers and slings. They teach moms (and dads) how to tie on the more convoluted ones, let you comparison shop as to which one your baby likes best and is the most comfortable for you, and show you how to wear them ergonomically. They do a side business in lactation supplies (demonstrating different pumps, for example) and infant gear that you want to see before buying (soft toys and blankets). I don't know what the profit margin is, but it looked fairly secure, so long as the proces were low enough that people won't come in for a demo and then buy online anyhow.
posted by Mchelly at 10:25 AM on March 26, 2012

In the suburbs I think your main concern with opening a retail store would be that you'll get out competed by a big box retailer, even more so than losing out to the Internet. If people can buy the same stuff at Walmart or Home Depot they are probably going to go there and there's no way you can compete with their selection and low margins.

The main non-chain non-food non-service store that I can think of that could work is a home brewing supply store. I don't think there are any big chain stores for it, and although it's a niche it's a relatively popular niche. On the Internet angle, a lot of the equipment you need for home brewing tends to be either bulky (like fermentation vessels) or difficult to ship (refrigerated yeast, charged CO2 tanks), and a decently stocked small home brewing supply store would have pretty much anything most customers would need so better selection online would be less of a factor than for other niche stores.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:31 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I personally almost never buy clothing that I can't try on.

If you can put together a staff with good taste and an eye for quality, a "boutique" style second-hand clothing store might be a good option. Not a goodwill-tyle establishment where everything is donated -- a shop like Quietgal mentioned, where people bring in clothes for sale and the staff pays a decent price for the best of the lot.

Second-hand clothing is difficult to shop for online (particularly older garments where the sizing on the label may or may not conform to expectations) and demand for it stays high during tough times as fashionable folks try to stay in their budgets.

Just a thought, anyway!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:36 AM on March 26, 2012

I'm thinking "gift shop" of some kind. There's a gift shop in the suburbs near where I live, and it doesn't even seem all that nice, and it's been open forever. And the bookstores that are still open are really largely gift stores now. If I were going to open a retail store-- and I'm never going to do that again!-- it would be gifts and stationery. Honestly, though, I still think I'd have a snowball's chance and I'd probably have an online side too.
posted by BibiRose at 10:41 AM on March 26, 2012

Outdoorsy stuff.

I can't speak to the business viability of it, but I don't know anyone that buys their outdoorsy stuff online. By outdoorsy I mean fishing supplies, boating accessories, hiking packs, xc skis, boots, canoes, all that kind of stuff. A lot of people have these hobbies in Michigan, but I don't know how it is in your suburb. Many outdoor specialty stores survive in the Midwest despite competition from Gander Mountain, etc but I still wouldn't want to open up too close to one..
posted by Winnemac at 10:42 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with the hardware store suggestion. There's one near me, Ace Hardware in Hillcrest (San Diego) that is so great. It's more expensive than Home Depot/Lowe's for most things of course but I think does fine anyway maybe because (1) the staff is really helpful, (2) whoever does the buying does a good job of choosing nice/pretty things as well as all the obvious necessities, (3) they have the best display windows ever, (4) it's in a walkable neighborhood so is probably more easily accessible to some people who don't have cars.
posted by under satellites at 10:43 AM on March 26, 2012

You really have to look at community characteristics. For instance a great toy store full of 'educational" toys might do well in an area where there are a lot of well-educated parents of young children. A consignment store limited to children's clothing and equipment (cribs, etc.) might do well in another sort of community.
posted by mareli at 10:53 AM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Specialty shops requiring a level of service above and beyond what I could get online. For example, when I buy shoes for daily use or for kicking around in, I go to Giant Discount Shoe Warehouse or wherever is having the best sale because I know, roughly, my size and brands and am not averse to buying things online.

