Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Retail therapy

Image courtesy of Spring Chick Designs

I really enjoyed watching last night's episode of Mary, Queen of Shops. I've always been passionate about retail - when I wasn't taping songs off the radio, knitting myself ill-designed jumpers or reading under the covers as a child, I was most likely selling buttons to my unwilling sister, stuffed animals and dolls in my "shop". My first ever job was in a supermarket, and I worked my way up to store manager in 5 years, taking time out to start an MBA in New York, with placements in product development (Blackberry, VOIP technology) and high-end retail (heritage French couture, luxury goods websites). Regular readers will know that I started my first business at the age of 15, designing and selling stationery and making and selling small haberdashery projects -the business went on to win a national Young Enterprise award and, cringe, a computer for my school!

I kind of stepped away from it all for a few years to work in the public sector as I felt that it was a waste of my energies to make other people rich, if I couldn't make a ton of money for myself, I was going to make a little bit of money and try to improve the quality of life for those who needed it most. The ethics of big business and the absence of morality and compassion I'd observed in the board room and management team meetings weren't something I aspired to emulate, or have my name associated with, and I took a step back. And then with the advent of online outlets like Etsy, I realised that I didn't need to keep putting that night class at web design school on the back burner.

So I found myself in business as a homepreneur, but missing the direct social interaction of face to face contact with the customer. So last night's TV show really got me thinking, and like most 'reality' business tv these days (I'm thinking Country House Rescue, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares too), it appears to have a three part formula.

Know your competitors and the wider market
Actively expand your customer base
Trust or nurture your employees' expertise, and empower them to work hard for you

One thing I think the programmes tend to gloss over is that you need to be doing this stuff all the time, not just when you set up shop, or when you get a TV show intervention.

So how would I translate these ideals into actions for the sole trading, non-b&m marketplace?

Identify and maximise your USP - find what sets you apart from your competitors and refine then promote this angle. It could be your unique skills, training or process, the superior quality of your product, your responsiveness to customisation, your packaging, presentation or photography style.

Think laterally about your customer base, and how to draw in the internet equivalent of passing trade. Provide guest posts for blogs which complement but don't compete with, your product or range. Collaborate with people you admire, and be selective about how and where your promote your work.

You are your workforce! Sharpen your skills and stick with what you do well. You can't do everything, but you can network and skill swap as well as buy in the things you need. Remember you wouldn't be expected to do certain things in paid employment without having training or coaching, so don't put unrealistic pressure on yourself to do well at things you haven't done before. I'd be lost without buying in design services and off-site printing, for example. Be your own cheerleader for the stuff you can do well, and don't be scared to reevaluate and even walk away from a product or process that's no longer working out.

For more business advice from successful indie businesses like t-boo, Asking for Trouble, Swirlyarts, and Charlotte Hupfield Ceramics, consider picking up a copy of the latest issue of the Answers on a Postcard zine, where I asked contributors what hard-won advice they'd give themselves, looking back.