What Do All Successful Boutiques Have in Common?
Positive cash flow, solid advertising, stellar customer service and inventory that’s in-demand are all factors that contribute to a successful boutique, no matter what you sell. From furniture to clothing to jewelry, shoes, bikinis and everything in between, your boutique must have these components in place to not only stay in business but to thrive as well.
Positive Cash Flow
Positive cash flow is a good sign of business sustainability. According to Michael C. Volker at Simon Fraser University, “cash flow is like the blood that flows in our veins,” so it is an important concept to the future growth and sustainability of your boutique. In a very basic sense, cash flow is defined as more money coming in than going out. So how exactly do boutiques achieve positive cash flow? A combination of cost of goods sold, gross margin and expenses contribute to a boutique’s cash flow. Note that cash flow does not mean profit, either. Instead, cash flow means physical money that comes into the business as a result of all these factors combined. Talk to a certified public accountant to understand your boutique’s cash flow. A good CPA will provide insight on where your boutique can improve in terms of cash flow.
A successful boutique knows where it stands in the marketplace while filling a niche in the retail sphere. Because a boutique generally specializes in one unique category – for example, jewelry or women’s fashion – it’s important to capitalize on your strengths and market to your audience appropriately. A good way to start is by understanding your demographic. Grasp insight into your core customer for targeted ad placements, better community outreach programs and successful promotional events. Advertising to your demographic results in effective market positioning, a better return on investment and greater store awareness.
The very best boutiques know that exemplary customer service is one of the best ways to retain customers and create positive branding in the local marketplace. But good customer service is more than just stellar service. Good customer service means taking care of the customer in every aspect, from an easy return policy to trouble-free special ordering to follow up calls and thank-you notes. These extra measures brand your boutique as a great place to shop and increase the chances your customer will come back again.
Boutiques fill a retail niche, offering the very best inventory for their category. That’s why it’s important to sell products that are highly-sought and in demand. The concept sounds simple, but it can prove to be complex in the face of emerging trends and customer preferences. Understanding your market allows you to get the needed insight on future inventory buys. For example, a teen fashion boutique can stay on top of trends by appointing a fashion ambassador for its store. Connect with local high schools and create an after-school fashion program where up-and-coming fashionistas host fashion shows, discuss up-coming trends and work with your store’s buyer (in many cases, that’s you) to discover areas of opportunity in your boutique’s inventory.
8 Things You Need To Know About Starting A Fashion Business
Opening your own boutique or starting a fashion business is a dream for many women. It sounds wonderful to curate a store full of items that you love and connect with customers to find out what they really want, all while working hours that fit in with your lifestyle.
But the road to retail success isn’t always smooth. We spoke to Erica Kiang, the 29-year-old founder and owner of the New York City boutique Babel Fair, which she opened in 2009 in Nolita after spending three years as a buyer at a mass retailer.
It turns out that being a shop owner is far from the glamorous job depicted in shows like “Friends,” where Rachel Greene had a fabulous job at Bloomingdale’s. Kiang quickly realized that buying for a store involved entire days analyzing Excel spreadsheets. “Retail math isn’t super complicated, but you definitely need to know the jargon,” she told The Huffington Post. “To open a clothing store you have to have an eye and be able to choose what’s right for the customer, but then you have to be able to sit down and meld the aesthetics with the numbers.”
Here, Kiang walks us through the eight things you need to know about opening your own store.
1. Research, research, research. Then, come up with a clear concept. The first thing Kiang did was put together a brand book. She knew she wanted to grow her store as a brand, so she wanted to have a clear idea and a narrow concept. “My brand book was similar to a business plan, but it wasn’t as numbers-driven,” she said. “I imagined our customer and what magazines she reads. I looked at sample brands we’d want to carry and figured out our price point. I researched and read small-business blogs to glean any kind of insight or advice. I talked to small business owners and I even worked in a little boutique to learn the ropes.”
2. Consider the location. Location is huge. Kiang was constantly on the hunt for a space. She said you can have a realtor, but that you’ll likely have better luck finding a space by hitting the streets and keeping your ear to the ground. The good spaces go quickly, she said, so before there’s even an advertisement online, it’s been rented. It’s also important to know your neighborhood. “I knew I couldn’t compete with the huge retailers in Soho, nor could I pay those rents,” she said. “I wanted to fit in with the feeling of this neighborhood, and we do.”
