Small Business

Shop Talk: Seek and Conquer!

November 27, 2007

I’m annoyed. Shopping in boutique stores is no longer as exciting as it once was for me. Maybe it’s because I know most of the products I see (sorry if that sounds snotty but c’mon, look at what I do all day). I’ve noticed now more than ever that little stores are almost as boring as large department stores and mall stores because they’re quickly becoming a cut and paste copy of all the other little boutique gift shops in town. The same candles, the same wrapping paper, the same trinkets, same, same, same! Ugh. There’s a heaping load of wonderful finds online to discover, there’s no need for small stores to all carry what the next guy has. What is happening small business owners? Some of you are losing the magic that makes shop ownership so, well, magical in the first place.

Shop Talk: Seek and Conquer! Retro Etc, a Stockholm shop that I visited with Danielle and Emma.
The owner mixes old with new for a fresh medley that is anything but carbon copy.
Great example of a how to run a small business.

Oh I know what may be weighing you down. Gift shows. While they provide a great means to find talent and view products up close and personal, try not to become completely hooked on shows for sourcing new products – branch out – there’s a lot to be found on the web and thousands of talented artists are waiting for their lines to be picked up by shop owners like you. I know many who ditched the last gift fair and scoured the web or even indie craft fairs like Renegade and Felt Club to find new and exciting things for their stores. That’s more like it. This is where blogs and online sites like Trunkt, and Etsy come in super handy. They’re completely free to browse, accessible 24/7, and your store won’t look like every other one on the block – yours will stand out.

Remember, some of these talents cannot be found at a gift show because they either do not have the means to create 10,000 pillows if approached, do not desire to go big time (and that is perfectly okay), or they cannot afford the thousands of dollars one needs to invest in a booth, booth help, and travel. It doesn’t mean they won’t be there someday, I think many artists aspire to showing at a gift fair at some point, but for now you may need to find them at sources online.

Sorry if I’m going off on this subject a little. Background: I remember my struggle. I was helping a friend with the launch of her handbag collection back in ’05 and nearly every single shop owner I spoke to said, “Does she show in the gift fair down in NY?” and the moment I told them she didn’t, they lost interest instantly. It was like I told them she spit on the fabrics she used to sew the bags (ala Who Spit On My Polymorphic Cape?). In their eyes, a gift show appearance is the golden ticket to entering the world of retail – or that it somehow says you’ve hit the big time, you are driven, you are professional, and you’re now entitled to play with the cool kids. I love me a good gift fair, but there are other ways to find talent, keep your store unique, and maintain your vision (shouldn’t your shop showcase your finds and favorite things?) without sole reliance on trade shows. Plus, some indie artists are mothers and fathers and have day jobs, they are plenty talented and professional, but they will never be interested in showing at gift fairs. This doesn’t mean you still cannot write to them if you find that their craft fits your store. Am I right?

If you own a store (online or brick n mortar), how do you find your collections? How do you keep your store from becoming a copy of all the others, selling the same merchandise? I think lots of us are curious to see what the modern store owners are doing to score their finds. Anyone care to talk shop?

To read additional posts on the topic of store ownership, click the words shop girl below.

For an example of a smart shop owner, read about my friend Enna.

{I’m not knocking gift fairs, I see their place, attend them, and even write about them for publications from time to time. However I know some very creative store owners that are building entire shops using only finds they’ve come across online or through word of mouth, and as a result their business is thriving. Gift fairs are great, but is there more? That’s the topic I’d like to explore.}


  • Reply Liz November 27, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    So true. Though I’m a fellow gift show frequenter, I find my daily perusals on Etsy and obscure online shops to be immensely more interesting and rewarding. Go indie designers!

  • Reply corine @ Hidden in France November 27, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    With the inernet and everything at my fingertips, I cannot bear to go shopping the traditional way. Do you remember the time when Pottery Barn was hugely exciting? Great post btw.

