Sep 26, 2006

Sign Language

Store signage is an issue that needs to be addressed before you sign a lease. Welcome to part 4 of "business of boutiques" for those of you who are wanting or getting ready to open their first boutique. I am going to use my personal experience on the issue of singage.

When I first opened my store, I had street parking right in front of my store. But after over a year of hard work in establishing my business, the city had decided to revamp the streetscape and expand my narrow sidewalk out to twenty feet or more, add some plants and lightposts. Quaint right? Wrong! (This is a prime example of finding out about any city plans before you sign a lease - something I didn't know to do.) I no longer have parking in front of mystore, no place to load and unload inventory and worse, my customers (or rather, prospects - they aren't customers yet), while walking down from other local shops, not only do not see if I am open or not, they can't see my building at all because of the way the city redesigned the sidewalk. They assume as they walk down the sidewalk, that where the cars are able to park, is the last store and they turn around and go back.

Look at the photos and see for yourself. See how the store on the right appears to be the final store? To the left of that store, is the beginning of a busy intersection and thus no parking allowed along the street at that point. My store is at a very slight right angle beyond that store. You can't even see my awnings!

Now look at the next two photos. The top photo shows my "open" sign out on the sidewalk and at the a point, you can just see my black awnings on the right with my topiarytrees. Having that little open signout is the diffrence of having 20 customers walk in or only 4. Literally. I kept track on some days. But the city has an ordinance against portable signs. During
Christmas, we are allowed to put out signs but no other time. I did due diligence and approached the sign and review board, wrote letters, spoke with my alderman to get the ordinance changed. This is going on two years now! So, for a while, I just kept putting my sign out anyway because if I didn't, I would be out of business. But then our friendly city inspector, had nothing better to do than to watchand see if my sign was out, write me up, and I would be taken to court by the wonderful city of Maplewood. (Maplewood is two blocks from the St. Louis city limits.) So, I would spend my Monday nights, once a month in court, and pay a fine.This little routine of putting the sign out and then going to court was not my intention, but it got started because of Maplewood's ever so helpful, city inspector, fined me again on a Tuesday morning after I had just gone to court for the first time, the prior evening. Apparently what had happened was this: Monday night I go to court the first time, get fined, and am told to take my sign in. Tuesday morning, I had appointments all day and so I left a sticky note on my computer screen for my employee NOT to put the sign out (at that time I was still determined to change the ordinance and do things properly). My employee, comes in for the day, the sign is right next to the door, so as usual, she puts it out on the sidewalk, returns, turns on lights and makes her way to the computer where she sees my note and immediately goes out to remove the sign. A week later, I get a citation and I am livid because I know I did not have my sign out. I call up the city inspector, very adament that I have not put my sign out and he said I did on the following Tuesday morning. Upon questioning my employee, she had to even try to remember the events, and finally remembered that she did have it out for a total of 4 minutes. The inspector was waiting that morning to see if the sign was put out. When I explained this to him he replied, "yeah, I thought it was strange that you would just defy the judge's order and have the sign out." I then told him that if he would have taken a minute or two and came inside and just ask us what is going on, by the time he got out of his car, he would have seen the sign was returned inside. But no, he drives back to his office, writes me up, no phone call and I get to go to court yet again. Well, that was it. I was getting no help whatsovever from Maplewood about this issue. So every month I get a citation and every month I would go to court. All the time trying to get Maplewood to grant me a conditional use permit for my sign. Finally, one court session, the judge told me that if he sees me in his courtroom again, he will revoke my business license! That was Nov 2005.
I immediately went to my alderman's home, very upset that all I am trying to do is run my business and I can't seem to get help from anyone about this sign issue. My wonderful alderman said he would look into it. I was standing on his front porch at 8PM, in tears and just spent from having so much on my plate, trying to keep my business going after my husband just left me only 5 months prior and so, so, so tired from all the hours I was putting in. Finally, someone was going to help me!
I never heard a peep from him after that tearful night.
Well, Christmas comes and goes, and I am told "under the table" to keep my sign out and the city will look the other way while the ordinance is being revamped. I went to a meeting about the ordinance and voiced, publicly, the need for this change. I also stipulated many ways in which the ordinance will not work if the city council puts tight restrictions on theplacement, size, and so on simply because having a sign near my front door will do me no good. I also invited the council and review board to walk down the sidewalk and they will see what I am talking about. No one has.