3. Know your neighborhood and your customer. Kiang sat outside her store for many hours to see who was walking around the area and whether they were carrying shopping bags. She really wanted to understand the mentality of her potential customers. “Which bags are they carrying? How are they shopping? I noticed that people shopped in pairs: mothers and daughters, or two friends,” she said.
4. Figure out your budget and stick to it. Your budget is specific to your store and your location. “I did everything on a shoestring budget; we built and painted everything ourselves, hunted on Craigslist for supplies,” she said. “It is so important to track money and prioritize what you spend on. Retail is all about nickel and diming; you have to be eagle-eyed and watch your margins.”
5. Work your connections. You have to get out there, network and talk to people. “Many businesspeople get their MBA for the valuable relationships they’ll forge, but rather than spend $100K to make connections, I opted to put that money into my business,” Kiang said. “In this city you can easily make connections just by picking up the phone. Also, remember that you can learn anything on your own, whether it’s by calling up another store owner, or even taking classes if you feel like you’re missing a skill set.”
6. Use the free resources that are out there. Kiang emailed trade commissions in foreign countries and found out that there are a lot of sponsorship programs, including buyer programs at no expense to the buyers. “I’ve traveled to Brazil, Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong, where I’ve found new designers that I carry in the store,” she said. “I found a lot of resources and templates on SCORE. You can also choose to meet with a mentor in your industry. I saw free counselors and took advantage of groups for female business owners. There’s so many entrepreneur resources out there.”
7. Manage your stress. Kiang read The E Myth, which explains how to run a business in the least stressful, most productive way. One of the book’s biggest tips is to come up with systems and formulas that you’ve created for your specific business that keep the business running whether or not you’re there.
8. Know your documents. Kiang advised hiring a lawyer and making an effort to understand your contracts and leases. “A commercial lease is 100 pages long, and full of legal jargon that I didn’t understand,” she said.
“Entrepreneurship is unbelievably exciting and fulfilling. But you have to go in with your eyes wide open and make sure you save at least six months of full income before you open,” Steinberg said. “Statistically, only 1 in 10 businesses succeed. Do whatever you can to protect yourself from future debt.
“Try opening your store online first to generate income virtually before you invest in expensive overhead of rent and equipment. Raise money around your dream and vision on Kickstarter or Indiegogo (for discounts and future perks!) before you sign a lease. Do everything you can to prepare because most entrepreneurs fail — you have to know that going in.”
5 First Steps To Opening Your Clothing Boutique
1) Create Your Vision
- The very first thing I did when I decided to open my clothing boutique was to create my vision. If you have no vision, you have no end result. What I did that I found very helpful was to create my boutique’s vision book. I found pictures (from magazines and online) of the colors I liked for the inside of the store, what my target customer liked or looked like, different merchandising ideas, etc. Basically anything and everything that helped me to see my vision clearer. If you know exactly what the final look and feel of your boutique should be, it will be easier to make decisions throughout the process of opening your store because you will know exactly what you want the final product to be.
2) Develop Your Boutique’s Brand
- When thinking of your boutique’s brand, keep in mind how you will stand out next to all the other clothing boutiques or stores. Have this in mind when choosing a name for your store and when designing your logo. When developing my store’s brand, I wanted to center around the fact that all the clothes and items I was going to be selling would be from Los Angeles based brands and designers. I wanted to offer Wisconsin all that Los Angeles had offered me in the shopping experience. I then developed everything from that idea, including my store name, look, and ambiance.
3) Begin Your Business Plan
- My business plan was probably the most difficult thing about opening a boutique for me. I bought a book on how to write a business plan and in the end I had barely looked at the thing. What I found most helpful was finding examples online of business plans. BPlans.com is a great site that has a lot of information on business plans. You can create your business plan there and they even have very specific business plan examples for clothing boutiques. When I thought my business plan was complete I took it to the bank to ask for a loan, only to be sent back home a few different times to revise it. 🙂 So, no need to get discouraged if you have to revise it a few times! In the end, you’ll have a beautiful blueprint for your business.
4) Research Which Lines You Will Carry
- It’s probably easiest to shop stores similar to your boutique and see what lines they have when deciding what merchandise to carry. Compile a list of brands that you’re interested in carrying and begin to contact the sales reps for these lines. Sometimes it takes a little while to be approved to carry certain brands or some you won’t be able to get at all. It just depends how selective the brand is when choosing what stores will carry their line. You could also visit a place like the Cal Mart in Los Angeles to get ideas and see the styles of different lines that you may want to carry in your boutique.