  • Reply November 27, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    There IS so much more than the same old cookie-cutter aesthetic. Thanks for reminding your readers of that. A lot of cool things are coming from the indie, underground folks.

  • Reply Pr?t ? Voyager November 27, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks why I travel! It keeps things new and fresh.

  • Reply Jennifer Ramos November 27, 2007 at 11:38 pm

    I see the point your making….however I think lots of the bigger blogs should interview or feature more struggling and smaller companies that aren’t ALL over the internet yet….like mine… hint hint. :)

    Just a thought…Even though i am small biz….i will be going to the NYC stationary show as planned, unless something crazy comes up at last minute.

    Jen Ramos
    ‘Earth Friendly DESIGNER Cards’

  • Reply decor8 November 27, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    Hi Jennifer,

    I’m sorry I thought you designed coffee tables, I didn’t realize you did cards now. I’ll have to check out your site. Thanks for saying hello.


  • Reply Bethany November 28, 2007 at 1:47 am

    I totally appreciate what you are saying here. I travel full time in the US and every few weeks we roll in to a new town or state. I always seek out any boutique shopping the place has to offer and it is beginning to become quite homogenized and boring. And as an artist myself who works on a very small scale (in regard to production) I have never been taken seriously when trying to work my pieces into a shop. It’s a weird pattern that is developing. I do sell my work online but it would be nice to have representation in a brick and mortar here and there as well. Etsy is a perfect venue for shop keepers to find fresh merchandise for an otherwise stale scene. I hope the idea catches on!

    We have just spent the past month outside of Austin, TX where you can truly dig up some fabulous indie goods. It was all at once inspirational and debilitating to my checkbook! And I did see quite a few etsy artist’s work in shops… but I do believe it is because they actually live in Austin and of course Austin is becoming a sort of Mecca for indie craft.

    Anyway… Thanks for bringing up this topic… I very much enjoy a daily visit to your site! You really do a lovely job!

  • Reply Jennifer Ramos November 28, 2007 at 3:19 am

    Hi Holly,
    Yes i used to design tables, but I have changed my focus toward a greener approach. I’ve sent you a few emails about the site launch, wanted you to be the first one to actually feature some designs on your blog :)
    Let me know…..! :)

    Jen Ramos

  • Reply Anonymous November 28, 2007 at 3:57 am

    I totally agree with your post! I have recently opened a brick and mortar store in New Zealand and we pride ourselves on having product no one else has. Etsy is my FAVOURITE place to source goodies for our customers, and even though we stock some ‘mainstream’ US brands (Blabla, Dwellbaby etc)they are definitly not widely available here in NZ…
    thanks for a great blog by the way – I do enjoy my daily visits : )
    x jo at Apple of My Eye

  • Reply janet & stu November 28, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    we just opened our online shop recently and definitely tried to keep our product mix a little different to what is currently out there. we found a lot of our artists from etsy and try to keep the stock fresh by also including unique vintage finds as well.we also look to overseas gift fairs and international magazines for inspiration. as a small business online it is definitely big on our minds to try to distinguish ourselves from others.

    great post, holly!

  • Reply j November 28, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    interesting observation, Holly. I wonder why it’s so exclusionary; seems to negate their purpose in having a “boutique”.

    I’m sure sourcing and having inventory is some of it, but there must be some business formula to work with that allows for showcasing new artist and artisans.

    really interesting post. I’ll come back to read all the links. thanks for bringing this up, and please keep us informed of your feedback.

  • Reply Susan Chastain-Hulbert November 28, 2007 at 6:44 pm

    Great post! I owned a small boutique for a very short time while I was living in Austin. I went to gift fairs in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Paris to source my inventory because I wanted to offer something unique and different. I went out of business (whole other story!) but now I spend my time creating art and selling it on Etsy. I’d love for a small boutique to pick up some of my work. Initially, I thought about going to the fairs, but now I’m moving in the opposite direction – I want to start making one of a kind work, so my production will be very small scale. Hopefully I can interest some boutiques or galleries to show the collages I’m working on now.

