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Friday, March 29, 2013

Buy Baby Buy - Spend Baby Spend: Stage 2 of Launching a Retail Business

Dear Reader,

Here Lies Charna Ethier.  We find her lying on the floor of her soon to be open commercial space, with blistered fingers, muttering something that sounds like garbled Swedish: "Klingsbo! #@% What the?  Tjusig! Allen wrench . . . aargh!"

The past two weeks have been spent building IKEA display units, hanging blinds, installing lighting fixtures, and reading instruction manuals.

The cash register has been delivered.  The phone and internet have been installed and turned on.  You promptly realize the internet has been installed in the wrong location as the new cash register from square must plug directly into the modem.  Sigh.

The new stool that should have been so easy to put together . . . well not so easy.  It comes in four pieces--should be easy breezy right?--has taken two hours to put together.  You promptly realize it's too short.  When you sit on your stool behind the cash wrap your neck is waist high to the customer on the other side.  Creepy.  You are so tired you decide to keep the stool.

An enormous amount of tools are needed.  Wire strippers, hammers, levels, drills, industrial strength velcro (more on this later.)  I have realized one important concept, it IS possible to build a retail space on a budget but it involves lots and lots of time and sweat equity.

Howdy Home Depot

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of retail.  Instead of boring you with the details of my complicated track lighting purchase (suffice to say I decided on LED track lighting which costs more initially but is eco-friendly and energy efficient) I shall regale you with a more glamourous lighting purchase: the chandeliers.  I found an incredible deal online for a stunning chandelier.  I had looked at the very same chandelier in a local lighting shop and found it for hundreds of dollars less online at  Now, I knew there would be some assembly involved with the online chandelier as a local lighting shop explained that they only sold the chandeliers assembled and that they charged a few hundred additional dollars to do so.  Being the frugal shopper that I am, I decided I would order the chandelier online and assemble it myself.

LED track lights installed
Purple crystal chandelier over cash wrap

The good news: the chandeliers arrived in perfect condition!  The bad news: perfect, unbroken 985 piece condition!  The chandeliers also had to be wired and the instruction were not printed in English.  This required stripping the wires as carefully as possible to avoid breaking the fragile glass arms and connecting all the left wires together and all the right wires together.  Luckily my husband Dan did this for me.  Side note: I did initially start to try and strip the chandelier wires, hitch them together, cap them etc. but my husband stared at me, snorted and commented, "Wow Charna.  You look like you're playing the game OPERATION.  Your hands are shaking.  You know there's no electricity actually connected to the chandelier, right?  Just pass me the wire strippers."  Score!

Next the chandeliers had to be hung (again I happily opted out of this process.)  Finally all 900 little crystals had to be hung on the chandelier, along with strings of crystals.  I was on my own for the final step.  The clasp on each crystal had to be individually pried open with needle nose pliers, hung and squeezed closed.  This took seven hours.  Seven hours of sitting on top of a ladder, connecting strands of crystals, counting each bead to make sure all the strands were even, adding little metal jump rings, prying the metal rings apart with pliers and attaching them equally along the arms of the chandelier.

The final result is pictured below and no matter what anyone says, I will swear it's the best looking "snow white" chandelier I've ever seen as I devoted an entire day of my life to assembling it.

Snow White Chandelier

I contacted a few local sign makers for quotes for an outdoor hanging sign.  In the process I learned more about carved signs than I ever imagined.  I discovered that Mahogany is the only type of wood that should be used for a sturdy outdoor hanging sign as it is most impervious to the elements.  I learned of smaltzing, a process of using ground glass paint that resists sun fading.  I learned red, blue and consequently purple colors fade the most quickly on outdoor signs.  I learned that while gold leafing is very popular on carved wooden signs, silver leafing is not recommended as it will tarnish outdoors quickly.  I learned that carved wooden signs are very expensive.  I learned that I could not afford a carved wooden sign.

I ended up ordering a sign that is not made from wood but looks like a carved wooden sign.  This type of hanging sign costs almost half of what a mahogany wood sign retails for.  The sign I've ordered is a 3 foot circular purple sign with my logo printed in silver (but not silver leaf.)  I found it interesting when looking for signage that there are few options in the middle price range.  It seems you spring for an expensive sign or your other options are few and far between, such as a plastic banner.

Outdoor hanging sign ordered and due to be delivered in a few weeks, I proceeded to have window laminates made as the shop is on a busy street and the sign may not be visible while driving as it hangs perpendicular to the street.  The window stickers were hung as soon as they were printed as I worried about having deliveries made to the new shop with no signage.  Once the window stickers were in place I felt a huge sense of euphoria.  The shop felt tangible.  I'm embarrassed to admit I teared up for a moment and hugged the sweet grandfatherly Italian sign maker causing him to blush.  My logo in the window!  I felt such a sense of accomplishment.  I am here!

sweet sign maker posting hours on the front door

silver window laminates pre-installation

applying the front picture window

Here are the shop windows from outside:

After the window stickers were applied I promptly covered the windows with paper, so the mess inside wouldn't be visible from the street.  Once or twice I forgot to lock the front door after receiving a delivery, and people would walk into the shop which was alarming.  I realized quickly I needed to make it clear we weren't open yet and hide the construction inside.

My next step was to finish buying, moving and assembling the furniture.  I decided on a white somewhat modern style.  Having a single color palette made things easier for me.  The bulk of the displays were purchased at Ikea and we visited often enough that the kids developed a fondness for elderflower juice and cinnamon buns the size of their heads.  I knew I was in trouble when I stopped getting lost in Ikea.  After providing particularly helpful directions to a couple seeking discounted Expedit bookshelves, I realized I needed to leave Ikea and not return for some time.

