How a Store Is Like a Baby

I’m sure you’ve never thought about it before, but having a small, family-run, retail store is like having a baby. I mean why would you have thought about it, but dear Lord it is. I’ve thought this the whole time I was planning, opening, and running our store. And expanding into a 2nd floor space proved once again that the analogy holds true. The 2nd floor is very much like a 2nd child.

When a store is created it starts with a seed of an idea being planted. The “aha!” moment when an idea comes together and the realization begins to set in that it’s actually happening is both scary and exciting.

Then the next many, many months are spent growing the idea and planning for the future. Decorating decisions must be made; Pinterest will be visited. What colors should be used? What furniture and supplies do we need? Can we afford all of this?! The store also needs a name – nothing that will offend or people could make fun of. Should classes be taken to learn new skills and gain new insights? And in our case, we also needed to pick out all the best toys that will help grow young minds. Sleep is lost, and the tiredness of growing a store could never possibly be worse than it is at that point. These months are full of big decisions and lots of dreaming and planning.

Then the store opens! It’s so exciting! Maybe the entry into the world was difficult and forced; scheduled so to speak. It was now or never. But it doesn’t matter because it all worked out and it’s here! People come to visit and check it out. Everyone is so congratulatory. They love the space – it is so beautiful and the name is great. As creators, you did so well. Happiness is everywhere but exhaustion is seriously starting to set in. As has panic. “Can we really do this? Do we know what the heck we are doing? What if this happens? What if that happens.” The first month is just about surviving and getting through it.

Time moves on and the store becomes a more established entity. Each month brings new challenges, but a renewed sense of hope for the future. Life is starting to settle into a new routine. And sleep has even started to return. You know what you are doing. You got this.

And after a while the question comes – will you open another? Oh, boy. Another. Isn’t one good enough? I mean, look how well it’s doing all on its own! And it doesn’t quite feel right. I mean, why force it? When the time is right it will just happen.

And suddenly life shifts and the time is right. It happens. A second space. In our case, a second floor. All the same things have to be done again, but the decisions are easier to make and seem less rushed and more confident. The dreaming and planning start all over again. It takes the same amount of time to get ready, but less attention is paid to only it (the first still demands a lot of attention), so time moves quicker.

After that second space opens there is once again congratulations and excitement, and exhaustion and long hours. Less muddling than the first time, but muddling nevertheless. Things are new but at the same time familiar. And though the first month is a bit rough, there is confidence that the difficulties won’t last forever.

We aren’t all that far past the first month of our second floor, so this is where my analogy ends. But if it keeps holding true we will find our new normal very soon and sleep will begin to return. And I’m sure, eventually, someone will ask about a third.

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What I’ve Learned

Memorial Day is past, summer has unofficially begun, and schools are in the process of letting out for the summer. Kids have had to go through finals and regurgitate everything they learned during the past year, so it seems fitting that I too should review some of what I’ve learned as a shop owner, new business lady, and entrepreneur over the course of the last few years.

  1. I’m an entrepreneur.

That’s a weird statement to me, but I guess it’s right. I still feel like I’m a little blind to all that’s around me from a business sense, and that there’s still so much to learn. How can I be an entrepreneur?! But I once heard a speaker at a conference say that an entrepreneur is someone who looks for business opportunities wherever he or she goes. And I can’t shop, or look at marketing materials, or drive around without thinking how can I use this in my store, what do I like about their marketing and how can I incorporate that into my stuff, and would that empty storefront be a good location for a 2nd Naturally Curious Kids. So, I guess I’m an entrepreneur. And I’ve had to get used to it.

2. Credit cards are complicated.

Ok. So I kind of already knew this, but I had no idea the extent to which they could be complicated. I learned what a merchant account is. I’ve learned about payment processors and online payment gateways. And I had no idea that there were so many separate fees to a credit card swipe – a swipe fee, a batch fee, and a percentage of the total sale. I knew about the percentage of the total sale, but the others were all new to me. And did you know that some (if not most) credit card processors will charge a higher percentage to the retailer (or service provider) if the swiped card is a business card or has a rewards program attached to the card. I had no idea on that one.

Then there are all the different terminals to swipe the card on; and do you rent one of those or buy it. I’ve figured out how the credit card payments integrate with the inventory software and the accounting software. And then there is the whole issue of debit cards….