However, when I buy running shoes, I go to a specialty running store with a knowledgable staff that can do things like check my gait with a treadmill/camera, suggest shoes with similar fits, and discuss their merchandise with a level of expertise I wouldn't find at Giant Discount Shoe Warehouse. They're also a place for the "social" side, a place to find out about races and such, they have training groups for various distances, meet other runners, and pick up related specialty gear.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:53 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know a thing about how to own a store or anywhere in Detroit, but I just wanted to point out that the location of the store may be a factor. I went to the neighboring small town by mine the other day and their downtown is mostly a ghost town. There's a few really cute clothing stores and a used bookstore and one knickknack store and an antique store that still remain in business, but there's not a whole lot else to go buy in the area, so there's not a whole lot of reason for anyone to go hang out there. It's pretty much a ghost town and I left after about an hour. The shopping that gets done in that town is at the "big box" stores on the fringe of town, as far as I can tell.

So if you are having an "unnecessary" sort of store (let's say that a "necessary" is the aforementioned hardware store) that people don't have to go to and are just going for fun, you need to put it somewhere where people are going to shop for fun. If it's a necessary store, on the other hand, people always are gonna need tires or tools or whatever and it may not matter as much about your location.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:02 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know how considered your dismissal of selling food is, so I hope this isn't unhelpful - but I hope you've considered the fact that the restrictions on selling packaged groceries are much less stringent than the restrictions on preparing food yourself. In Chicago, for example, you need all manner of equipment and food prep licenses to open a restaurant or prepare packaged food (sandwiches, little containers of fruit salad - anything that involves food out in the open) — but to sell packaged groceries all you need is a mop sink and a handwashing sink, plus the usual business licenses. (I'm simplifying a bit here, but you get the idea).

My point here is that selling groceries has a lot more in common with selling non-food goods than you might think (though with much higher inventory turnover), and it's also a business that's still very much viable in the internet age. It also has the added pleasure of being a business where you can have real 'regulars' and relationships with your customers (as opposed to a more boutique-y clothes/jewelry/specialty shop, where people will only be coming in searching for things to fill occasional needs). And depending on where you want to open, you might also be doing some real good for the community.

I'm speaking here from my experience managing this neighborhood grocery store in Chicago - one of the best experiences of my life!
posted by bubukaba at 11:11 AM on March 26, 2012

Maybe a rental store - cars, campers, moving vans, construction equipment, landscaping equipment, speaker rentals for bands, etc. I'd stay away from video rentals, though.
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:14 AM on March 26, 2012

You live right near where I grew up! Things I can imagine buying in an actual store are: clothes, baby stuff, gifts, sporting goods (running shoes, fishing tackle, anything to keep warm in cold weather), games. I would seriously consider stocking lightboxes for SAD too! Not kidding, Michiganders need these.

Online and storefront aren't mutually exclusive. If I were starting up, I would definitely begin with an online presence to get some practice. Tons of people successfully sell gaming supplies (D&D stuff and similar) and I can see that turning into an actual store with supplies. By starting online then moving to a retail location, you get to practice without sinking money into a lease. You can find out what you sell best in a relatively low risk way.

Another thing that has worked well around where I live (the overpriced northern VA suburbs) are places that cater to the kids birthday party market. There is one place that sells and repairs used pinball machines and arcade games like pac-man. On weekends you can rent the place out for $300 a pop for 2hrs. I have no idea if they make more money from sales & repair of the games, or from the bday parties - but as a parent I must say the bday parties are brilliant. The place is just one room, painted black, full of games, with a couple of long folding tables to put pizza and cake on. The kids are all corralled into a safe, fun space and the time flies.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:19 AM on March 26, 2012

Pet products? Quality foods and treats and toys. If that fits your area demographic. Pet stuff is the only area I never considered cutting back on, and I go out of my way to buy at the local independent pet supply shop (please don't sell animals though!) regardless of how much it costs. It helps if you love pets - if you don't or can't hire people that do, then that's probably out.