5) Start Your Website
- I ended up starting my website before I opened the doors to my physical location. I started with a store on E-bay and then designed an e-commerce site through Yahoo. Yahoo has a site builder that once you learn the basics – you can develop a pretty nice e-commerce site on your own. I was trying to do everything at as low of cost as possible. I have a friend that just spent almost $5,000 on their e-commerce site which I think is completely unnecessary. Even once I wanted a better designed site I only paid $400. I put an ad on Craigslist and the person I found was looking to add to their portfolio and experience and did an excellent job on my site. Starting your website, Facebook page, and Twitter can help you get your name out there even before you open!
One of the questions that people in fashion are asked most frequently is; how would you go about starting your own fashion boutique? We asked the owners of two of the most talked about boutiques in London.
Willa Keswick, (above) owner and founder of the trendy West London boutique, The Village Bicycle, who previously owned her own club and then worked in PR, had been planning her dream shop since she was 15 – and had worked as a fashion buyer for a shop in Singapore. Before setting up her present shop, Willa went to Portobello Business Centre, ‘which is a small firm with wide range of services for people who want to set up on their own and for already established business planning to expand’ to get more practical and legal knowledge – essential for starting a business from scratch.
We also tracked down Helen and Joanna Nicola, two generations of the same family and the founders of Oxygen Boutique, which is located in Eastcastle Street in London’s newest Art District, Noho, as well as online. They run the shop as a family business, and had experience in different areas – Helen in fashion design and production, and Joanna had worked in the film industry and was a connoisseur of shops, from having travelled extensively, which gave them the ideas they needed to start up Oxygen Boutique.
Oxygen boutique in London
Working for yourself in the ultimate cool line of business – a fashion shop – seems like an absolute dream, and when it is going well, it must be. But then again, we’re currently in a recession, the internet is revolutionising retail and shops go out of business all the time – just look at Woolworths, let alone small independent businesses with no backers. So, we wanted to know how they’ve made it work for them and this is what they told us . . .
Start small and build up rather than overreaching yourself to start with . . .
Willa Keswick of Village Bicycle says, ‘at the moment it is very hard to get a loan so I advise anyone to start small. Really do your research on different lenders. Make sure you receive advice, and track down services and support to help your business grow. Get advice from family members. I am constantly ringing up my brother, Archie who works in car sales or Ben who is a financial director to get their perspective on things. Any advice is good advice.’
Joanna Nicola revealed; ‘we have not borrowed at all, we have put our own money into it and we have been fortunate enough to be able to do this as a family. We are growing slowly and organically. I think getting a small loan would be fine as long as it is managed and you get it from a reputable company. I wouldn’t ever risk getting a huge loan in this climate, but if someone started small and they really believed in their concept then go for it.’
Helen added that ‘we used our own money to start up and will then look at further investment, as we expand.’
Village Bicycle in West London
Make sure you do a lot of research. . .
Willa; ‘I would sit outside shops and note how many people went into other shops in the same area of London in my lunch break or at weekends. We found out; what was the average basket price per customer, or the average spend in one day was, and how many of the people walking in and out actually bought anything. We thought about how our current economy is affecting us… there are so many questions you have to ask in order to feel really confident.’
In addition to research on the ground, Willa adds that ‘I spent a lot of time in the British Library looking at retail industry research, data, statistics and forecasts taken from analysts like Cobra or Mintel.’
Joanna; ‘we researched like crazy, trying to find interesting designers to suit our vision of what we hoped Oxygen Boutique would become. I found a lot of labels in New York that we contacted and tried to find labels that were not everywhere over here. We wanted people to buy something from us and know that they would not see 20 different people wearing the same thing. We did go with instinct too. If we loved a label then we bought into them. We scoured the shops in New York (which was obviously lots of fun), researched labels on the internet and also went to look round trade shows.’
Helen said; ‘we were very careful in selecting and editing the mix of brands and products we wanted to buy in to, in order to offer our customers something exciting and fresh.’
Know your customers
According to Willa, not everything she’d chosen for the shop at first sold out. ‘My first ‘buy’ a year ago was driven by my taste in clothing and as I’m a bit of a 80’s ladette it wasn’t to everyone’s fancy. It is all about trial and error and catering for everyone’s needs. The key to it is engaging with your customer to find out what they want!’
Joanna says ‘I am always surprised by certain things coming in and flying out. I love to try and track what causes the hype and the following certain items have’.
