5 Things I Learned By Opening a Brick and Mortar Shop

Angie Chua

Opening a storefront as a maker and product designer is no easy feat! Today I’m here to share the top 5 things I learned by opening a brick and mortar shop.

Hi there folks! I’m Angie and I’m a member at Team Lucky Break. In addition to working with some of the planet’s best brands at LBC, I also run a thriving product-based business called bobo design studio and I’m here to share the…

5 Things I Learned By Opening a Brick and Mortar Shop

In May of 2018, I was offered the opportunity to be part of a landmark retail experience in Downtown San Jose. I was selected by the city and an organization called San Jose Made to be part of an inaugural group of up and coming brands and artisans to bring quality retail to the area. I’ve spent the last nine months nurturing that shop. As my lease comes to an end, I’ve been meditating on the magical, complicated, exhausting experience of running my own shop.

The process of opening and running this store has been an incredible learning experience that can only be described as trial by fire. This was not a traditional brick and mortar where I had to locate a retail space, obtain permits, etc. My experience and reflection in this post focus on the operational side, being a maker, and opening a storefront.

With that said, I wanted to share some of these lessons. I hope they prove helpful if you’re considering opening a physical store for your own business. And if this isn’t in your business plan, don’t turn the dial just yet! There are good tidbits here that you can still apply to your business.

No amount of planning or preparation will get you ready.

When I was notified of the opportunity to have the store, I had almost no time to put it together. Running a brick and mortar was not on my radar, but when your home city says “you would be a great ambassador to our community and help bring quality retail to Downtown,” you just don’t say no to that.

angie blog_2

I had approximately 2 weeks from when the ink dried on the contract to the opening day which involved a massive street closure, big ribbon cutting ceremony, Mayor kissing babies… the whole nine. Those two short weeks was utter chaos. Creating enough inventory to supply an entire store, merchandising, finalizing packaging, and developing store operation procedures were things I had to learn and build quickly.

I could have easily obsessed over each minor detail and fussed over creating a wide variety of products to fill a shop, but the success is in being nimble as you go while staying true to your brand. The saying “done is better than perfect” could not be more relevant here.

You don’t get a return on the investment of a storefront unless you’re in it for the long haul.

There are investments you plan for, and there are others that you didn’t anticipate. There was so much I didn’t know about or factor into opening a store. The large amount of capital spent in setting everything up was rough to fork over. Even on my best sales weeks and months, if you factor everything in- fixtures, rent, parking, staffing, unforeseen maintenance, retail software packages, and insurance, there is a chance that you might not come close to breaking even. The investment in creating a quality, branded shopping experience in your store is one that pays back over the life of a lease that is closer to 5 years. But how many folks are ready for the risk of a 5-year lease?

angie blog_3

Be prepared to be chained to your storefront.

Unless you have remarkable staff that you trust, expect to be there every day. The working hours further increase if you are also the maker. Imagine operating your shop for 8-10 hours a day. 8-10 hours of being friendly, telling the same jokes over and over again, dealing with unruly customers, cleaning, tidying up, inventorying, marketing, and more. But when that day is over, you might have to go home and make more products to refill sold inventory. Maybe you have kids, or a family that require your attention when you get home. Want to go on a vacation? Think again.

Some other things to consider are the rules and requirements outlined by your landlord, the local Chamber of Commerce, city associations/boards and other governing bodies. For example, the series of shops that I am a part of are mandated by the city to be open from 10am-8pm every day. These hours are tough and take a toll on one’s personal life, sanity, productivity, and bottom line.

But with that said, there are fantastic things that happen by being in a storefront day in and day out.

angie blog_4

Success is in being present and connecting with those who come in- especially when you are the maker.

There’s no rush like hearing positive feedback. Folks pick up my items and comment on how much they like, appreciate, or need it, never realizing that the person who makes them is standing right in front of them. This never gets old to me. That real-time feedback loop is so valuable. I also found that I convert more people who discovered that I was the maker. I easily increased the order value when they got to engage and connect with me. They love what I’m creating and felt that they were supporting something they believe in. But remember, being present also means, being in store, a lot.

