Turning an online shop into a real shop for a day
My business reached a milestone last week - I turned my online store into a real world shop for a day. I thought it would be a good thing to write a blog post about it. There are a few reasons for this: 1) I have really enjoyed reading these sorts of posts from other small business owners and I'm paying the favour forward, and 2) I'm writing it down as an aide memoire for the future shows when I've forgotten my learnings.
Back in early February I was approached by Sarah Richards, who runs Olive Road, looking for sustainable sewing companies. She was looking to get small businesses onboard for the first Sew Sustainable Fair that she was setting up. It didn't take me long to say yes - I ummed and ahhed for at least a couple of minutes before deciding to jump in and do it. I signed up, paid the pitch money and then promptly forgot about it for another month.
As a business I had been trading online for about 18 months at this point but had never done anything in the 'real' world - this was definitely going to be a steep learning curve.
So here's a bit about me... I've had a lot of different jobs over the years. I have worked shop floor in retail whilst a student, and also had a 10-year career in advertising, including retail clients. So I'm not totally new to the in-person retail game BUT I've never worked in a fabric shop and I haven't worked in a shop for nearly 25 years. I'm rusty!
The way I approached it was to think about the customers' journey from first glance right through to walking away after paying. And once I had that clear in my mind I thought about things that I, as a shop owner, would need to do to deliver on that. So for example, my stall would need some way of displaying the fabrics in the best possible way. Then I needed a place for rolling out the fabric so the customer can see the fabric better, cutting it out and folding, putting it in a bag, taking payment and then making sure they knew where they had bought it. The only thing provided would be a table.
Just to give you an idea, here's a list of the sorts of things that you need to consider in a real world shop which you don't need on an online store:
- display stands for fabric
- display stands for haberdashery
- price tags
- company logo
- cutting station logistics
- taking card / cash payments
- shop literature / flyers
- public liability & other insurances
My main driver was to do it as cheaply as possible. I didn't want (and couldn't afford) to invest lots of money in the hardware, just in case it was a disaster. Or I decide pop-ups are not for me. My second criteria was that this is a sustainable sewing fair so I need to reuse, upcycle as much as possible and make environmentally better choices. (But quite honestly I would have done that if it was a sustainable fair or not.)
The display stands were my first big decision. I wanted a system where I could display lots of fabric but it needed to be easily manoeuvrable by one person (me). It couldn't take up lots of room when it wasn't in use - as Bornella Fabrics is run from home, we don't have bags of space. Plus it also needed to fit in my car. In a search of the web I found a shelving unit for nik naks that I thought would work for fabric. I sketched out what I wanted and my brother James adapted it to be more stable. We already had some wood lying around at home (after over-ordering on our bathroom project), so we used the surplus and bought enough to finish the stands. James kindly made them for me and I stained them a walnut colour as we had a half-used tin of Ronseal lying around and I wanted to protect the wood.
A few hinges later and the total cost for 2 stands was £41.97.
Next up were the display stands for the haberdashery. Laura from Specky Seamstress had asked how I was going to display her labels - good point Laura! I hadn't thought about it. I called my Dad and asked if he had any ideas and he agreed he would try to make me something. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I went to visit my parents and make the stand. Dad has a lot of wood lying about - mostly rescued from skips, and car boot sales - so he had a piece of reclaimed panelling which we designed into a label display stand. Idly, I mentioned it was a shame he didn't have any more panels as we could have made a set of shelves... Dad disappeared off for 10 minutes and came back with 3 more bits of panelling! So he kindly made some desk shelves for me. Thanks Dad!!
Total cost for the haberdashery stands = £0
Louise who runs Ethel and Joan generously offered to lend me her spare card reader so I could take payments on the day. That way I didn't have the expense of buying one - I could try before I buy. Thanks Louise!!!
Total cost for the card reader = £0
My next dilemma was how to display prices. It's well known that not having clear pricing puts people off - they don't want the embarrassment of asking how much something is. But I was stumped on how to put the prices on the fabric in a sustainable way - I didn't want anything plastic or naff. And as every fabric is slightly different I had to price things individually. A visit to the Stitch Festival in March was a source of inspiration and sometimes the simplest ideas were the best. A cardboard tag attached to the fabric with twine and mini-safety pins. Reusable and easy! I also sourced some brown paper bags made from recycled materials and stamped my logo on them so people could take their purchases home. But being a sustainable event, lots of people had brought a bag with them so there wasn't much demand for bags. I've got loads left.
