I’ve been intimidated to write this post. I had every intention of having this finished by Monday, but nerves kept stopping me. Every time I tried, I conveniently found eighty other things that all of a sudden had to be done immediately. But I really wanted address the question of why I don’t want to open another brick and mortar with brutal honesty, in a hold-no-punches way to show my own weighing of perks and headaches that I considered when coming to my final decision.
The immediate question everyone asked me at dinner parties when I first started my online shop was whether I eventually wanted a physical store (they usually phrased it as “an actual store”🙈). It definitely seemed like a brick-and-mortar was the touchstone of “making it,” the step that would make what I do much more legitimate to others. But honestly, in those first couple of years, that wasn’t my goal or even a desire. I knew I found my energy in alone time and felt like I created my best and most productive work when no one was looking over my shoulder. An online shop really catered to my personality in that way. My ultimate goal was a beautiful studio space where I could come and be creative and have the space to hold inventory, style photos, package sales, etc. That was my dream!
And I ended up getting that dream! I built enough steam with my little e-shop to start doing that full-time about a year and a half in, and found a gorgeous (albeit stiflingly hot in the summer and brutally cold in the winter) studio space in Philadelphia. And LOVED it. Not too long after, though, an opportunity fell in my lap to take over a commercial lease in the city, and I took it. Partly because the commute to my studio wasn’t great, the area I was working in wasn’t particularly safe (but hey, rent was cheap!), and I was getting a lot of requests for people to be able to come shop and try things on in person. If I’m honest though, it was mostly my gut saying “go for it!” that really pushed me, and I’m really, really glad I did.
That Philadelphia storefront has become my greatest adventure to date. It reached its three year anniversary and earned a Best of Philadelphia accolade right before closing this past May to move here to Boston. It turns out I loved a lot of things about having that storefront, and I made a lot of good creative decisions I wouldn’t have made had I just stuck to my little online world. However, that experience—like anything in life—had its advantages and disadvantages.
While I was aware of pros and cons every day, time away from the storefront has provided a lot more clarity on what was wonderful and what was not-so-wonderful about running a storefront for me. So let’s talk about what these pros and cons to having a physical shop were and why I’ve decided against opening a new one.
My store was only 350 square feet, so I heard every comment, compliment, and not so complimentary thing that people said out loud without actively eavesdropping. And often times, people were very forthcoming about what they liked and what they wanted more of. You can pay A LOT of money with surveys and analytics trying to get this peek into what shoppers want—and here I was getting that valuable information for free! It was also easy to see what wasn’t working by taking note of what merchandise was getting overlooked because it wasn’t being highlighted or staged properly, was simply ignored because customers weren’t interested, or if an item had something off when it was tried on or handled. That feedback was so insanely valuable in articulating things I needed to improve or to change my strategy on and made me a much better shop owner and businesswoman as a result.
All of a sudden, Millay wasn’t limited to the frame of a photograph: I could fully develop and style the entire experience I wanted a customer to have from the moment they stepped in my door to the second they left. I could dictate the design and layout of the space, how products were merchandised, the mood of the fitting room, the lighting, the scented candle burning, and the music playing in the background, and a hundred other little tiny details. This was probably my absolute favorite element of the having the storefront!
A lot of these people probably never would have found me online, and that alone did a lot to expand my audience. It also gave me some more insight about how to reach new types of people, like understanding some age groups are much more active on Facebook or prefer email blasts over the channels I was previously spending all my time on.
That day-to-day interaction was huge: relationship building is one of those wonderful treasures about having a small business. This is something I’ve always appreciated about my online following: that real sense of like-mindedness, support, and genuine community. And that feeling is amplified when you work with in-person customers, who then bring their friends and family back with them, and come to trust you as their go to source for beautiful things and thoughtful gifts. This helped not only expand that sense of earnest community, but also increased word-of-mouth recommendations to my store: they built a Yelp, Google Reviews, and Facebook Reviews foothold for me, which only strengthens SEO traffic to your online presence as well as bringing more people into your store to check out what you’re all about! This happens in much quicker and bigger ways than solely online, in my experience, especially if you are someone like me who doesn’t ask for or incentivize people to leave reviews and leave it to happen organically.
Everyone who works for themselves knows how lonely that can get, even for introverts. Its a lot of “you” time. The storefront was wonderful in bringing in amazing people that really became my regulars, who clicked with me and my vibe, and many people popped in just to say hello! It was like having built-in coffee breaks with a variety of sweet faces.
When you run a physical business in a community, you quickly learn the importance of knowing your surrounding peers–whether that means stores in your immediate area, or those within your city and region at-large who are doing things you admire and respect or that overlap with you. Bringing in modern designers also gave me a really amazing opportunity to get to know artists, designers, and makers I was already a huge fan of, which I’ll forever be grateful for!