Angie Chua, left, greets customers at Bobo Design Studio at the opening of MOMENT at San Pedro Square on Friday, May 18, 2018. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group)
Angie Chua, left, greets customers at Bobo Design Studio at the opening of
MOMENT at San Pedro Square on Friday, May 18, 2018. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area
News Group)

Stepping into the role of the buyer.

One of the best lessons I gleaned from this experience was being able to step into the shoes of a buyer. I curated an array of goods to sell alongside my bobo treasures. Acting as a buyer gave me a better understanding of how shop owners think about their stores.  They want to create an experience and tell a story. I’m now less fearful about approaching store owners who are most likely frazzled, tired, and looking to find new goods to wow their loyal customers.

Strangely, I also got a glimpse at how poorly some brands manage relationships with buyers.  In some instances, I have had to turn people away who wanted to sell things that didn’t align with my brand. Other times, I had to chase down vendors to place my order, process my payment, and even to ship my goods. Just by being thoughtful, a good partner, following up, and caring, you are already ahead of much of the competition!

angie blog_6

Opening a brick and mortar for 9 months has been an incredible learning experience. I felt the pressure of the summer slump and the adrenaline rush of the holiday season. I learned to thoughtfully listen to feedback from customers and adapt my offerings as needed.  Converting meant hitting them on multiple touchpoints: in person, and online. I learned more about my business in these last 9 months than I have since I started it in 2008. For that, I’m truly grateful.

Have you opened a storefront for your business? What lessons did you glean from the experience? Are you considering opening one? Drop a comment below and share your thoughts!

About the Author

Angie Chua

No one on God’s green earth can pull off brightly-colored lipstick and a fedora quite like Angie Chua. Her 6’5″ husband and Instagram-famous dog live with her in the world’s most adorable airstream trailer in San Jose. Angie is a talented hand letter, a proud Dachshund mama, and the brains behind bobo design studio– a lifestyle brand for those with a serious case of wanderlust. When not speaking at maker conferences, installing public art, or traveling in her Weinerbago, she’s busy making everything prettier at Lucky Break, managing our social media, and lending ground support to our clients.

14 responses on “5 Things I Learned By Opening a Brick and Mortar Shop

  1. Susan Bryg

    Incredible! All this time that you have been so careful with EVERY stinkin’ little detail that you have helped me with over the past year. I knew that you had your own brand, but I had NO CLUE it was anything like this. Congratulations! I do hope that the venture was a success for you and THANK YOU for sharing this valuable information with us!

    1. Angie Chua Post author

      Susan! I am a little worker bee. I give credit to my mom who always told me the reward is putting in the work. And through the pain and struggle, I do enjoy the work. Thank you for the kind words. We are all in this together and I know the pain points all too well. Like you, I’m thankful Lela is around to help support us and grab us by the shoulders and shake us real good when we need it.

  2. Lacy Wright

    I think that last part is amazing….that you learned more about your business in those last 9 months than you had since you started in 2008. Short of opening a B&M and doing it trial by fire I wonder if there is a “safer” or less stressful way to learn what you did about your business in that kind of time frame. I am sure you wish you had acquired alot of the lessons in the previous 10 years. Thoughts on how to glean more information out of your business? And thank you for sharing your heartfelt story!

    1. Angie Chua Post author

      I totally get that trial by fire isn’t for everyone. I actually have done the most monumental work for my business when there was an element of risk. There is that saying that “things always work themselves out” and I do feel that happens. . . more so when there is an element of sink or swim!

      I had this business since 2008, but it wasn’t until I quit my job and financial safety net in 2017 that I actually started making gains. It wasn’t a hasty decision to quit, but I also don’t recommend that anyone just go and quit their job to try and start a business. However, this element of “OH CRAP WHAT HAVE I DONE?” sinks in and you have no choice but to make it work: aka survival mode.

      Same with the shop. When someone presents me with an opportunity that I ust can’t say no to, ready or not, I will for SURE do it. because that element of risk pushes me.

      A good alternative to this might be to have an accountability system in place- a person, mentor, a deadline. Some people are motivated by positive reinforcement (rewards when you achieve a goal) , some negative (something you love gets taken away like shopping or going out until you get that thing done)… you have to find that thing that sparks that adrenaline in you and go with it.