So, now it is August 2006 and I get a letter from the cityhall telling me that an ordinance has been passed that allows a sign to hang from the building and that I need to remove my portable sign immediately. There are a couple of problems with this. One, I wasn't even notified that the ordinance was finally coming up for alderman didn't even notify me. Two, the signage hanging from my store does me no good whatsoever, and I made this clear in my public meeting, and three, even if the hanging sign would help me, it would take at least two months to get the sign approved, and the letter stated that I remove my sign immediately instead of stating that once I get approval of my new signage then remove my portable sign. Nope, had to do it that day. And I did.
So, I made many calls to the city manager, the alderman, chamber of commerce, the mayor and no one returned my messages. Finally, I called the president of the chamber at his workplace (a bank) and voiced my concerns, my anger, and how am I to stay in busienss if no one can even see my store? August was my WORST month ever since I opened my business. To this day, after almost 4 years of being open, I still get ladies who "found me" and they walk in all excited about what they see and they ask "how long have you been open?" And they are shocked when I tell them how long because they "have never seen the store before." Yes, I advertise, and yes, I get PR, but that does nothing for those who are just "walking" around and just shopping for the day and who don't know about the store "around the bend."
So, I finally get a call from my alderman after I left a message that was less than friendly. This is over a week later. The phone call did not go well at all. I asked him what exactly does it take to get a conditional use permit anyway? He said he would have to look into it because he didn't know. mean to tell me that this is Aug 2006 and since Nov 2005 you, my representative, haven't even looked into that? Especially after I was on your porch in tears needing help????? Basically, I told him he was worthless as a representative. He was very condescending in letting me know that there are other important matters in the city other than my sign. I was quick to let him know that this is not the first time I dealt with city government, and I am very aware of the issues, but we are going on two years with this sign problem and that is just inexcusable.
He said he didn't want to give me a conditional use permit because then "all the other stores will come rushing in with their conditions." I basically said, "so?" God forbid that the council actually do what they are voted in to do: help run the city and the businesses. I told him that I am not asking for special treatment, I just want to stay in business! I told him should he get a "rush of store owners" at city hall that the answer was very simple: If those store owners use to have front door parking and the city took it away, and if they also have a 20 foot wide sidewalk, then they too may have a portable sign. He said ordinances can't be written to satisfy everyone. Yes, of course Mr. Alderman, I am aware of that. That is why you have conditional use permits. I started to get very loud and bold on the phone and he tells me that if my "goal is to call me up and piss me off, then you met your goal." I said that I don't give a $#@ that he is pissed off because I have been pissed off for almost two years now. Then he tells me that my attitude doesn't want to make him jump through hoops to help me. And so I then ask him: "Are you saying that I need to kiss your ass to get help???" Of course he said "no." And I told him that is exactly what he is saying and that I have been "playing nice" for two years and have gotten no where, so why continue to be nice? I told him that I hate doing business this way (yelling) but if that is the only way to get something done, then I have to do that.
He then told me that there are other means of advertising - again very patronizing. I told him I have a budget for that and this is not about advertising this is about letting people know where I am located and that there is actually a business around the corner! He then admitted that he hasn't even walked down the sidewalk to see what I am talking about! By the way, Walmart moved in during this time, and it seems as though all the little cute boutiques in our town are not necessary least to the city's eyes. Maybe that explains why no one is willing to help out within a two year period? Needless to say, it got ugly but he said he would look into it and call me back. I have yet to hear from him. I did finally talk to the Mayor about two weeks later and he too said he would look into it. Never hear from him either.
So, what to do? Well, I have a business to run. I can't do it all. My foot traffic has been horrible. Sales are down. And the city of Maplewood couldn't care less. Why the city won't provide a conditional use permit is beyond me. The city won't help. And I am out of options. I can't be on the phone, in city hall, or write letters in "ordinance language so the council members will have it almost written for them" as my alderman suggested and run my business. I just keep on working, doing what I need to do and just share my experiences with you who are getting your store ready to open.
Please check into any future plans the city may have that may affect your business. I wish I had. Thank you so much for letting me vent. And if you feel like it, feel free to email our mayor and let him know your disgust at the city for not taking care of one of their own. On the subject line if you could, please put: "let Elizabeth House stay in business" because quite frankly, if I have several more months like the month of August, I will need to rethink my way of making a living.
Email: I hope I helped some of you to avoid the headaches that I have had.
from my house to your house,

