I’ve been thinking about my mum recently. I think about her a lot, but these past weeks she has been on my mind more than usual. She died thirteen years ago at the youthful age of sixty. You kids out there might scoff and say that this isn’t “young”, but she was young inside, and that’s what counts.
I learned a lot from my mum, but not intentionally, and certainly not in the academic sense. She left school when she was fourteen and started working in a fashion boutique (do they still call them that?), a job that would become her vocation for her entire adult life. I remember doing homework in the evening and have her stop on her way between household chores to comment: “Let me know if you need any help with that” before she walked away, chuckling at her little joke. She never once helped me with my studies but, by the time I hit high school, that didn’t really matter anyway. Anything beyond simple arithmetic (she was a wiz at tallying long columns of numbers) was beyond her. What she lacked in academics, however, she made up for in her knowledge of how to run a small business.
She started and built up four fashion shops (sorry, boutiques) over the years, and some basic principles helped her stay afloat when bigger and flashier shops around her were going under.
1 – Don’t compete with the big, discount stores.
If there was a big chain store up the road selling jeans at rock bottom prices, she would not sell jeans. Those big stores could undercut her every time with their bulk buying power, so she made sure she sold items not available anywhere nearby.
2 – Find your market and cater to it.
My mum discovered that she was the most successful when she sold to a particular age group. The shops opening (and closing) all around her tended to be aimed at the trendy young crowd. This was the biggest market but everyone was targeting it. Instead, my mum aimed for the more mature lady. A smaller market, for sure, but she was the only one in the area catering to it.
3 – Always have plenty of stock.
There’s something off-putting about walking past a shop and seeing empty or half-empty shelves. Consumers want choice and they want plenty of it. My mum always made sure her shelves were full and her rails fully stocked, even if it meant some rather creative placement.
4 – Keep busy.
As off-putting as half-empty shelves, is a shop that looks dead. People associate activity with success, and will be drawn to it. Even–no especially–when the shop was empty, my mum would walk around the shelves and rails, tidying and straightening the clothes. She had this theory that the sound of hangars sliding across rails was a siren song to any passing woman, and so she would spend any quite moments walking around the rails, sliding the hangars.
5 – Don’t stare at passers-by
This is linked with the “keep busy” rule. Have you ever walked past a shop and seen someone glaring at you from behind the window? Nothing puts me off walking into a shop more that having the owner or assistant stare at me as I walk by. When I’m shopping for something, I like the sales assistant to be accessible but not intrusive.
6 – If your business is struggling, don’t take it out on the customer.
When someone walks into a shop they don’t want to feel personally responsible for the success or failure of that business. No matter how bad things get, never let the customer feel anything other than completely welcome. Your success or failure is not their responsibility.
7 – Sell what you would buy yourself
If you’re selling something that you yourself would like to own, you’ll be passionate about it, and that will come through to the customer. My mum always stocked her shop with clothes that she liked to wear herself.
8 – Repeat business is vital
Possibly the single most important thing I gleaned from watching my mum run her shop was that a happy customer will always come back. She had women who refused to buy from anyone else, traveling out of their way because my mum always made them feel special.
Some of these rules are fairly obvious but others less so. At the heart of it all is the idea that you have to win your customers and keep them by making their shopping experience as pleasant as possible. Perhaps we can apply some of these principles to our work as writers. It’s tempting to throw in the towel when we don’t see the success we had initially hoped for, but if my mum taught me anything, it’s resilience. Plenty of people turned up their noses at her little “boutique”, but she was still there serving her loyal repeat customers when the bargain hunters had moved on to the next trend.
Thanks for what you taught me, Mum. I don’t expect to be a huge literary success, but I do hope to win a loyal group of readers who will stick with me through thick and thin. I reckon that’s success enough.