Next installment: "Finishing Up, Why Having A Flexible Launch Date is Important" otherwise entitled "You Didn't Actually Think You Would Open On Time Did You?"

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Monday, March 18, 2013

From E-Commerce to Brick and Mortar: A Perfumer's Journey

You are ecstatic!  You are thrilled!  You are excited!

You are nervous.  You are stressed.  You are on a budget.

You are opening a retail store.

Yes, that's right.  After years of dreaming of owning my own retail store, I've taken the leap and signed a lease.  I thought I might document the process of getting the perfumery up and running here on my blog.  (While I have a blog built into my website at , I choose to keep this blogger account for a more personal narrative.  Here, I might describe my initial disastrous attempts at candle making whereas I may not want to post such -ahem- forthright information on my website.)

Perhaps my process it would be helpful to others contemplating opening a retail store.  Maybe it would be funny to look back on years from now and see how many mistakes I made or how naive I was.  One thing is certain, it will be an honest account of a small business owner opening a brick and mortar store on a budget.  Incidentally the words budget and launching a retail shop are oxymoron's--more on this later.

What facilitated this leap of faith foray into retailing?  To start, I was outgrowing the small studio where I created my fragrances.  My studio space was feeling tight.  With each new account opened, the space I needed to create, produce, package and ship my wares seemed to get larger, while the square footage available seemed to diminish.  Scrambling to find space to teach perfumery classes was a challenge.  Each time the phone rang asking where my "store" was located, every email asking for directions to my physical shop caused me pain as I would direct customers to local wholesale accounts and wish I could direct them to my own brick and mortar shop.

While I built my business on an e-commerce platform, I desired a little shop of my own filled with amazing things to sniff.  A studio space.  A classroom space.  A shipping and receiving area.  I began perusing commercial real estate listings, checking craigslist every week, driving slowly up and down streets I thought might be ideal for my perfumery looking for vacancies.  When I saw an established high end perfume boutique on the east side of Providence was closing it's doors, I pounced.  The shop was located in one of my ideal "targeted" neighborhoods, was walking distance from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and was located on a street known for it's artsy Mom and Pop type shops.  The landlord hadn't even posted the commercial listing when I called to inquire about renting the space.

Coming Soon: Providence Perfume Co.!


When speaking with the realty company that owned the space I wanted to rent, I discovered that they wanted me to sign a five year lease.  Uncomfortable realization #1.  Despite having looked at numerous properties over the years and discussing leasing terms, I was unprepared for such a long term lease.  I back peddled quickly, and after an awkward moment or two on the phone they seemed open to making the lease slightly shorter.  There is something incredibly heavy about committing to a five year lease.  I felt as though I were signing away five years of my life.  It made me realize that I was undertaking a very serious long term commitment.  While I had always envisioned running the shop for many years--maybe even until I retired--I was worried about failure.  What if I worked as hard as I could and I failed?  What if I didn't turn a profit?  What would happen if I couldn't pay the rent?  I had been working towards obtaining this shop for years.  Having my own store had been my dream since I was a child.  I suddenly realized I was really and truly committing myself to my dream, it was actually coming TRUE . . . and I was a tiny bit TERRIFIED.

Over subsequent meetings with the owner of the property, I was able to negotiate the rent down a couple of hundred dollars to a slightly more comfortable monthly rent.  The lease was drawn up for three year commitment.  I then requested that they add the option of me continuing the lease for two additional years at a $50 per month rent increase for years four and five.  That way, if all was going well I wouldn't suddenly be hit with a large monthly rent increase when a new lease was drawn up if I wanted to keep the shop at it's current location after the third year.

There was one clause in the lease that was confusing and it involved a percentage of property tax that I was required to pay beyond my monthly rent.  Uncomfortable realization #2.  The portion of the property tax I was required to pay was 20% and it was steep.  After speaking at length with the real estate manager I discovered that the tax was currently built into my rent, and I would only pay an increase if the property taxes on the building went up after my base year.  Even if the property tax increased $5,000 on the entire building (which was excessively high and had never happened historically according to my agent) my portion would be 20% of the $5,000 split over 12 months and equaled approximately $83 more per month.  Sigh.

After going over every bit of the lease, I signed.  I knew who was responsible for the trash (them) and who was responsible for the landscaping outside the building (me.)  I had one off street parking spot (imperative in the city) and a start date: April 1st, 2013.  I tried to ignore the ominous whispers in my head about a start date that landed on April Fools Day.


The commercial space is about 800 square feet, and a little choppy.  See floor plan:

Shop Floor Plan

As you can see, there are five rooms.  One main showroom as you walk into the shop, One secondary room, a third room labelled "changing area" and a small kitchenette and bathroom.  I was thrilled there is a very small patio on the back with a cherry tree.  I've decided to use the room labelled "changing area" as an office and shipping station.  The other two rooms will serve as retail and classroom space for teaching perfumery classes.  The building is over 100 years old and part of the original foundation runs the length of the shop.  It resembles a stone wall about knee height running the length of the showroom.  While unique and original to the property, it represents some challenges with setting up displays and/or fixtures against the stone wall.

I requested the inside be painted white and outside purple to match my company colors.  Here's a few pictures of the carpentry chaos going on inside of the shop:

The office

yes, that's a toilet in the middle of the floor

front showroom, see the original foundation wall

In my next installment, I'll describe my foray into display shopping, having signage created and why my answer to all questions regarding the style of shop furnishings is "Swedish Modern."  (That's an IKEA joke people!)

Click here to visit the Providence Perfume Company website.