Sep 19, 2006

Shop Talk Volume 3

Location, Location, Location. We have all heard this phrase at least a 1000 times when it comes to deciding where our new business is to be located.

Welcome to my third volume of the "business of boutiques." As always, I like to state that I am not a "professional" when it comes to the business side of running a store, but I can offer my personal experience and how I dealt with situations that you may encounter as future (or current) shop owners.

First, I want to discuss the geographical location of the building. These things to consider may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how they can be overlooked when one falls in love with a retail space. Here is a short list of considerations before signing the lease:

1. Is there front door parking? Do customers have to pay to park? Are the sidewalks, crossways, and streets safe, clean, and free of obstacles? Do you have limited parking times or meters in front? Will that time limit affect your business? Parking is something to take into careful consideration.

2. What is the traffic like? Is the store on a busy street? A busy corner? At a stop light? While these may sound attractive, think again. If the street is too busy, or the corner too conjested, people will just whiz by, paying more attention to traffic than your store front. Also, think of the noise. On nice days, when you want the door wide open to let in the breeze, it will be so noisy that you can't even hear your own lovely music playing in the store. On the other hand, if there is little traffic, then look at your neighboring businesses. Do they have the same clients that would shop at your store? If so, then low traffic may not be an issue. If not, then low traffice can be a problem as well.

3. And speaking of neighbors - take a GOOD look at them!!! Many new store owners make the mistake of thinking that other boutiques in their area are "competition." So untrue! Unless you have a huge store, with lots of very unique items, you will most likely not be a "destination" store. You will need other like boutiques and businesses around you and thus the area becomes a destination due to the number of boutiques. Rarely can a small boutique reside alone. Be careful about leasing a space next door to an empty spot that is also for lease. How do you know what will move into that space next door? Unfortunately, many landlords do not care who goes into their space as long as it is rented. I had to work very hard to get a great boutique in next door to me for that same reason. My landlord, didn't care who went in next door, and many people looking at the space wanted to make it into a bar - not an upscale place, but a trashy, let's-drink-all-night-and-hang-out-bar. You will want hair salons next to you, florists, other boutiques, cute cafes, gift stores, antique stores, high-end candy stores, a pet grooming shop...all of these usually have like clients and compliment each other.

4. Finally about the actual location, you really need to check with the city council or planning board to see what (if any) future street scapes plans are in the works. When I rented my space, I used to have parking right in front of my store. After I opened,my front door parking was taken away and replaced with a 20' wide sidewalk. Sounds quaint? Not really. I am no longer visible to foot traffic and thus I have fewer customers walking in the store. I no longer have a clear path to unload items or for my customers to get their large items into their car. I am in a battle with the city council about my portable sign - but more on that in another posting.

