Why would a designer decide to open a brick-and-mortar design shop selling product, given the nonstop chatter of a retail apocalypse? Is an online operation less complicated, or does e-commerce just present a different set of challenges? AD PRO asked four designers who currently have, or have had, shops of the brick-and-mortar or online variety to weigh in on their experiences, so you can make an informed decision.
“I am tactile. And I also strongly feel that design is about discovery,” designer Sarah Hamlin Hastings, owner of Fritz Porter Design Collective in Charleston, South Carolina, explains about the benefit of a brick-and-mortar versus an online-only shop. “The internet is great if you know what you are looking for. But what about the sense of discovery when perusing a quirky little antique shop or running your hands over a sumptuous new mohair or finding a woodworker who makes beautifully designed pieces in his garage workshop? That is the curated shopping experience I wanted to create.”
After moving to Charleston in 2010 only to discover a lack of nearby design resources, Hastings decided to launch her own hybrid business—a curated retail store, a textile showroom, and an interior design business—which opened in 2015. And while she felt the personal and financial risk of opening a successful brick-and-mortar store was higher than an online-only business (as far as investing in inventory, overhead costs, and dealing with slim profit margins when working with independent artisan vendors), she found great gratification in seeking out interesting pieces and being able to tell artisans’ stories and promote their craft.
Similarly, interior designer Paloma Contreras, co-owner of Houston-based Paloma & Co., launched the brick-and-mortar concept store this year with business partner Devon Liedtke (the store also has a strong online component). The aim was to “showcase unique items that tell a story—whether they are antiques or found objects, original art from emerging American artists, or handmade pieces by artisans from around the globe.”
“It is really nice to be able to showcase our style and point of view without any type of filter,” Contreras says. “We don’t want to offer things that are available at a dozen stores in town or hundreds of stores online. For us, the most important thing has been finding things to offer our customers that are not only signature to our style, but also have an interesting story to tell.”
In the same vein as Hastings and Contreras, interior designer and author Kirsten Grove of Boise, Idaho–based We Three Design Studio and design blog Simply Grove, says, “When you’re a designer, you’re a natural curator. Having a shop of your own allows you to curate items that you really do believe in and find beautiful. It’s an easy partnership when done right and in the right market.”
However, for Grove the challenges of running her own design shop ultimately took their toll on her design business, and she folded it in 2018 after just one year in operation. “I had always wanted to own my own shop that sold furniture and home goods. It was one of those things that I had to get out of my system,” she admits. “But there were a few tricky aspects, one being that Boise is a really hard place to have a successful home retail shop. It was hard to gain regular customers who weren’t just looking for sale items.”
In general Grove sees pluses and minuses to both brick-and-mortar and online shops. “A brick-and-mortar space allows your clients and customers to see and feel things in person, while having an online shop gets rid of the unexpected overhead costs,” she explains. “But a huge drawback for an online shop is shipping costs and angry customers who have received something damaged or an incorrect order.” But she adds, “If you’re able to create a team that only focuses on your shop, it’s totally doable!”
Michelle Adams, the former Domino magazine editor who ran online shop The Maryn for two and a half years, during which time she hosted four pop-ups, found that it’s a misconception to believe that an e-commerce business doesn’t require as many overhead costs. Her expenses turned out to be too high to make her business viable.
“Opening a shop represented the ultimate creative outlet for me, as it required editing the market for the coolest products, creating a brand identity, and developing the lifestyle imagery to support it,” Adams says. However, the cost of running a design shop included expenses that one might not think of up front, including employing a full team to help with order fulfillment, the website, customer service, accounting, photography, and so on. Then there were also warehouse costs, high-interest business loan payments, press outreach, marketing fees, and insurance. Additionally, Adams curated her product selections from artisans around the globe to keep her assortment fresh and unique. “But importing comes with a lot of hidden costs that eat away profit margins,” she says. Another financial burden was her inability as a small business owner to compete with the free shipping offered by larger e-commerce sites.
Once the financial challenges became too great, Adams decided to close up shop. Based on what she learned, she advises, “Be realistic about what you’re comfortable spending, and absolutely stick to it. I made the mistake of thinking that investing a little more here and there would help my shop get over a hump, but in the end it only put me into debt.”
Likewise, Grove urges, “Before you do anything, run your numbers and be very honest with yourself. If you don’t create a cushion for the first three months, things can get tricky.” Yet, she adds, “An online shop can be time-sucking but worth the work. And a brick-and-mortar can become a beautiful extension of your brand.”