And Helen added that; ‘watching what customers pick to buy is fascinating. It keeps us intrigued!’
And a few other tips . . .
Customer service Helen says; I honestly believe that customer service is one of the most important parts. Our customers really trust us, and what we bring into the store whether its a new designer or an existing one. We always go out of our way to make sure our customers get what they want. I also think it is very important to believe in what you are selling and the concept you are trying to create. I believe in every single designer and label we sell and love them all so much and think this comes across really well to our customers.
Online business Joanna says of oxygenboutique.com that ‘It is the most important side. We are selling more online than in store now. We’re shipping internationally and in Europe. We are really growing our website at the moment and it is a very fascinating side to the business.’
Enjoy what you do; Don’t forget to enjoy it, says Willa; ‘Have fun! I wake up every day excited about going to work as there is always something new and exciting to get your teeth into.’ Helen from Oxygen wisely points out that ‘Anyone wanting to start their own business in fashion needs to give 100% of their time to it. It is very demanding and if you are not prepared to make sacrifices and take measured risks, it will not work.’
In other words; you’d really have to love the industry and believe in your own skills to undertake something as big as this – it’s a real labour of love!
1.) What’s been the most challenging part about starting a business? And with that, what’s been the most challenging part about starting a business with your sister?
There were a few challenging things about getting our business up and running. Because I play basketball just about 12 months out of the year I wasn’t actually in Tampa to get the business up an running. I like to be hands on and wasn’t able to do that from afar. Everything had to be done via email and phone calls. I decided to go the small business loan route and we ran into some MAJOR issues regarding some of the information we needed to provide- definitely tested our sisterly bond to say the least! HA! It set us back a few months but everything ended up working itself out.
2.) What made you decide to transition from a WNBA basketball player to running a retail store?
I had been looking for something to invest my money in. I have gone the real estate route and flipped a few properties as well as purchasing a rental property. I’m always thinking of ways to make my money grow. My sister and I got to thinking one day and said why don’t we open our own store? Crystal’s background is in retail as well as my younger sister. We thought about opening something on our own but realized we didn’t all of the knowledge required to get a boutique up and running.
3.) What skills do you think will be semi-transferable from the court to the boutique setting?
I think two of the most important things in any job are leadership qualities and communication. Those two things are extremely important in basketball. Especially on the court. It’s sounds weird saying it, but I’ve actually got employees now. I’ve got to be able to lead them and communicate with them as often as possible in order to have a successful business.
4.) What does it take to open your own business (and be successful)?
First off it takes MONEY! Lol! You have to spend money to make money. A lot of time and patience is also required. In my case, my family has played a huge part in helping me get this boutique up and running. Having a good support group has made it that much easier to get the boutique off the ground.
5.) What advice would you give to anyone wanting to open their own business, be that a retail experience or whatever!
My advice would be to do as much research as you can prior to deciding on the business venture. I spoke to quite a few people just to pick their brain and see what route they took in getting their businesses going. They were all able to share the pros and cons and do’s and don’ts of running a business and it has been extremely helpful.
6.) What’s the best part about working as part of the Apricot Lane franchise?
The best part about working with the Apricot Lane franchise has been the people I’ve been able to work with. Crystal was fortunate enough to fly out to California to meet and work with everyone during a week of training. I chatted with just about everyone through emails and phone calls. I’ve been most impressed with how helpful everyone has been from day one. They’ve been involved every step of the way and it’s made going through this business venture that much easier.
7.) Your favorite item from the boutique?
My favorite item from the boutique so far has been a black American flag tank top made by Enti Glamour. It’s soft, light, and comfortable.
8.) How do you foresee the growth of brands in shop that give back in some way, like 3Strands, Emi Jay, Good Works, etc.?
From experience, continuously standing by the vendor and explaining who they are and what they do does have an influence on customers. The fashionable designs combined with the relaying of product knowledge will positively impact the growth of charitable vendors within our boutique.
9.) Can you talk about the Apricot Lane “Girls’ Night Out” experience options?
Our Apricot Lane “Girls Night Out” offers a chance for our new and returning customers to mix and mingle on a personable level with each other, while piecing together outfits with the assistance of our store stylists and enjoying treats and beverages. Options for a “Girls Night Out” include sorority events, charity fashion parties and our own local “First Friday” Frenzy (finding an outfit for the first Friday of each month for the nightlife events that take place in St. Petersburg).
10.) Why retail??