Okay, so above I talked about the physical location of the store, now I want to discuss the store itself. Below are some of my thoughts on this:

1. If you sell large items (furniture), then do you have double doors in which to receive large pieces? Do you have a delivery dock in the back? Is there a place to pull up to the door to unload inventory? Doors need to be considered other than if they are "pretty."

2. Trash. Yes trash. Do you have a large (commercial) trash bin next to your store? Is the landlord paying for it? How often does it get emptied? Do you have to share it with other businesses in the area? You will have a lot of boxes, papers, and trash and you will need the space to put it in. Is it down the alley? Do you have to walk far? When you get in a lot of inventory, hauling boxes to the trash can be very time consuming.

3. Office space. Many, many retailers want to use about every inch for sale space. Of course, this makes sense, as that is how you make money. However, having a good office space will save you many headaches. Really think about how much paperwork you will be doing: bookkeeping, ordering, inventory, phone lists, files, mailing lists,....

4. Outlets. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have tons of electrical outlets. And if you have tons of them, it still won't be enough. Lighting, lamps, stereo, computers, phones, faxes, printers, chandeliers, spots, need a lot of them and don't hesitate to negotiate that into your lease.

5. Wall space....too many small boutiques have little wall space. You will constantly be looking for a way to display things on the floor, a table, or wherever. This is not good. Find a way to incorporate more walls - you won't regret that you took the time to build some before you moved in.

6. Check out counter. I designed mine and had it custom built. Check with coding in your area. Some cities require a handicap counter. I don't know about you, but I can't stand going into a store and the counter is so cluttered that I can't even put my purse on it to write my check. Then the counter is usually way too low. And I am average height. When I built mine, I made it 40" tall - no bending over to write a check. Plus, it allows for more storage behind it. I also designed a space for my computer to be hidden. I didn't want my customers to see a ton of wires and electronics.

7. Flooring. Unless you are lucky enough to have hired a staff of burly men to move your displays around, your furniture or anything else heavy, you will be moving it yourself. Polished wooden floors look nice - for about a month. If you don't want to hurt your back, you will find yourself scooting heavy things across the floor. Stained cement is my favorite. It looks great as it wears and things slide very easily.

I know there is more that I could write, but this is a start. Even though these tips may seem obvious to most - they weren't to me four years ago. I didn't think about the trash, my doors, the traffic noise, or the outlets. I just learned along the way and so now, I am passing on to you what I learned. Like I said earlier, "I am not a professional." But I am getting there. I hope.

Somtimes, learning by doing is best way not to repeat a mistake. But it is smarter to avoid the mistake in the first place by learning from others. I hope I helped you to avoid some mistakes.

from my house to your house,


Sep 8, 2006

Shop Talk Volume 2

What's in a name? This posting is for those boutique owner-wanna-be's who are wanting to open a store and have no idea where to begin...well, in my last posting I talked about passion. And how that is so very necessary when beginning to think about starting a business.

So, if you are reading this posting, then you probably have learned that your passion is strong enough to seriously start thinking about owning a shop. Most of us shop owners all begin our venture by deciding on a name of our business.

Sort of like having a baby. Parents-to-be almost immediately start thinking of names for their unborn child before the mother even begins to show any signs of pregnancy. The same with your little shop-to-be. The name usually comes first with most of us. However, the name should really, really be considered carefully for many reasons. Business reasons - not sentimental.

First, think about what your shop is going to be like. If you had to describe your shop in only one sentence to someone who never has seen it, what would that sentence be? Now, the name you are considering...does that name fit the description you just provided in one sentence? For instance, if you just love the name "Attic Treasures" but the one sentence description of your shop is something like: "An elegant, soothing shop that carries vintage items for the home, and organic items for the body, and soul." Well, it is easy to see that the name just doesn't fit what the shop owner is hoping to provide to the customer. With the name like "Attic Treasures" one would expect a shop filled with antiques, maybe some "junk" and great bargains. Absolutely nothing wrong with that type of shop - in fact I love those shops, but the point I am trying to make is a name can tell a different story than what you intended.

