Retailer Makeover Needed
October 20, 2012 10:24 PM   Subscribe

A friend owns a children's boutique in NYC. She recently confessed that business has been tanking. She overbuys, she doesn't do any sort of inventory management, she has no online presence (apart from a neglected Facebook page). What advice would you give her?
posted by lgandme0717 to Work & Money (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sell the overstock online, return to manufacturers, etc. Resist doing sale in-house as customers will then expect deals all the time. See if she can put off paying any bills and so on. She needs to make sure she is cash flow positive right now. It's hard to say what else, without knowing about her business.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:38 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Open a Shopify or Amazon webstore, etc. and put her stuff out there. Her new additional responsibility is taking pictures of her wares. She only has so much time before she runs out of rent for the space.
posted by rhizome at 10:43 PM on October 20, 2012

Also: update the FB page. I don't know what kinds of "children's stuff" messages to Likers would be good to write, but I think that helps.
posted by rhizome at 10:45 PM on October 20, 2012

In terms of online (and offline) she should take a look at the Denver shop "Real Baby". They are super engaged with their customers, and in the physical world take part in lots of community events.
posted by betsbillabong at 11:00 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

If she doesn't have an online presence, I can't find her store even if I'm looking for a store that sells children's clothes. It's invisible to me. So I'll never shop there.
That goes double if I type "children's clothes" into Google maps on my phone while nearby, and her store isn't one of the stores that it can find.

It shouldn't be some expensive full-feature web-commerce professional site, even a cheap single page is enough, but I'd like to find out things like hours, location, what it is that she sells, etc.

This is all even more important if the name of the store doesn't tell me what it sells. For example "Children's Emporium" - could be a toystore, who knows.
posted by anonymisc at 11:24 PM on October 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

At this point there are some outstanding free website-building services that require very little tech knowledge to use (if she can use FB, she can build a great-looking site). I usually recommend for people who need a site and don't have any budget for it. Even a static page -- just some inviting photos of the shop, hours, info about what kinds of products she offers, and contact phone -- would help to project the right image for people googling her shop's name. She can buy a domain name (c. $10/year) and weebly will also point it to her weebly site for free.
posted by kalapierson at 11:25 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Connect with local hospitals to so some advertising in the welcome packet that they give to new parents.

Set up a gift registry system.

Offer free gift wrapping. If I'm going to a kid's birthday party, for example, I will always spend a little bit more on the item if the place offers free gift wrapping. One less thing for me to worry about.

Cultivate an email list and hold events for the kiddos. If you can get families to hang around the store for a while, people end up buying things. One of the kids' stores around here recently set up a "Popcorn buffet" in conjunction with an educational farm animal presentation. I thought it was a little unsanitary because the kids were petting the sheep and pigs and then sticking their hand right back into their bag of popcorn. But they had a good turnout.

Collect info on kids' birthdays, send out a coupon once a year.

Set up a blog and hire a writer through textbroker (bare bones) or more accomplished writer to ghostwrite the articles.

Solicit local artists to hang their art on the walls and sell it through the shop. Take a small percentage of each sale.
posted by Ostara at 11:26 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

If she hasn't already, she should look up her store on yelp. If people have been rating it, that means when I search for her store, I'll end up at yelp because there is nothing else to end up at.
Furthermore, it might be the case that there are reviews that tell her what is wrong with the store - if there is a recurring theme of "it closes so early I can hardly ever shop there", that's a pretty useful thing to know.

It might also be the case that someone posted a really toxic review, and that's part of why people aren't coming.
posted by anonymisc at 11:37 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your friend should get an office / project / production manager of some sort (intern, volunteer, family member, whatever) immediately. Preferably someone who likes, or at least can deal with, spreadsheets, invoices, and the like.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 12:19 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Post photos of a different product from her store on her Facebook page regularly with a blurb about why she likes it. "The new X is in, we're so excited because a, b and c. Come by to check them out before they're all gone!"

Post photos of parents who stop by with their babies and call them "customer of the day" with a little blurb about the parent or baby's interests. "Our customer of the day is little Ricky. His interests are eating peas and long walks on the beach. He is sporting this season's hottest striped onesie."

Create a giveaway that you only qualify for if you like the store on FB. Put a sign in the store at the register.

Create a section of the store that is "Top ten gifts for baby showers" (if I walked in looking for a shower gift, I'd grab something from there without too much thought because I don't have kids). The only reason I go into a boutique for baby stuff is for a gift for someone else for either a shower or a special occaision. People I know that have kids go to stores like Babies'R'us and Target or Janie and Jack for dress up clothes.

Host talks on educational things like options for "green diapering" and have a selection of eco-friendly diapers available like G-diapers.

A boutique that I like does stuff like this on Facebook. I stop by regularly even though it is out of the way because they are always posting something interesting that I'd like to see in person.
posted by dottiechang at 12:23 AM on October 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

I would advise her to cut her losses. Retail is pretty brutal. Clothing retail particularly so during a recession because of the squeeze on discretionary spend. Even if she were to implement all the right changes it would still take the best part of a year to start seeing some of the changes hitting the bottom line.

Having seen a friend run his shop like this for several years and seen the debt burden he had for 10 years afterwards the issue can be not knowing when to walk away.