Regardless, I go to an actual store if I specifically want to support that kind of store and/or if that store gives me something I can't find elsewhere - generally, a depth of product knowledge and willingness to share it and/or an amazing customer service ethic.
posted by mrs. taters at 11:20 AM on March 26, 2012

Oh, another thought -- since you have ideas for touristy places -- could you sell stuff customized for particular events? For example, those little water squirting fans with some logo on them to sell at Art Fair in Ann Arbor, etc. I think it is easy to get 5,000 of something printed with your company logo, but it may be more difficult to get say 200 of them. You could supply touristy places all over the country.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:23 AM on March 26, 2012

Does liquor fall into your "no food" rule? Because every liquor store I've ever seen growing up is still there and chugging along.
posted by xingcat at 11:23 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by rhizome at 11:35 AM on March 26, 2012

Gardening supplies?
Greeting cards?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:42 AM on March 26, 2012

Your hardware store as mentioned above should also offer services such as small engine repair.

I don't think pet stuff is that universal unless you have a niche. The biggest local pet store in my area is a reptile supply place. On the other hand, a pet store opened a block from my house and it was apparently all bird/parrot stuff and it closed after a year. The difficulty with a general pet store is that there are so many choices in dog and cat food now, you have to carry a huge inventory and you still won't have the one variety that the customer needs.

How about a bike shop?
posted by cabingirl at 12:06 PM on March 26, 2012

i think almost any retail category is going to face some degree of competition from online sources and large chains and/or big box stores. what you can offer as a local store is immediacy and a hands-on, hopefully more personal, shopping experience. the two are related: you don't want people that will fondle your goods and just walk out your door and order from amazon because your prices aren't competitive. and even if your prices are competitive, you will get some people that will never come in just because they will believe your prices to be high simply because you're not a big chain.

i own an art supply store. this means we are in direct competition with a couple of large national chains (but none located in our neighborhood), less direct competition with even larger national craft chains (even further away), and there are a few prominent online suppliers, with amazon dipping its toes in the field.

do not underestimate the amount of work involved. you are buying yourself a job.
posted by jimw at 12:27 PM on March 26, 2012

My fantasy would be to run a shop similar to Zion Adventure Company. They pretty much dominate that business near Zion. Or a used bookstore, but these are on their way out.

That said, a plain old retail shop is probably not going to work unless you are in an area that has an obvious poorly served profitable niche -- and if it did, you would already have identified it and strangers on the internet would be of no value to you. You would be better off acquiring a store of this sort (like a plumbing supply store, for example, which is a different niche than the Lowes/Home Depots of the world) that already exists. I would also suggest that suburban Detroit is an extremely poor location for such a venture.

Step back and consider what you are proposing in the abstract: effectively you will be converting assets of one type (whatever you have, one assumes you have substantial assets or you wouldn't be even discussing this) to assets of another type (retail store). Starting a new business of this sort is inherently high risk, so you are converting low risk assets to very high risk assets which given your level of experience is about as big a mistake as one can make short of actively seeking out bad investments via spam email.

Ask yourself what you are willing to compromise and what you aren't. Apparently "aren't" includes excluding a large swath of possible types (food, food services) and location. Think about what you would tell a friend who was making a similar proposal.

disclaimer: I have an unusual number of friends whose wives decided at points in the last 10 years to leave their jobs to open businesses of various kinds (perfumed soaps, coffee shop, ...) without expertise, research or experience. All of them regretted it (and some of them saw the end of their marriages).
posted by rr at 1:13 PM on March 26, 2012

My husband and I have been lucky enough to work with owners of some very successful independent hardware stores. You should definitely consider it. For one thing, you can sell tons of different categories of products under that umbrella. I know a hardware store in Texas that makes and sells homemade fudge (I know, no food) at the checkout counter and it goes like gangbusters (at about a 300% profit margin). Many, many stores carry pet supplies, hunting/fishing stuff, gifts like fancy candles and Tervis tumblers, gardening supplies, cleaning supplies, clothing and shoes, on top of hardware, building materials, feed and seed, etc.