  • Reply decor8 November 28, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    All very interesting comments here, I’m enjoying this discussion.

    I did some research recently on the job of buyers, the reason why companies like Urbans and Anthro are going after the indie-feel or even hiring artists to do work exclusively for them, and I found out that Anthro actually employs “Found Objects Buyers” to scour the globe for inspiration and talent. Did you see this article that ran last year in the Seattle Times. It’s fascinating.

    Also there’s another great article about the whole strategy behind this craze right now of independent design taking over big box stores and why they are taking a more cultured approach.

    I love reading about this, it’s extremely interesting, the economics behind it all… The wave that indie crafters sitting in booths all over the world have made – the gigantic wave – that now the big retailers want to ride.


  • Reply Rachel November 28, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Here, here. i love reading your articles about the business side of design/art/crafts. Fascinating stuff, and really important to keep in mind.
    keep up the good work, Holly!

  • Reply hammocksandhightea November 28, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    This post is precisely why I adore your site Holly. At the moment I am deciding whether I should show at the stationery show in order to reach more buyers. I have been very lucky in approaching buyers on my own and am now busy enough to be back-ordered and have a good number of wholesale accounts. I definitely think with the wealth of product out there that it’s a must that we designers approach stores as well, and I’ve found that stores will respond when they see something they like.
    But, I was discussing with another business owner the fact that trade shows act in a way to validate your product line…as if to say “she can afford a booth, then she must be able to ship”. I think it’s a circle though, because the stores are looking at press to see what’s hot and the magazines especially keep showing the same people! I adore blogs for featuring new content, but since a blog is “published” everyday it’s a must that they be on the ball and showcase new designers. I guess my qualm is that I keep seeing the same brands in stores, in magazines, in stores, in magazines. How does someone break into that circle when they keep chasing their own tails to keep up with the latest trends?
    p.s. I’ve been in sales for many years as a profession and at the last D*S biz ladies I spoke about selling to stores. After launching my own product line I see a difference between fashion and stationery/crafts. In the fashion and accessory area it is very important for a buyer to see and touch a product, especially since they are often more expensive. This translates back to the customer who wants to have a sensory experience when they are purchasing something that they consider an extension of themselves. With stationery/craft buyers seem to be more swayed by how a product will fill a void or appeal to necessity or nostalgia. I think because of this many gift buyers are willing to buy online as well as the traditional tradeshows.
    Sorry for the extensive comment :)

  • Reply Hyena In Petticoats November 30, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    I LOVE this post.

    And I agree that this is the reason I love your blog so much – there is such a glass ceiling to break through in the craft world, and it’s so refreshing when store owners and design bloggers go out and really find creative people, dig them out of the nooks and crannies, and shine an appreciative light on them.

    It’s not hard for a crafter to make a small run of a product for a store. It’s really not. Why on earth shop owners don’t use Etsy as a source for products is completely beyond me… (though I have had some fabulous shops contact me through Etsy, so it does happen, and I’m a teeny-tiny Maker of Things).

    The world is such a crazy, dynamic and creative place, and the internet is its pinboard. I love it. And though gift fairs and such may make it easy, having lots of makers in one place, I think the possibilities are far more endless than that.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

    Leah xx

  • Reply Kristie November 30, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Hi Holly,
    Love this topic! I just opened a small decor “boutique” and am trying SO HARD not to be unoriginal or boring or cookie-cutter. I barely source through shows, because I’m afraid that EVERYONE will have the same items as me. My biggest source of product is through tons of research. Fun research – like reading decor/design blogs, clicking through link after link, subscribing to magazines (although, I’m finding these to be tracking behind blogs). I love etsy – and tell anyone artistic about this amazing site. I’d love to travel for more exotic finds…but time and cash-flow is not permitting that luxury yet. Keep up the great work – your blog is a huge source of inspiration! If you ever head to NY state, swing by Mayville, NY (on Chautauqua Lake) and stop in for some convo at Home Chic! Cheers – Kristie

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