Overbuying and poor inventory management can be symptomatic of not knowing one's market and, more simply, just not "getting" how retail works - assuming that an interest in what one is buying and/or a flair for buying interesting things is enough. Anthony Bourdain offers a long cautionary tale in Kitchen Confidential about people doing this in the restaurant business. The conclusions are the same for retail: everything must be geared towards margin and cash flow. If that conflicts with the vision you have for your shop, if doing that isn't interesting to you, or if you just aren't good at it, then it isn't the business for you.

If your friend chooses to continue then she needs to start living by metrics: Days of supply, turn, stock to sales, gross and net margin etc; because she is poor at inventory management she needs to have a *weekly* dashboard telling her what these KPIs are and she needs to know how the data drives what she does next.

Overbuying is also sometimes a sign of not knowing one's market. I'd strongly suggest going back to basics and doing a positioning exercise, looking closely again at what the neighbourhood (or Internet) needs. And being very clear about what sells and what doesn't. If there is a gap between what someone wants to sell and what customers want to buy it can be bridged in lots of ways (changing one of the 4Ps, finding a new market etc) but for a quasi-hobbyist retailer it is a big ask. So: before doing anything else on promotion, actually have her write down some buyer profiles. Test those against live customers coming into the shop. Test them against what is being sold. Yes, having a web presence is great, but unless your friend is selling an amazing curated clothing collection crying out for a wider audience the cost and expertise needed for an ecommerce solution is a distraction. Focus on something simple, attractive and SEO friendly.

Short term it's all about cash flow: clear down remaining stock within 60 days ideally, even if it means shifting at a discount. Don't buy more stock until the shop has reached its benchmark stock KPIs. Restock to a plan: both in terms of metrics but also with a clear vision of who the target customer actually is.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:42 AM on October 21, 2012 [15 favorites]

I'm a customer of children's retail in NYC. I do get lots of emails from the stores that I've signed up at. They email when they have photos of new arrivals, sales, and they often do monthly events, like crafts for Halloween or Father's Day, storytime, etc. to get people in the store.

In my area, some of the boutiques sell toys as well. This seems like a good strategy -- I always end up buying a toy for my child when we are shopping for a gift for someone else's baby. The boutiques that don't sell toys have lost my business because my child has aged out of the clothes (none carry much clothing inventory for age 2+).
posted by xo at 6:11 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of my relatives owns a flower shop. Recently, one of the teenagers who works for her has started taking a photo every day of some of the flowers, and then posting it to the store's Facebook page. "We just received these new alstroemeria! They look fragile, but they last a really long time!" It reminds me of her store every day.

Also, she gets out to a lot of business networking organisations and talks to other business people in town. The contacts have helped her business in the long run.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:03 AM on October 21, 2012

*Do an inventory immediately, just to see what she has too much or too little of. Get rid of excess and outdated merchandise. Go ahead and have a 'one time only!' clearance sale.
*Organize the stockroom --- don't order more x just because she can't immediately see them in the jumble.
*A web page is a must in this day and age: as others say, that's where most prospective shoppers will turn first. Include what kind of merchandise she sells, the store hours and location, some sort of 'contact us' form and/or phone number. Develop an email list to feature new merchandise or special events.
*Special events: dottiechang has some really good ideas above. If you do a 'child of the week' photo or 'our customers' board, make sure there is some way for parents to submit those photos via the website! Maybe add a couple shelves of board books, and have weekly storytimes --- it wouldn't take much: a cleared space on the floor for the kids to sit (while the parents $hop....) and a chair for the adult reader. Total time, maybe half an hour.
posted by easily confused at 7:13 AM on October 21, 2012

I would advise her to cut her losses.

This. This times a million hobby businesses supported by a second income stream.
posted by rr at 9:20 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would encourage her to think of ways to turn her existing customers into repeat customers because eventually, they will tell other parents about the store. Ask current customers to take a survey so you can learn more about what they want. If they take the survey, they get $5 off their next trip to the store. Current customers get a punch card. They get a punch every time they spend $20 at the store. One day a week is double punch day. When you get 10 punches, you get $20 off your next visit. Customers can also get referral bonuses. If they refer a customer who spends money, they get $10 their next visit to the store.

Stuff like this sounds gimmicky and to some extent, it is. But all of these things remind your customers to come back to your store. I am a sucker for punch cards because every time I see the card in my wallet, I think about going back to the store because I am just 3 salads or 5 coffees away from a freebie. I would encourage her to put together a plan for the next six months or less. If she can't make some headway by Christmas, she should seriously consider closing.
posted by kat518 at 12:06 PM on October 21, 2012

You don't have enough information; neither does she. It sounds like she doesn't have a good business plan, or good business practices. She can get some advice from SCORE and/or the Small Business Administration. Inventory management, good accounting, cash flow analysis, etc., are all critical to making a business work. If she can keep it going, the Christmas season may give her a boost. She needs more comprehensive help than some good ideas from the Internet.
posted by theora55 at 8:17 PM on October 21, 2012

She might want to consider making small donations to local schools (or preschools if appropriate) when they hold benefit auctions or events in exchange for a mention in the program or website.
posted by Brooklyn_Jake at 12:40 PM on October 22, 2012

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