Total cost for pricing and packaging = £28.57
With 6 days before the event, I thought I was in reasonably good shape. And then I realised I didn't have anything large with my logo on it. Branding fail. What an idiot! I was not impressed with myself as it was too late to get anything printed. But necessity is the mother of invention so I pulled my socks up and got creative. We've had a piece of Perspex in our garden for at least 10 years and no idea where it came from. Probably a skip. So I cleaned it off and created a logo. I made a template by tracing the logo off my laptop onto Fabulosew tracing paper. A quick trip to Hobbycraft for paint and card supplies, then I hand-painted the lettering with enamel paint and cut out some coloured card and mounted it on the back of the Perspex with cellotape. Honestly it came out WAY better than I'd expected.
Total cost for the sign = £8.40
I had a few miscellaneous costs like insurances for 12 months and the cost of the pitch. Which came to £110.40.
Total cost to Bornella Fabrics to put on the fair £189.34
So far so good. The day went really well. I had an absolutely brilliant time meeting lots of sewists, chatting fabric and haberdashery with them, planning their projects, discussing sustainability and generally having a good chinwag. I was chuffed to bits that some people knew of my business and came to introduce themselves. It was also brilliant to meet more local sewists and many people had come from South-East London, which is where I live.
I'm delighted to report that I made my money back on the fair, making enough to cover the cost of putting on the fair plus the cost of the stock. Everything left after that was profit. Hurray! Business win!!
Learnings for the future:
- There were a few times when people wanted to hold the fabric up near their face to see if it worked with their colouring. Not an issue you come across in an online shop! Next time I'll bring a mirror.
- The tables were supplied by the venue. They were trestle legs and the top rested loosely on top and was not attached. Within the first 15 minutes of the day, I'd managed to lean on the table top and send the top and its contents flying... twice. The first time I got away with it but the second time my label stand broke and wasn't able to stand it upright. It is fixable but acts as a reminder that I need everything to be as robust as possible.
- It was a fixed cost for the pitch at this fair and Sarah allowed me to spread my stands out a bit so I took up more room than some others. Not a problem at the Sew Sustainable Fair but some shows are charged based on square meterage. So maximising floor space to be as efficient as possible would be a next step. Can I use the dead area underneath the table to better advantage? Can I put more on the table but not get in the way of cutting fabric? Things to think about for next time.
- Always wear something with pockets. I wore my Nina Lee carmel jumpsuit which has VERY roomy pockets and it worked really well for storing odds and sods that tend to go walkabout... phone, card reader, etc. However there were a few occasions when I glanced over at the table to see my phone plonked in the middle of it. Much as I am a trusting person, it's not a good habit to get into. If my phone is lost or stolen I have no way of taking payment (plus the general nightmare of losing your phone), so I need to get into the habit of putting it straight back in my pocket.
- I brought a full packed lunch with me and Thermos flask of tea as I figured I was manning the stall on my own and I wouldn't get much chance to nip off. That Thermos of tea was a godsend. I will definitely continue to do that in future. BUT I underestimated how silent it would be during the @checkyourthread talk. The way the venue was organised my stand was near the talk and the microphone equipment. I know it's a sewing show but you would have definitely heard a pin drop! So I couldn't unwrap my sandwich which was covered in tin foil. Luckily Jackie from Seasons of East had given me an amazing homemade flapjack not long before so I wasn't starving. But I'll definitely have to think out my lunch strategy if there is a half-time event going on. In the end I wolfed down lunch during the Q&A as it wasn't quite as quiet so I was ready for customers after the talk.
(No lunching during this talk!)
The cost of entry for the next fair will be much cheaper as I won't need to buy insurances or make any display hardware. So all I'll need to allow for is:
- cost of the card machine (approx £40)
- cost of the pitch
If you've read this far... well done! I hope it's been useful / interesting / insightful. I'd love to hear your feedback, thoughts or advice - feel free to email me at: