This is the final installment of a three part series on our 230 sq ft retail experiment- Bourgmont- inside The Milton Schoolhouse business incubator. If you’re looking to expand from pop-up markets to a retail location, or are considering a retail start up, check out our financials and projected income of this business model and our small space merchandising discoveries.
Within hours of opening our experimental gift shop I realized that everything I knew about sales was completely wrong. Admittedly, my only prior experience in selling anything directly to a customer was in Maeva’s Coffee. It seems obvious- coffee shop is nothing like a 230 sq ft pop-up retail. I went home that first day at Bourgmont sheepish. The differences in selling wares in a tiny retail location and in a beverage/food establishment hadn’t even crossed my mind.
In the coffee shop, the customer was there “to lose”. Each visitor at Maeva’s enters already intending on making a purchase. As long as the environment and service facilitate a good experience, a sale is guaranteed. In Bourgmont, the customer had to be won.
It was the holiday season and I had shopping to do as well. I began to pay attention to other successful retail locations and adapt my observations to our brand. However, the tiny size of our shop presented the challenge of balancing an intimate environment with needed personal space. I soon found ways to navigate the flow of traffic through the shop and ultimately “win” sales by creating conversation perimeters unique to our space.
These are the simple discoveries that turned Bourgmont into a tiny selling success:
Create action through invitation.
300-700 visitors to the building walked by the entrance to the retail shop everyday. However, the doors to Bourgmont were set back just a few feet from the main hall. To attract attention, I created a large sign and set it on a stool just outside in the hall. I burned copal near it, knowing that the faint rising of smoke and unusual addition to our incubator's main hallway would at least cause people to pause.
It worked! People would stop, look at the shop, and look at me. But then they would walk away.
Admitted introvert that I am, it took three days of operation to discover they weren’t coming into the shop because they were waiting for me.
People are naturally curious, but they aren’t natural explorers. People wanted permission to come in- and a hearty “Hey there! This place just opened!” was enough invitation for them to step outside their normal footpath.
Make the most of each word.
A customer entering into a retail space is naturally on guard for “sales” talk. You have only a sentence of two to capture their interest and gain their trust. Don’t waste your words with box store sales phrases like “How can I help you?” And don’t say the same thing to every customer!
Every customer deserves a unique experience in your space. Keep your conversation from becoming stale by adapting to each individual who visits.
Get rid of questions with one-word answers.
“Can I help you?” No thanks, just looking. “Are you shopping for anyone specifically?” Nope.
This ties into making the most of each word. Your questions need to lead to conversation- or at least more information on how you can matchmake the goods in your shop to the customer’s needs.
Steer away from questions that can easily be answered with a “no”. These questions not only give you no further information about your customer's needs, but leaves a negative impression in the customer’s mind. “No” you can’t help me and “no” I’m not looking for anything specific fosters the subconscious impression that there won’t be anything in our shop they will want or need.
Give the customer a story.
Is the customer lingering on a product? Have they picked it up? If it has an unusual story- share it! A few simple pieces of information can create a connection between the product and the customer and set your shop apart from big-box stores.
These are some stories that helped Bourgmont wares on their way out the door:
“That was made by our friend Micah in Edwardsville. He’s a local woodworker we met at festival last year.” (Story: Unique product created by a local artist)
“My father loves that soap. Maybe the packaging reminds him of his days in the Navy. I love it because the company supports wounded veterans.” (Story: Product geared towards a hard-to-shop-for market with an altruistic business model)
“Those journals are made in Amalfi, Italy- a region famous for its paper. The edges are hand marbled and the leather is meant to become more interesting as it becomes worn.” (Story: Concentration on the long-term relationship the user will have with the product)
Tell people about other people.
In the previous post on merchandising, we talked about how customers didn’t want to be the first one to “mess up” a display. In the same way, a customer’s desire to find something special is often at odds with their desire to know their purchase is something others think is also a good choice.
Using sincere phrases that point to the popularity of a certain product or style can help an anxious customer make confident decisions.
If possible, leave a element of choice in your suggestions, especially if the customer is shopping for someone else. You don’t want to rob the customer of the experience of choosing something on their own for someone special to them.
Here’s an example of how this worked with the best-selling Cavallini printed posters we carried in Bourgmont:
People loved the low cost of these pieces and the unique choices available, often buying them as posters for others. Wall art is a tricky buy for someone, it has a personal element of style- but is also intended for public display.
If a customer was having difficulty deciding what to purchase as a gift, I would mention that the maps and the butterfly types were the most popular. Each type had two or more styles associated within. This information allowed customers to feel their draw to these pieces was valid, but also gave them room to make a choice that was personal to them.
More Tips for Small Spaces:
Choose staff that are not loud or intimidating, who smile frequently, and who use open posture when talking to customers. There is no room for error with a small space. Any unwelcoming body language will end a customer’s experience immediately.
Don’t box yourself in! We used an old school desk as our “check out” in Bourgmont. It was fine to sit behind the desk with a single customer shopping, but as other customers entered into the tiny room I found myself stepping over some customers to get to others. Awkward. When merchandising, give yourself natural “nooks” to place your body out of the way that also allow quick mobility.
Your shop is an experiment! Pay attention to what sales language works for your customer base. Don’t be afraid to try something and change it as you go along.
Do you have sales tips you’ve discovered while running a retail shop? This seven week retail experiment was a fascinating experience and I’d love to hear more from experienced retail entrepreneurs. If you would like to be featured in upcoming articles on retail-based small businesses, send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.