Happy Monday! As you read this post, I am most likely being buried in snow and crossing my fingers that the power stays on! If you are a long time reader, you know all about the vintage barn sale, Sweet Clover, that I own and operate with my partner, Sarah. We’ve owned this business for a year and a half now, and we have had some major ups and downs. We’ve had moments where we’ve discussed whether continuing with our venture was best for us or if we should close it down. I discussed much of that roller coaster ride previously here. Today I want to share with you some of the things that we’ve learned in our short time, in hopes that it can help any of you who are thinking of starting, or who are running your own business. Let me first and foremost tell you that I am in no way shape or form an expert on business… I barely eked out a “C” in my college Econ. class (it was mandatory to take it and I still cringe at the thought of it). But I want to share what Sarah and I have learned along the way and what has worked for us. I bring you 10 tips on owning and running your own vendor based store.
1. If you are filling your store with vendors who are renting spaces, be sure that you stand 100% behind the style, and that this vendor fits your store’s brand. Sarah and I learned this the hard way… we added the upstairs to Sweet Clover, and were very nervous about filling those new spaces. We ended up with vendors that just didn’t fit the Sweet Clover image, and because of that, they did not succeed in our barn. To me, this sort of situation is not good for anyone… the vendor feels frustrated at their lack of sales, and as store owners, we aren’t happy with what’s being put out there as part of who we are. This part of business is hard, but in the end, if you want to be proud of the store, you need to be proud of your individual vendors.
2. Do not be afraid of the things that make you uncomfortable. For Sarah and me, the things we were afraid of were the bookkeeping, taxes, and the more business side of things in general. We are both more of the visual and creative types, so we have never feared making the shop look good. We feared all of the behind the scenes account management, especially with a large group of vendors as it meant many accounts, vendor codes, and more. Because of this fear, we ended up taking on another partner when we started, a partner we thought had the bookwork experience and skills. Less than a year later, it was clear that partnership was not working out- the business side of things had actually become quite a giant mess, and the vision we had for the store wasn’t quite where we wanted it to be. We’ve spent so much time and money since then cleaning it up. Had we just put on our big girl pants from day one and never taken on another partner, we’d have learned along the way and it would have been hard, but it would have been done properly. Or at least if it were a mess, we’d be cleaning up our own mess and have a clearer understanding of how the mess was created.
3. Build community between vendors. There are so many shops out there that rent spaces where the vendors don’t know one another. From day one, we knew we wanted our vendors to work together. We’ve had a couple of get togethers in the past year outside of barn sales, and we’ve created a facebook group where they can easily ask questions and support one another. They often help each other move larger pieces of furniture in, and will take pictures of spaces to share at the end of a sale say so they know what they sold. I love seeing them all work together to help each other out. And I am looking forward to another get together soon- we all talk about going to karaoke together, and I want to make that happen!
4. Take complete ownership of your business. This tip has been one I have been slow to learn…. Because we are vendor based I have seen it as each vendor doesn’t really work for us, and they just carry their business within ours. This approach has not been the best for us and we all want what is best for Sweet Clover’s success. If Sweet Clover succeeds, then our vendors will as well. After a fairly dramatic Fall with so many sales and so much stress, we decided that come January, we were no longer asking for opinions. We are always open to new ideas and constructive criticism, but the bottom line is that Sweet Clover is our business with our name on it as owners, so we will run it as we see fit and to our standards.
5. Do not let your business hours be 24 hours a day. Because we are a small business and we want to work hard for our customers and please them, it’s natural to answer emails and messages from at all times of day. The same thing goes for vendors, too. In today’s world we are viewed as accessible at all times with just a touch of a finger. While on Christmas break, I thought long and hard about how that was damaging my family relationships, and taking away from time spent with the people who really matter to me most in this world. I decided that moving forward I would not answer emails or questions (unless I had some particular down time), unless it was Monday through Friday 9-5, or a weekend we were open, or a legitimate emergency. Sarah and I are just two women with lives outside of our business as well, and we need to make sure we nurture those lives.
6. Network with local businesses who will work as hard as you will and share the love. We’ve done a couple of events now where we have partnered with other vintage businesses in the area. The first time we did this, we ended up taking on almost all of the work and pretty much all of the marketing that happened- the other businesses just were not as into it, and didn’t promote it as much. The second time we did an event, we partnered with our friends Saule and Angelique at Silk & Burlap. These two ladies are busy moms of 3 each, and took on so much with this event that it left Sarah and I feeling like we weren’t pulling our fair share! 😉 But the truth is, these ladies were invested in the event and wanted it to be a success just as much as we did. It was such a nice feeling knowing that we were all in it together, and the event proved to be a success for us.
And also on this point, we love working with local businesses who have similar ventures like the barn sale. The Painted Mill is constantly promoting us by handing out our cards and in turn we happily do the same. (By the way, if you are in the Fallston, MD, area, I strongly suggest you check them out!).
7. Embrace Facebook for business. Sarah handles the more mechanical side of our facebook business page, like creating our ads, and also boosting our photo albums the week of a sale. We have seen a huge bulk of our traffic come from those facebook ads. We can cater them to people who live within a certain radius and who have certain interests. Most times when I ask new customers how they heard of us, their answer is facebook. If you have a small business, I strongly recommend using it.
8. Admit your mistakes and defeats. Easier said than done, right? Sometimes we have ideas that we try out, and they don’t work. The biggest mistake we can make is trying to pretend that we weren’t wrong. Just admit it, admit it to your vendors, and move on. To give you a minor example of this…. last week I was entering sales books and was told a certain piece of furniture sold. I had no record of it anywhere, and swore up and down it wasn’t there. There was no way that piece was sold. A vendor suggested that maybe a book was left behind at the barn…. “No, I am certain I have them all. They are all numbered!” Well lo and behold, one was hiding underneath the cash drawer, and within its pages was the missing piece of furniture. OOPS! I quickly told the vendors “OOPS! Found it- there was a missing book! Sorry! I am only human!” We all were relieved and laughed, and moved on. Of course some mistakes are larger than that, but either way I think it is very important to own those mistakes. After all, we learn and grow from those mistakes, and we are only human, so they are bound to happen. We are still a young business so we are only working our way up that learning curve.
9. Set an example of customer service. Often in these types of businesses, there are several creative types who maybe have never had the experience of working in retail, or customer service. I started off years ago in retail management and worked in that field for about 4 years, and Chris has worked in it for 16 years. It’s sort of in the fabric that makes us up because we often talk about work and customer service stories at home. I try to keep a friendly demeanor, and always greet customers and engage them when I am working. I ask vendors to do the same, but I strongly believe that leading by example is always the best way to go.
10. Be flexible in your vision. As we learn and grow, we are still finding what works best for us. We had a vision for Sweet Clover from the beginning, and along the way, it has evolved a little bit on its own as well. It’s important to always stay flexible and ready to change if needed- roll with the punches, and rise up to meet the road ahead of you, even if it challenges you. If you resist change, you could end up hurting your business in the end.
I am so thankful for all that I have learned since opening Sweet Clover…. all of these lessons have kept us changing for the better, and moving on the right path. I wish you all of the best and much success in your own businesses as well! After all, we can’t succeed without lifting each other up, supporting our own, as well as supporting the businesses that surround us.