How to Create a Great Gift Boutique - A New York City Shopping Story
>> We all love shopping, but some of us love it so much that we dream about owning our own store. Two successful New York women made that dream come true.
The day after Thanksgiving 2002, partners Luisa Cerutti and Nicki Lindheimer opened their own fascinating gift boutique, Domus, in Hell's Kitchen, NYC.
Since then, Domus (Latin for house/home/center of family life) has attracted many return customers, plus the attention of national publications such as: Lucky; O, the Oprah Magazine; Nylon; House&Garden; Country Living; and TimeOut New York.
Whether you, as an individual, love to shop, or wish to find stock for your own business, stores like Domus introduce you to unique products and shop owner-celebrities alike. Through browsing and purchasing, you can improve your own decorating and entrepreneurial skills without having to hire a stylist or business consultant! With that in mind, this article shares with you:
- Why Luisa and Nicki decided to become self-employed (this might be your reason, too),
- The most important objectives of their business plan (and why you should consider them), and
- Engaging stories behind the popular products you see here.
Why Become Self-Employed?
Both Luisa and Nicki became depressed after the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Up until then, Luisa had managed a Madison Avenue fashion house and Nicki had been a catering chef.
They loved being around people, enjoyed entertaining, thrilled to the sight of beautiful clothing, furnishings, and dinnerware, and worked 12+ hour days earning enough money to live high. What they lacked, unfortunately, was the time to actually do so.
In early January 2002, they drove to South Norwalk, Connecticut to shake their gloom. There they stumbled upon a tiny gift boutique that sold the types of products both loved to own: dinnerware, pillows, tablecloths, sweaters, stuffed toys, lotions.
This gift boutique lifted their depression; it also gave them a great idea - if an unusual store could thrive in a small town within a regional population of 90,000, a store inspired by it would probably do even better in New York City (NYC)!
The Business Plan
Domus is based on three critical business objectives: Satisfaction in knowing that the boutique helps others: suppliers and customers alike,
Having fun while participating in day-to-day operations as a creative force, and
Earning income in a way that allows ample time for family, friends, and the arts.
These three objectives are matched by the partners' enthusiasm and their natural tendency to be friendly and fair.
Friendliness, by the way, is not simply a sales skill. Being friendly helps build relationships with independent suppliers, such as artists, designers, and small communities of craftspeople. People like these appreciate trustworthy businesspeople who are not pushy or trying to "steal" products for next to nothing. Until a sincere personal relationship is established, however, no transactions are made.
To establish good relationships (and meet the best artists), Luisa and Nicki regularly travel around the world. Even better, they pay their suppliers immediately, giving artists and craftspeople a steady flow of much-needed income without the suppliers having to split fees with a middleman, or making them wait for payment based on consignment success.
Some people, via e-mail, tell me they want to shop in New York, but feel intimidated by travel expenses. Based on "lessons" from Domus, consider the following for your own business success:
- Owners must go to where the goods are and, once there, must make a good impression on the producers. Otherwise, deals aren't made.
- The more owners travel and meet people (and like the people they meet), the more they gain a competitive edge by acquiring the best merchandise.
Setting Up Shop and Earning Their Keep
In 2002, the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City - where Domus is located - seemed like a relatively undiscovered area. Once they started looking for space, however, the partners found that most storefronts in Hell's Kitchen were as expensive as anywhere else.
Fortunately, their business plan kept them within budget, so they did not jump at every great-but-costly space. Using lunch hours and weekends to search for the perfect location at the perfect price, Luisa and Nicki found their current store, an unoccupied space with an unknown owner.
It took several months to find the owner, a man reluctant to sublet because of his own plans. Fortunately, he was impressed by the partners' business plan and merchandise samples. After much prodding (begging, actually), he consented.
Immediately after signing the lease, the partners were on their own. They personally painted, pounded, and plumbed the premises. The "do-it-yourself" mode was cost-efficient. Equally important, their creative self-sufficiency matched a key business objective: "have fun."
Many people believe that the only reason to write a business plan is to attract funding. In fact, a good plan leads to many benefits beyond income projections. Consider the following:
- Make your plan inspiring, yet restrictive, so you jump at the right opportunities only.
- Use your plan to convince others that you will be successful in meeting your obligations.
- As much as possible, make the objective of personally creating your sales environment part of your plan. The more your store reflects your personality, the happier you'll be in it and the happier your customers will be with you.
The last tip I learned from Luisa and Nicki is that it is important to use your space creatively. Make it a meeting place for friends, families, and neighbors. Encourage performing artists to stage small events. Every moment becomes the next minute of your life, so have all of them count. Don't designate weekends as the only time for fun!
Now that you have an insider's view of a successful New York business, I hope you find this information useful for your own endeavors, as well as a guide to identifying extra-special stores!
Stories Behind Popular Products
The following is a brief overview of some of Domus' product line, 80% of which originates with individual artists and small cooperatives specializing in various crafts:
Italian Wool Blankets: These quarter-inch-thick, rainbow-colored blankets come from a small family business in northern Italy. ($80 to $90)
Kenyan Knitted Pillows and Animals: Not only do members of this 500-member coop design knit pillows and animals, they utilize bicycle wheels to spin the wool yarn used in their creations, plus make their own yarn dyes from vegetation and other natural ingredients. ($25 to $85)
Mayan Weavings: This brightly colored tablecloth is but one example of many fabrics woven in the mountains of Mexico. Weavers strap one part of the loom to the waist, the other part to a pole. All work is done outside, as huts are used strictly for sleeping or shelter in bad weather. ($65 to $125)
Peruvian Knit Scarves, Gloves, and Hats: The cooperative that produces these color-drenched items employs men and women. As of 2005, the coop has earned enough money to enable their children to stay in school. This year, two young men from the community will be the first ever to go on to college. ($45 to $95)
Mayan Knitted Animals: The families in Chiapas, Mexico dress brightly in hand-stitched clothing. They use their sense of color and design to craft stuffed animals. These can decorate any room, no children required! ($25 to $85)
Manhattan Designed and Assembled Porcelain Tile Mirrors: The artist who makes these fabulous mirrors - no two alike - crafts her work from broken dishes, employing up to nine dishes per creation. ($95)
Not Pictured: American crafts from California to Maine. Mexican hand-painted dishes. French doormats. CDs of music composed and played by New Yorkers. Pottery. Vases. Lotions. Candles. Cashmere children's sweaters! Candy. Much, much more. ($15 - $650)
For great tips on all aspects of merchandising, attend classes at The Learning Annex as well as at FIT - Fashion Institute of Technology, which is part of the State University of New York in NYC.
413 West 44th Street
by 9th Avenue
New York, NY 10036
212 581 8099
Luisa Cerutti, top photo, and Nicki Lindheimer, third photo.
Also near Domus are other shops,
great (reasonably priced) restaurants,
and, of course, the Theater District.
Questions or comments?
Article and photos by Karen Little. First published on 12/2/2004. Edited by Iris Schwartz. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.