3. Ordering good stuff takes a ton of time.

As a small business owner it is imperative to me that we offer our customers quality items. It is especially important since right now we only have 700 sq. ft. to offer those items in, so we have to be really picky. I spend a lot of my time researching – looking online and through catalogs, talking to sales reps, and fielding calls and emails from companies. I try to know about as many companies as I can and I try to know as much as I can about those companies – what their reputations are, where they make their toys, what goes into the manufacturing process, where the company is headed in the future, what is their driving force, etc. This way even if I don’t get to see/play with a product in person before I buy it I can still be confident that it will be a good toy. It also means that I know what companies have what toys. So if I need to find, say, a shape sorter, I know what my options are and I can find what I think is the best shape sorter available.

Customers have used the word “curated” before, and I really like that word for what we do. It implies quality, thought, and intentionality and that is exactly what I strive for. But like I said, that takes a lot of time. It’s worth it though, because honestly it’s a total bummer when a toy isn’t a good toy.

4. There are about 6,000,000,000,000 (six trillion) different games in the world.

That might be a slight exaggeration, but it can’t be far off. I had no idea when we jumped into this that there were so many possible games we could carry in our store. I have stacks of catalogs just for game companies. And it seems even if a company isn’t a “game company” they still have games. So. Many. Games. And we can only pick games if we at least have a general sense of how to play them, what they might teach, and who can play them. That’s a lot of reading and understanding for each game.

Buying games is so hard. I find it the hardest section of the store to buy for. Don’t get me wrong, I love games! They are some of the most teachiest-without-being-teachy toys around. They are fun! But knowing that you will have to understand how every game you come across is played, and then the majority of them you can’t even fit into your store, is honestly overwhelming.

The quantity of possible games in the world is also why we probably don’t have the game you are looking for. But I’m always taking recommendations for good games. If you’ve played one you love let me know. It might take me awhile to get it in the store (because of space constraints more than anything), but it will make it. And I will appreciate it.

5. I can say no.

I don’t know about you, but for me this one was a big one to learn. I’m a people pleaser. Which I guess makes me fairly good at customer service. I hate seeing people disappointed. It’s the worst. But to run a good business I’ve had to learn to say no. And it’s never personal. Usually we are just stretched too thin with time, money, or space. We just can’t afford to donate to every cause that comes along. We can’t afford every advertising scheme. I need to at least occasionally see my husband and kids and make dinner, so I can’t come to that meeting. We don’t have room for that awesome new toy you just invented.

And the hardest situation I’ve learned to say no to – that toy didn’t meet my quality standards so although people liked buying it it will have to wait until the manufacturer has the same standards I have. Even if it means I lose some sales and money. Again, I hate disappointing people, so this was both easy and hard. I don’t like to see people disappointed that we no longer carry the item, but even more I hate to see a child come back disappointed with a toy that didn’t work. It makes my heart hurt when I see that. The store’s reputation is on the line every day, and I need to keep it one of quality and integrity.

6. I’ve made some good friends.

I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this to happen, but I really didn’t. We’ve met some wonderful people through the store, and I will cherish those connections always. There are customers, sales reps, delivery people, etc. that I truly enjoy seeing and talking to. People are genuinely interested in us and our business, and it is more encouraging than I can even describe. I guess I thought maybe all our connections would be transactional in nature, but they aren’t. And I think that’s the beauty of a small business. We know people and their lives; it’s not just a sale. I know when families are moving, expecting a new baby, or transitioning from a co-sleeping situation. I know when people are sick and in and out of the hospital. I’ve seen kids go from crawling to running through our store. I’ve met extended family members. I’ve seen kids start pre-school and move into 1st grade. I know when someone is struggling with reading or if they’ve had a recent special needs diagnosis. It’s amazing to watch people’s lives evolve. And it goes two ways – they know about my boys, my move, and I most definitely overshare things like my birth stories. And I know I’m biased, but you can’t get that from an online sale from a distant company. The customer service rep will probably never commiserate with you about an under active thyroid. Ha!

So, there you have it. Some things I’ve learned. I’m sure there are more than this, and I will probably submit this for posting and then think of about 15 more things I should have included. But if you made it this far you know that the blog is already more than long enough. And you’ve learned just how wordy I can be.