Even though its become much more commonplace now (which is great!), when I first entered the vintage selling community I realized a big gap in the market that I hoped to help fill: vintage in a modern context. I saw a lot of amazing shops and sellers who focused on vintage in a more historical or costume context, and that was never my personal style. I turned to vintage for sustainable reasons and for attainable and resourceful ways to accomplish modern and contemporary styles I really liked and wanted to try. I loved the creative element of taking superior materials and intricate details and making them seem relevant and timeless. So it became a really natural extension to start adding modern offerings since mixing modern and vintage was how I used vintage and antique goods myself. And I’ve LOVED diving into the world of modern designers, way more than I could have ever anticipated! (And this has played a large part in this pivot I’m making now.)
With just 350 square feet, I had to be all the more selective about everything I brought in, and it helped me create tighter and tighter restrictions on what I was willing to give floor space to. Ultimately I became super adamant that everything be ethically made, that I carry no synthetics (so only natural fibers and ingredients), and that all apothecary not only be natural but cruelty free. Further, everything had to fit the ethereal, romantic, classic, and timeless aesthetic vision I had in my mind.
While I did eventually hire some wonderful girls to help me out at the storefront, for the most part it was just little ole me (with General Gazpacho at my side) behind the counter. That meant that people who came in saw the immediate connection between what they were seeing online (which was often me modeling wares) and what was in front of them at the brick and mortar. And that was amazing, because it went from being this business to something much more personal and communal – they were actually getting to know a person and her passion, not just a transactional business.
The threshold of KNOWING every element of how your products are made, what they are made of, where they from, etc. is so much higher for a small business owner. These aren’t questions the average shopper is asking their Anthropologie or J.Crew sales associate, and it gives you a huge opportunity to share just why you’ve picked that special item for your store! But you gotta know your stuff forwards and back to constantly do this on the spot.
Furthermore, my price points were often higher than what people were used to. This provided another great opportunity to talk about what made that item more expensive than normal, so equipping myself with digestable information on cost-per-wear / cost-per-use, handmade craftsmanship, materials, etc. that I could share became ever more important – and ultimately spurred a whole new passion of mine!
I sold SO MANY MORE products and did so much faster than when I solely functioned online. I often found that a good weekend day at the store equaled a good week of online sales. It also meant a lot less work in many ways: these were items I wasn’t having to photograph at multiple angles with detailed copy and measurements, then had to package up and ship once sold. Simply put, even though I did well online, my bread and butter became storefront sales.
Just like in school and office jobs, there are a variety of personalities coming together on any give Main Street, and that can mean that there are bullies, copycats, and strong personalities among those. While I did my best to put my head down and focus on my own store and customers, opening a storefront means you join a community and you inevitably get looped into neighborhood news, events, and decision making. While that makes complete logical sense, this element wasn’t something I thought about before owning a store and somewhat took me by surprise, and as someone with a lot of general and social anxiety (I’m a BIG people-pleaser), these moments and personalities were really hard for me to not get bulldozed by, which ultimately meant forfeiting a lot of my time, energy, and stress on things that ultimately didn’t serve my business (let alone my general happiness).
With an online business, if emails come in past certain hours, I can put it off until the next day. If messages come in requesting really involved responses that aren’t a priority to answer, I can decide to skip over them altogether. However, those aren’t things you can do at a storefront, and ultimately I found my own constant presence at the store as a resource for customers to be a double-edged sword. I was constantly caught in conversations with people asking me interview-type questions like “how did you build your website?”, “how did you get your Instagram following?”, “where do you find all your stuff? / what thrift stores do you go to? what flea markets?”, “how did you get started in this business?”, etc.
While those all seem like fair questions, the many follow-up questions that followed these were either questions that could easily be Googled or were questions that people charge business, ecommerce, and social media consultation fees for. Regardless, they took up a lot of real estate in my overall day-to-day time breakdown, and I felt like were a direct result of people feeling like they might know me from online and could come in and ask a ton of personal questions or questions with complex answers, when really they were strangers to me and weren’t my intended function at the store.
No matter how I type this, I feel like I’m sounding mean and unappreciative, so please know that isn’t my intention! I just felt like it was a specific demand on my time and resources that I didn’t anticipate having to dedicate a significant portion of my time on, and struggled to politely find a way to eliminate the time and energy they took up.
I also made the terrible mistake of making my personal cell phone the business phone number because getting a landline installed was complicated in my historic building, and because I thought “how many people really call a store anymore?” Let me tell you, a lot. A lot of people call. A lot of people text. At all hours. Such a dumb mistake I made, so I definitely do not recommend that!
Remember when I said I was selling way more? Well that didn’t quite translate into taking all that much more home as a personal paycheck. Not only do your overhead costs significantly rise with a physical storefront—like commercial rent, taxes, commercial property and liability insurance, utilities, business internet (which is different and more expensive than residential internet), community fees, building security and cameras, etc.—but your spending on inventory significantly increases.
To constantly restock what you are selling, you have to immediately re-invest your money in new orders. And with modern pieces, you are often on a long lead time with very high minimums that you have to meet (minimums both in how much you spend and how many of their collection you carry as well as quantities of each item). And with vintage, I was having to spend way more of my own time hand washing, steaming, and ironing things out, not to mention dry cleaning and paying professionals for more complicated repairs.
Further, I was constantly reinvesting in improvements to my shop space. I didn’t take out any business loans to open my space, which meant I wasn’t paying off loans, but I was constantly upgrading fittings and build-outs. I also started to hire employees. So while my gross income skyrocketed, my actual take-home was rather anti-climatic.
Constant feedback from a business perspective is fantastic, like I’ve already discussed. From a creative standpoint though, it really sucks. Out of all the positive compliments, what replays in your head over and over again is the negative comment. Negative feedback stings because it is personal—I wasn’t running a Ralph Lauren, I was running Millay, my own baby that I built all on my own. Beyond the vanity of it stinging, though, I also think it hampered my creativity over time. It was easy to get caught up in constantly giving the customer what they want and sometimes letting go of the things I wanted to do or bring in out of fear of them not being well-accepted, or out of the practicality that once I brought more of what people said they wanted, the less money I had to spend on the directions I personally wanted to take the shop in as a creative.
Sure I was open from 10 to 6 ish (or 7 on weekends) six days a week, but my work extended way beyond those hours. Early morning and late hours were spent at home and on the road sourcing items, cleaning them up, prepping them to be taken to the store and photographed / set out on the store floor. Emails that I couldn’t get to during store hours had to be addressed. And that seventh day was not a day off, but rather one of my most involved work days: they were the day I set aside to photograph new inventory for the webshop. Photography days meant dismantling part of the storefront to create room to shoot, then having to reset it for opening on Tuesday. I also tried to redress the windows and change things merchandising-wise on a weekly basis in the store, which also happened before and after hours. Meanwhile, people are knocking on the window and door wanting to come in. It was a lot to coordinate.
While the average person can probably hire and delegate a lot of these tasks out, I am an obnoxious control freak. And a perfectionist. So even when I did hire help, I had a hard time handing out tasks that I thought I could do better. (Sales is not one of those things, and my main girl Ashley at the storefront was so so good at customer interaction and sales that I’ll forever love and be grateful for her and wish she had come into my life sooner!)
Of course, you are never fully safe anywhere (whoa, that sounds way more scary and alarmist than I mean it), but being at the storefront did make me way more aware of my own safety. I essentially sat alone in a glass box everyday next to a cash register. I wouldn’t say this was a constant concern by any means, but on my shop’s street alone within the three years I was there, one salon was broken into and vandalized, another boutique owner was held up at gun point, and another had their cash register raided in the middle of the night.
I personally had really uncomfortable experiences with aggressive men on two separate occasions. I also had a couple customers start harassing me about my race, and then took to leaving a ton of negative reviews of my store online and sent me some hateful and derogatory messages on Facebook.
Like I said, I didn’t feel unsafe on a day-to-day basis by any means whatsoever, for the most part I felt very comfortable, especially with my killer chihuahua by my side (haha), but each of those scenarios above was unique to being at the storefront rather than functioning at a studio or at home.
Weighing all those things, I realized how drained I was from running the storefront. How much I was in a desperate need to re-charge myself and look at the bigger picture of what I wanted. How was I hoping to scale up? Where did I see myself in a few years? And was I willing to take a few steps backward to start over and do a whole new “year one” in a new city? (Year one is the hardest, by the way – that old adage is most definitely true.)
My own interests have matured and evolved. And I’ve been able to see that many of the elements I really loved most about running the shop could easily be done or replicated in new ways via Millay Studio, Millay Market, and this blog—so here I am! I am not against having a storefront in the future, but I don’t see that as something I’ll pursue in the next few years. In the future, I’d approach it really differently–and that prospect really brings me comfort and excites me–but for now I feel confident that a brick and mortar isn’t the right direction for Millay.
And full disclosure, I got an awesome job here, which honestly changed the game. I’ve decided to not really share the specifics of that job here, but rest assured, it is with a company that highly prioritizes sustainability and ethical production in the world of interiors, and I’m excited to join their team. And its a job that still allows me the flexibility and time to do what I want with Millay Studio, so I’m feeling really blessed!
Alright friends, that was a long post. (I think long posts are just my style, so we might just have to learn to deal with this 😉) But I hope ithelps not only give a little background on my own decision process for creating Millay Studio, and also to give a little glimpse into what I found to be the nitty gritty bits of owning a storefront.