My parents, God bless them, had the foresight to buy property in the early 1970s in what has become the exclusive beach resort town of Avalon, NJ. One of my friends “down the shore” owns the adorable designer shoe and accessories shop Boutique Bellissima. Because it’s a seasonal town, operating a successful and profitable business poses its own set of unique challenges. Here’s the story of how Danielle O’Hara got into the shoe business, what she’s done to reach clients and build her business, and what advice she’d give to burgeoning business owners.
I was working as a realtor in Spring of 2006 when I found out that the local shoe store was for sale! I was so super excited as I was a Fashion Merchandising Major in college at FIT in New York and the real estate thing wasn’t going quite as planned. Owning a boutique was my dream. I didn’t expect an opportunity like this to come up so soon after graduating college and moving to Avalon. I thought it was now or never so I jumped on it. I made the decision to buy the store in early summer and worked at the shoe store all summer long. To complicate things just a little, I found out I was pregnant two days after making settlement on Bellissima. The store was all mine in September.
Being my own boss has been both a blessing and a challenge for me. Although I love the freedom that comes with owning my own business, I find it hard to manage my time and balance responsibilities. It took some time for me to give up control and delegate tasks.
Reaching—and Keeping—Seasonal Clients
The previous owner of Bellissima spent a lot of money on print advertising. When I first bought the business I continued advertising in local Avalon publications as well as publications that targeted the greater Philadelphia and South Jersey area. I found this to be extremely expensive and not very effective. My situation is unique in that I am a seasonal store in a resort town. I was trying to turn my store into a year round business by advertising to areas north of Avalon where there are more “year round” people. Getting local support has been a challenge to say the least.
I am now more focused on advertising to my summer clientele. I still use print advertising but stick to it only in summer months when my customer is already here to see it. I have a website and also use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to promote the store. Facebook has proven to be very effective. I post pictures of all new merchandise that comes in the store weekly. I sell a lot this way but I also get my customer excited to get to Avalon to come shopping at the store.
Honestly, the only thing (and it’s a major thing) that I would have done differently is that instead of buying an existing store I would have started from scratch and opened my own store. I would have been able to create my own image from the beginning rather then keeping up with an image already in place. I would have also researched the shoe business a little bit more before I decided to buy the store. This business is extremely challenging because of the exorbitant inventory costs.
Diversify to Grow
My immediate goal is to diversify my product offering to appeal to a broader customer base. I am bringing in some smaller ticket items such as jewelry, small leather goods, candles, bath and body, and children’s shoes and clothing. I think this will increase sales tremendously this summer as well as bring different people into the store. I am hoping this will drive shoe sales also.
Ultimately, I would like to open a second location in a populated more year round area. I would like to be known as an accessory boutique rather then just a shoe store. I would also like to expand on my baby and children’s merchandise. A little less shoes and a little more of everything else so there is something for everyone at every price point.
Hiring and Customer Service Are Key to Success
My advice to a small business owner would be to hire people to do all of the mundane tasks so you can focus on what is really important in your business. I have learned to hire people to do the smaller tasks so I can focus on buying the merchandise. This is what I am good at and this is what will drive my business. I cannot be consumed by all of the daily tasks that add up or I will lose focus on my main objective. You have to pick one aspect of the business that you are strongest at and keep your focus there.
Another piece of advice is to keep building great relationships with your customers. I have so many customers that are now friends. Building a business is all about building relationships. Providing exceptional customer service is something I take great pride in.
As told to Monika Jansen.Google+