In my experience, what makes a person a successful retailer are these qualities:
1. Major work ethic
2. Passion for working with people
3. Willingness to try new things, bring in new products, and bend over backwards for customers
4. Willingness to quickly ditch anything that doesn't make money rather than be emotionally invested in inventory
5. Knowledge of and investment in your community

Knowledge of the hardware industry is irrelevant to success - although experience running a retail store correlates. The size and income level of your community are also irrelevant - the most successful stores I know are in very small, rural farming communities.

The owners I know of who struggle/fail are the ones who are too conservative and fearful of taking risks with product lines and services, the ones who get emotionally attached to their inventory and refuse to reduce prices to clear out bad items, and the ones who have inherited a successful business from their families and therefore didn't put in the hard work themselves.

So if you ask me, the types of products you sell is vastly less important than your attitude and mentality about business in general. FWIW.
posted by TallulahBankhead at 2:02 PM on March 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I used to go to a game story quite a bit. The place sold RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. They had board games, family games and casual games. They also had game nights. You could go and play RPGs or card games(like Magic The Gathering.) I spent money there simply because I played games there on a regular basis. It's a niche market. But you might be able to build a loyal group of customers. The story I went to also had an online store.
posted by hot_monster at 3:12 PM on March 26, 2012

Do you want to make a lot of money or just have theitch to own a shop? I would reccomend a used bookstore. I opened one ten years and its still open, though I sold it to my sister some years back. If you live in a big enough city you could open a specialty shop that only sells a certain kind.

Whatever you choose, it shouldbe something you have passion for, as its a shit ton of work.
posted by holdkris99 at 3:29 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have a source of income that can cover your bills for 5ish years and can also pump equity into the business if necessary?

My husband and I run a business. It is hard, it's stressful, we have never received a dime's pay from it and we're almost into our second fiscal year, and today we turned to each other and were like "oh my god, remember when we wanted to open A RESTAURANT? god damn glad we picked something easier." seriously that would've been MARRIAGE OVER time.

The only reason our business is somewhat successful (maybe we can break even this year, woo!) is because we fill a need, offer a service no one else does, and we watched the former purveyor of the same industry (bike shop) shut up shop a few years before we started ours and learned from his mistakes. We backed into it by accident when we took our hobby to another level, and it only works because I am a management major at the local state uni, so i have taken the business, marketing, finance, accounting, and operations/logistics management classes it takes, and I work for free.

It's cool to say I work for myself, but it does not pay the bills. Your mileage may vary, but find something your town is missing. There's a lot of places that opened after us that already shut up shop. There but for the grace of god, and all.
posted by kpht at 5:23 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know if hat shops make money or not, but hats (at least the ones that aren't knitted snow hats) are definitely another item you have to try on before buying.
posted by Mchelly at 5:53 PM on March 26, 2012

If you don't know anything about retail and have never run a business, I would encourage you to explore the idea of a franchise. You do not want any business you sink your money into to be in the hands of an outside "expert" and if nothing else, spending a few days at franchise conventions will at least give you some metrics and vocabulary for assessing and talking about retail opportunities.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:58 PM on March 26, 2012

I have always made little facetious jokes about this, but an auto parts store that also sells beer seems like a winner.
posted by annsunny at 6:12 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

From my casual observation as someone who has never patronized one, there seems to be a nigh on limitless absorption capacity for nail/hair places. I don't know if this falls too much into services rather than a store per se.
posted by threeants at 6:39 PM on March 26, 2012

what about a little bit of everything, including a lot of fun kooky stuff? something like this store - a lot of the odd gift items are just more fun when you see them in person. When christmas shopping last year, the big mall stores were pretty dead, but that store was absolutely packed, and doing lots of business.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:19 PM on March 26, 2012

ooh, to add to that - art supplies - artists tend to be finicky and tactile, you need to feel the texture of the paper, see the paint colours in person, find that exactly perfectly inspiring sketchbook.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:25 PM on March 26, 2012

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