Opening a brick-and-mortar shop: a tested guide for creatives

Unexpected beginnings

6 months ago I took a risk and signed a lease for a studio/shop space for my business. 

It was one of my goals for 2021, but one that I anticipated to achieve in the Q4, not Q1!

We were deep in the pandemic – unknowingly a few weeks ahead of another wave. We’d had a great Christmas season with product sales but I was wary of being overconfident, only to be left with a significant business expense that I couldn’t sustain. 

Our brick-and-mortar shop space – before

I went to Pallet Cafe for a client meeting and for the first-time paid attention to their container retail spaces. I enquired about them: none were available but there was a space in the main house. I agreed to take a look at it and, despite a hideous yellow floor, (even though that is MY colour!) I fell in love. 

I think it was how the light flooded the room! But the price tag and the immediate availability didn’t work for me.

A week, maybe two later, I was back at Pallet Cafe for another meeting. On my way out, I checked about the space: it was still available. I viewed it again and found I was still in love with its potential. I decided to gauge the landlord’s appetite for negotiating on price and move-in date.

Long story short: in mid/late February, I signed the lease for Lulu Kitololo Studio’s first shop and studio space.

In-Progress-Lulu-Kitololo-Studio-Brick-and-mortar-Shop-2
[Super early work-in-progress shots, featuring Rasoah]

The power of intention (/manifestation?)

It’s completely true that thoughts become things. Had I not articulated and given some thought to the goal of having a shop, I wouldn’t have been open to the opportunities that unfolded.

6 months down the line, I’m still very happy with the decision I made. Our product sales in this time have been healthier than they’ve ever been! In addition, my team and I have learned a lot about yet another thing we’d never done before – running a brick-and-mortar shop.

We continue to enjoy the journey and, as per our style, we’re sharing the lessons for other creative businesses out there, who might also be contemplating setting up a brick-and-mortar shop.

A creative’s guide to opening a brick-and-mortar shop

Display Lulu Kitololo Studio Brick-and-mortar Shop

1. Don’t underestimate the power of touch

The reason I even considered having a brick-and-mortar shop was largely down to feedback from several of our customers. Previously, we only really made decent sales during pop-up fairs and markets. People shared that they enjoyed seeing things in real life and touching them. 

Opening a brick-and-mortar shop has enabled customers to come and browse before making their selections. A plus for us: they often end up leaving with more than they came for. 

Customers also tell us they like that they can easily pop in at their leisure, whenever they’re in need of stationery and last-minute gifts.

Display in Lulu Kitololo Studio Brick-and-mortar Shop

2. Location is everything

This is not just about being in a place with decent footfall but, being in a place with the right kind of footfall for your business. Do people who fit your ideal customer profile frequent the area?

Prior to discovering our space, I had viewed a couple of other places, in a very non-committal way (afterall, I still had 8 months until Q4!). The fact that our ideal customers were already regular visitors of the cafe on the compound where our shop is located, was one of the biggest selling points of the space. This information moved my timeline up by three quarters of the year!

Packaging Stockist Orders Lulu Kitololo Studio Brick-and-mortar Shop

3. Invest in a good inventory system

Our trusty spreadsheet just wasn’t cutting it anymore. We now had items listed online in our Etsy shop and items on display in our brick-and-mortar shop. We needed to keep track of both, along with items going out to pop-up events and our various stockists

Along came Hustle with a brilliant solution that enabled us to not only manage our stock but, to also take away some of the hassle of keeping track of local orders made via WhatsApp, Instagram DMs, emails, phone calls and more. 

We decided to direct all these enquiries to our Hustle shop which also serves those Nairobi customers who want to order online; pay via MPESA; and/or not have to go through an actual exchange of conversation with us.

For simplicity, we keep our Etsy stock completely separate, to avoid disappointments.

In the future, I can see us looking into a consolidated online shop and inventory system but, for now, this works great. 

Pegboard in Lulu Kitololo Studio Brick-and-mortar Shop

4. Anticipate different seasons

July and August were pretty slow months for us in the shop. I didn’t panic because, having been in creative business for 11 years now, I’m used to there being seasons where things are less abundant than in others.

It was reassuring to check in with other friends in retail, with a similar audience, and see that this pattern applied for them too. 

It’s been an opportunity to get creative with ideas of how to keep our offering fresh, compelling and relevant to our ideal customers.

Vignette Lulu Kitololo Studio Brick-and-mortar Shop

5. Keep touching

No, I’m not advocating being creepy about personal space! 

It’s been suggested that it takes people 5-20 touches – or interactions – with your business, before they buy. 

Not everybody who walks in our shop makes a purchase. However, every visit is an opportunity to make a positive impression. An opportunity to share promo collateral (for us right now, that’s bookmarks); a chance to invite somebody to join our mailing list; and a chance to have a conversation and make a connection with another human being (which I’m sure none of us take for granted any more!).

 Building our brick-and-mortar shop experience,Step-by-step

6. Take it step by step

6 months in, the shop is still not a full representation of the vision I have in my mind. Imagine if I’d waited until everything was perfect, in order to open? I would have missed out on all this learning and the sales growth we’ve experienced.

Instead, I chose to just start and build as we go.

We didn’t hire a retail assistant. Instead, our existing team takes turns to run the shop. That way, our additional costs don’t increase further and, at the same time, we each get a chance to work in a beautiful environment that’s a nice change of scenery from working at home.

The shop has also provided the perfect setting for several opportunities that have come along, such as being chosen by HEVA Fund and the Australian High Commission as a Creative Dreamer and Doer (watch our short video here).

It’s also been a great space for us to package big orders for our stockists; it’s been a convenient pick-up and drop-off point for our business overall; and the wider compound has been a great setting for client meetings.

Some days are better than others, in terms of sales numbers. But sales aren’t everything. Each day in our shop is a good one for us. 

This is not a definitive guide and we’ll keep sharing more lessons as time goes by.

What questions or barriers do you have when it comes to opening a brick-and-mortar shop?

And if you’ve been there and done that: what were the biggest lessons from opening a brick-and-mortar shop?

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