I chose retail because I not only wanted something to invest in but I also wanted something that my family could be a part of. I was tired of hearing stories from my sisters about them working crazy hours for such little money, having the job title of assistant manager but not receiving the pay or benefits that an assistant manager deserves. So in reality I really opened this boutique for them. I don’t want them to just feel like regular employees. I want them to feel as if they are part owners in this as well and we have the opportunity to really create our own family-run business! I may have provided the financial foundation, but they have put in all of the hours as well as all of the behind the scenes work to keep the store up and running.
And for funsies, check out this *ridiculously* cute blazer from Apricot Lane. I’m a major blazer girl, so to have this bright pop of turquoise in my work (and play) wardrobe is really the perfect remedy to an otherwise gloomy weekday. Head to West Shore’s Facebook Store page to order right from the store and have it shipped to you on your couch (with your wine and Netflix and pizza, naturally). I love pairing a bright blazer with neutrals for the rest of my outfit, but then adding another colorpop with a statement lip. This purple from urban Decay has been my go-to for the season, because it’s just so stinkin’ fun.
20 Tips for Boutique Owners
Being a boutique owner is a challenge but there are ways that you can make life easier while also improving sales. While some of these tips may seem obvious, others very minor; all have the capability to make or break your business. Whether you’re just starting out in the game, or an old pro looking for a refresher, read on for suggestions on how to be the best boutique owner you can be.
1. Identify a look, a vibe, a style. It is your duty to possess the ability to eloquently explain what your store is all about – do not risk waiting for the public to define it for you.
2. All customers are created equal. Each person who walks through your door should receive the same treatment as the person before and the person who will follow, regardless of their appearance, age, or social/economic status. Have we learned nothing from Pretty Woman? Big mistake, huge.
3. Speak up. Acknowledge everyone who walks through your doors. No need to chat them up, a pleasant greeting and a warm smile will go a long way.
4. Keep consistent hours. Set your hours and stick to them. Yes, things will be slow and boring now and then but that doesn’t mean you should pack up and go home. You will lose customers, lose publicity, and ruin your store’s reputation.
5. Mind your own business. Don’t discuss business matters with, or in front of customers. It is extremely unprofessional, not to mention no one’s business but your own – literally.
6. Think outside the box. Get creative with your marketing; fashion shows, contests, or trunk shows are a great place to start.
7. Learn the hat dance. As a small business owner, you play many roles. Some you might enjoy others not so much but either way, learn to wear different hats and wear them well.
8. Role model. Your employees are an extension of you and a representation of your store. You lead, they follow. Make sure your setting a proper example.
9. Get social. Social media is free advertising. You can’t afford not to be a part of ‘the conversation’. Understand, embrace, and execute.
10. Dot your coms. A website is an absolute must…and an absolute minimum. No ifs, ands, or buts. It’s 2011. Get with it. Blogs can also serve as a great way to drive traffic and create awareness for your brand.
11. Know the customer. Who is your ideal customer? Do they exist in your area? What would they wear? These are questions to ask before you go on a buying trip not figure out later as you stare at stagnant inventory.
12. Re-think sales. Everyone loves a good sale. Make sure you offer them frequently but be careful not to fall into “the whole store hole”. If customers hear, “the whole store is 20% off” every time they come in it loses its luster. Think themes, pre-season sales, or even referral programs.
13. Thumper Rule. You remember what Thumper told Bambi; if you don’t have something nice to say about another business don’t say anything at all – or some variation of that.
14. Neighborly Love. Promoting and supporting neighboring businesses can do wonders for your own. Scratch their back and you’re likely to receive the same in return.
15. Stay cool. Yes, there are times when business is slow. Despite your every urge to attack the first person who walks in the door, just don’t. No one likes to be smothered, followed, or annoyed.
16. Use protection. Theft is a major issue for small business. Take precautions such as properly screening employees, investing in a security system, and arranging merchandise appropriately.
17. Check yo’ self. Experience your store through the customer’s eyes. Literally walk outside, walk back in and take yourself through a shopping experience of your own store.
18. Just say “No”. Meeting requests for donations and loans will bleed you dry. Offer support in other ways such as a promotional partnership or sponsorship.
19. Be original. Shoppers look to boutiques for something different. They’re not likely visiting your store for the same merchandise they’ll find at the mall. Consider up and coming lines or quality local designers.
20. Look for the signs. Effective signage is imperative. Consider every entrance from every angle in every direction.