I chose "Elizabeth House" for many reasons. When I first started my antique business in Texas, my business name was "Picket Fences." It suited what I was doing at that time. I was doing more country, rustic items, and more American antiques than anything else. Over the years as my tastes changed, and I developed into what is now my signature style, the name "Picket Fences" no longer fit. "Elizabeth House" has a sense or a feeling of elegance with plenty of ambiguity, which I love. I my thought process was that over the years, since my styled changed from rustic to elegance....who is to say that my style in years to come will yet evolve into something else? If so, "Elizabeth House" is a name that doesn't lock me into niche that I may not want to be locked allows me to grow and develop as I choose. "English Tea Shoppe" would pretty much need to be a tea shop. The name doesn't allow it to be bar-be-que joint, a flower shop, or even a candy store. It pretty much needs to be a tea shop. Again, that is pefectly fine. I just know myself. I know I like change and I know I like to develop but I wanted my business name to allow me to do this.

Next, how does the name sound? Yes, sound. Is it easy to prounounce? Is it confusing? I have a friend who was going to name her baby shop "Baby Biggs." The name of her beloved dog. She even had a cute little logo of her dog in a diaper. However, on her store voice mail, it sounded like she was saying "Baby Pigs." She found herself constantly repeating the name of her store when someone would ask the name because they thought she said, "Baby Pigs." She quickly changed the name "Baby Baby." (She has since had a baby and closed her shop to be a full time mom.)

Okay, so the name you chose fits the description of your store and it also sounds great. Now, next, how common is it? You need to google on the internet the name of your store. What comes up? Thousands of like names? Is there even a domain available for your name? Even if you aren't planning on a website right away, get the domain way before you even decide on the name. Research and research more how the name of your shop comes up when googled. It can really put new light on the name that you may not have considered.

Okay, you now secured the need to think of the logo. REALLY, REALLY take your time and think about this! What kind of font will you use? What colors? What symbol? How does the logo/name read on letterhead, in newspaper ads, in the phone book, on the website, on business cards, on the shop window, the awning, on postcards? Is it easy to reproduce? How will it look on labels, bags, ribbon, and tissue paper? Will commercial printers be able to print it as is, or will they need to convert it to a JPEG? Are there ways to have several versions for different uses? I have several versions of "Elizabeth House." I have the very recognizable and notable "EH" that is on every single thing. I have "EH" carved on my store counter, etched on my store's front doors, on aged paper (as in the photo above) and on my store tags as well. I have a version with a body form behind it, one with the website below it and others. But they all have the same color, font, and sizes. This is what we call your "corporate identity."

Once you have your corporate NOT, do NOT, do NOT mess around with it, change it, or just scrap it and start all over. If you have a logo/name that you have been using and people recognize it, then you have equity built into it. I have seen many, many shop owners fool around with their logo, adding this, taking away that, changing the color...and every time you do that, you lose equity. That is the reason to really take time, thought, and lots of effort in designing the right name to begin with. Yes, you may end up refining it after time, but you should, at all cost, avoid major changes. So, take your time, and do it right the first time....before you register it with your state.

Finally, after you think you got it exactly how you want it to others. Ask for their opinion. Get feedback. This is not a decision by committee, but rather, just listen to what they have to say and then decide for yourself what to do with the feedback. Remember, this is your shop, your time, your have the say in its name and no one else. But it is smart to get feedback.

I hope this helps you really think about the importance of the right name, the right logo, the right feel you want for your "baby." Because, believe me, owning a shop is like having a baby. It requires constant care. Give the name of your store the same amount of thought as you would naming your own child. They both are precious. They both bring you pleasure. They both cause you debt. They both cause worry, stress, and sleepless nights. And if raised well, they both can provide many years of adventures, laughter, challenges, and wonderful memories.

Oh, and the one advantage to "raising a store"? No dirty diapers.

from my house to your house,

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