  3. Roberta Perry

    Every word you wrote is true! I opened my storefront in 2011 more as a place to work on my skincare products and it slowly evolved. I have moved twice to expand with this last one being a start to finish project including full construction, etc. I can’t believe you got it together in 2 weeks! It’s the best thing I have done with my business, but it is not for the faint of heart. Yay you!

    1. Angie Chua Post author

      I’m glad I’m not alone. I dont have a storage space in my shop, so I hung up this decorative blanket to create a 2’x2′ hiding spot. I joke with the other shop mates that if they want to cry from the stress, they can come to my “backroom” and warn them that it isn’t soundproof. haha I feel like if I had more than 2 weeks the store would have probably ended up exactly the same, only cost me way more money because I would have dwelled and fawned over every last detail.

      I applaud you for keeping it up. I know that a retail store is not for me, or the end goal for my business, but man was it a wild ride that I loved!

  4. Elizabeth Aprea

    Great insight Angie, as owner of a bricks and mortar myself I found your comments straight on. Going into our 10th year of opening Moon River Soap Company, the first 5 years were down right exhausting financially, mentally and physically as we make our own product. We started to get breathing space at about 5 years in. We didn’t turn a profit for the first 3 years and we held our breath waiting for December Sales as we had exhausted all funds. Thank goodness for December, regular customers, and perseverance! Recipes, labels, space to work, wholesale, newsletter…..so many things come into play. Giving employees a job description is very helpful. Expectations are always being verbalized. Moving forward we are excited to formulate several new products this year as the time came and went last year. I really wanted to catch Lela at the Soap Makers Guild Convention but we just were not able to attend yet again. I love Lela’s brain power, she is amazing as I met her several years ago and enjoy her newsletters!

    1. Angie Chua Post author

      GIIIRRRLLLL. The only way we (I say “we”, as in me and the other shops on my street) got through that June, July, and August dry spell was on the hope that November and December will pan out. One day my neighbor came over and said “I haven’t even broken $100 today” and I replied, “I had one sale today. And it was me…. testing to see if my Apple Pay worked.” We had many days like that where I just watched money fly out the door and wondered how anyone on earth survived doing this.

      And then I was envious of other store owners who could just call a supplier when they ran low on a product. Me? Every time someone bought one of my $90 tote bags, I was so excited, immediately followed by unwavering stress because that meant I had to go home at 9pm and sew another one to replace it.

      Seeing the regular customers, people coming in asking if my dog is here (shes at the shop with me everyday), hearing the upset tone in their voice when I say I’m leaving soon. It reminds me that committing to a store is so much more than just a bottom line – it’s about being a part of the fabric of a community, and building a posse of loyal customers!

  5. Jackie Granchamps

    This is the article I needed to read today for sure! I’ve operated a season business for years and I’m going it full time in 2019 – no more corporate job safety net! I’ve been more aggressive about finding a full time space so these are all great points to keep top of mind – especially as a maker doing everything from end to end. Thanks for this!

    1. Angie Chua Post author

      If you can have control over your operating hours, and or make your retail space part production studio, that is a much better scenario. I used to sew in store and people loved to see that, but it just got so messy and when I got home, I left something I needed at the shop… just got to be too much. But its doable and all in all- Im rooting for you!

  6. Amy Chin

    Thanks for sharing this. Wow! It is fascinating and inspiring. And like Susan said (above), all this time you’ve been cheerfully helping US out, too!!! You are, indeed, amazing. It sounds like so much fun but way too physically demanding for someone my age – lol…Too bad you can’t do it maybe one day a week. 🙂

    1. angie

      Thanks Amy! I’m addicted to work! I think one of the keys to success is to be present and connect with the people who come in. To be there one day a week might not have yielded the same success I had, but I LOVE the idea of being able to be successful while only being there one day. I’m a few weeks shy of 38 years old and I always joke that my husband better not quit his job, no matter how challenging… mama needs that health insurance bc my body is breaking down on me everyday ahahhaha

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *