Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Considering a Brick and Mortar Pagan Store? Here's the Info you Need to Succeed!

You don't have to re-invent the wheel to start your own pagan store! Pagan merchanting is like most other kinds, but with some very specific products and customers. You can indeed make your living by helping other pagans on their path, but avoid some of the major mistakes that fledgling storeowners make by knowing some of the perils and planning ahead.

A Splash Overview - The Good News and the Bad News: Women have a much higher rate of success in small business than men. Some of the reasons why is that we are trained to think in more multi-dimensional terms, we more realistically assess risk, and take fewer long shots. When we are successful, though, we don't make nearly much money as men's do. And when women's businesses fail, the reasons are very different from why men's fail.

Men's fail, according to stats, by not having enough capital, expanding too early or drawing themselves out too thinly. Not anticipating rent overheads. Things like that. Since women work more on a ratio system, rather than absolute numbers, we almost never have a problem calculating those accurately. Our businesses fail for reasons like trusting a partner or supplier who rips us off and leaves with most of the capital or sticks us with huge bills. Or by health issues, since we are usually the ones to take care of family members. If you understand and prepare for the frailties your style or training may have, and keep a lookout for the appropriate hazards, your business can weather them when they happen.

And they will happen.

You shouldn't expect to make money quickly, and that's good. You should expect to see cash come in quickly, and a lot of it, but it should only go to overhead and more stock for at least the first few months. If you do it correctly, you shouldn't need very much money to start off with, it should need no infusion of cash later, just a small slush fund, and it should start to show a profit and pay for itself in less than six months. If anyone has to get a job to support it, you're not doing it right. It should BE your job.

And now, on to the more common perils of pagan specialty shops in particular...

I know you envisioned them but classes, though always tempting for new pagan store owners, are ONLY a good idea if you have a big space. Big enough to have a bunch of people in to sit down, have coffee, and hang out for an hour. A store crammed with product, and for a new store that's the ideal, means that classes are out until you can manage the room. I would only recommend them after you're established enough for people to trust that you know what the heck you're talking about. And that's a rep issue. You'll only get one shot to impress the locals. If you blow it, your classes will flounder and you'll need a breathing space of about a year before you try them again. Pagans have very long memories. We've had to. Leave all kinds of classes for later, unless, as I say, you really need space filler.

In determining products, it depends on how big your store is, and how much capital you want to toss in. Raw herbs, of medicinal quality, are always excellent. They are very affordable for both you and your customers, take up oodles of space to fill up your store, they prove you care about quality, they are used up quickly, and they're hard to find, so it really encourages customer loyalty. They cross so many markets, from medieval reCreationists to healers to chefs! Get organic if you can. You may have to import, and you may need a license for food quality to repackage them in your store. Check your local bylaws. If you need one, and can't or don't want to get it, there are ways around it. You'll pay a bit more for them, but get someone else who is already licensed to package them for you. Most of the herbs will still be under $5 for 50 grams retail, and many much less. 50 grams is a lot for most herb uses, since they don't usually weigh much. Get medicinal and culinary herbs. That way you'll also have all the ones you need for the cookbook spells from Cunningham. Oops, did I say that?

Essential Oils are a very bad idea to start off with unless you really know how to sell them, and it's a mistake way too many stores make starting out. They require a huge amount of capital. People want a giant selection, and most of the exotics are extremely pricey. And no matter how many different kinds you get in, you will always get people who want you to order something in for them. And if you don't or can't get it, you just lose the customer if you don't have a solid enough relationship with them.

Oils have a limited shelf life, so not selling them is very costly. They hardly take up any room, so you will have a lot of cash in a very small space, which is fine, AFTER you're established. You need very knowledgeable staff to sell them to customers. And they take forever to use up for most people, so they hardly move at first at all. All in all, for a launch, they are one of the worst mistakes you can make. Unless you take all these factors into account.

Incense, however, is a great idea. They move very fast, they are cheap for you and your customers, they take up lots of room, you can get so many different varieties to tempt people to take some home, they are used up very quickly, and they cross all markets. The only thing you have to worry about is the prejudice from customers with allergies making disparaging comments about having incense around. They are reacting to the bad experiences from the poor chemical incense that abounds in most places. I suggest hypoallergenic incense that is just dipped in oils, which is safe for customers with ECS, but even then most folks won't open their minds enough to believe that it doesn't affect them. So be prepared for some grief on the subject. You will be tempted to put them at the back of store. But don't. They sell entirely by scent, so they go at the front, for when customers first come in and just before they leave as an impulse buy.

Candles are halfway between incense and oils. Unless you get high quality beeswax in colours, customers can easily fulfill their magical candle needs in many other places, so most pagan store owners make the plunge into aromatherapy candles. They are as smelly but more expensive than incense, take up almost as much room, almost as hard to sell as oils, and most people don't actually burn the things fast enough to come back and get more. Unless you really know your candles and scents, it's best to avoid these at first.

Jewelry sells itself. You can put it in a vending machine and it will sell. Get as much as you reasonably can, for every type of customer, from wizards to eco-freaks. Jewelry is your biggest asset. Nearly everyone who enters your store will at some point come back for jewelry, but you will only sell a few pieces a year to any one person even if you're lucky. So don't overload on it, but don't ever neglect it. It will pay your rent. Middle quality and price is your best bet, and they go under glass, but right under the customers' noses. Let them drool and covet. They probably won't buy the first time they see it, but they will after they've had time to mull.

Always bank on the women! Women control 85% of household income, so plan for them and make your store women friendly! They are the ones who are searching for enlightenment in a non-establishment, self-directed environment, and they also buy food and treats for their families far quicker than they will indulge their own whims. Decorate accordingly, and seriously consider a children's area and aisles wide enough for pushies and mobility aides. A small children's area means that many women will be able to peruse your books and products for far longer than if their children, grandchildren, or charges get bored. Put up a sign for legal purposes, a few toys and books, and women will bless you for it, even if it takes up a tiny bit of space. It's an Accessibility issue. Same with your counter.

Nothing says intolerance to me than a counter that is 4 or 5 feet high. Get one that is wheelchair and child height to the side of the main counter. And always remember those Accessibility ramps! Where you do not include, you exclude, and those ramps work for strollers as well as other mobility issues. And why would you exclude patronage?

Always consider bus routes and other access in your business plan. It will give you a very good idea of who will be coming in. For example, will you be realistically getting much walk by traffic, or will you have to get your customers to come down specifically to your store? If so, you'll have to budget more for advertising.

Don't expect the pagan community to support you, just 'cause you're pagan. You may be able to get them down there once by that method, as people will be curious, but one of the biggest mistakes that pagan stores make is that they see the community as their only market, and when the pagans don't keep coming back, the store is ruined. If you make it, they will come. But they may never come back.

So consider selling something else that you love, and that is included with your spirituality, but are less pagany products to draw different customers in. Patterns for medieval garb, say, Celtic themed articles, club wear, or ancient Ukrainian art. You already know about it, it's part of your practice, and if you think it's cool, others are bound to as well! If you state it as your primary, it can also help you get a bank loan, because unless you have a pagan lending co-op in your area, the only monies you'll have to start a pagan themed store with is that which you can finagle from family and friends. I, for example, focus on personal and Earth healing as my complement, and here's why...

The new eco-green and organic shops are the wave of the future. Throw in some Earth religion, and you have a segue ushering in the new Civilization! The reason I like them, other than the fact that witches have always been healers and Earth worshipers, even if we don't specialize, is that organic and eco products have a hellova lot more turnover than the pagan stuff. Herbs, foods, personal care products, etc. are low cost items that people need to replace on a regular basis. Another big mistake is the investment in primarily high priced, low turnover products. Pagan books, oils, jewelry and other items important to a pagan shop may bring people in to look, but simply do NOT go flying out of the store. A customer may, if you're very lucky, buy an item a month, even if they come in to read every few days. Always remember that you need products that not only bring people in, but has them buying something every week or so.

If you choose an eco-pagan shop, don't forget the following items. Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, and treats, especially things for baking, is still very hard to find at a reasonable price. Bring in as many kinds as you can, and you'll get known for it in your area, from eco-snackers to chefs. Since snacks and coffee are just luxuries and people expect to pay more for Fair Trade, you'll be tempted to price it high. But resist that temptation. Price it as low as you reasonably can, and still make a profit, and you'll have customers learning that they don't have to have it monthly just as an indulgence. They can make it their regular treat stop for themselves and their families. They will go out of their way to come to your shop! Since treats get eaten quickly, you won't be able to keep them stocked fast enough. Word gets around on things like that...

You'll want a wet bar. Seriously. Genuine eco and personal care products, not the Greenwashed kind, are very hard to find in many places, and the people that purchase them would rather leave as little footprint as possible. Many communities don't have adequate recycling facilities, so those bottles and boxes, even of great eco products, end up in landfills. Give your customers an alternative to filling their land. Bring in their own bottles and containers for their eco cleaning and personal care products! Many companies, like Biovert, Ecover and Dr. Bronner's, sell their products in giant tubs that come with a pump for customers to refill themselves. It's a great draw, and the space you save, not to mention the bottles and boxes themselves, will create a loyal fan base that you'll never lose. Think outside the box!

Consider a reading room. People don't buy if they don't know what to get or ask for. An informed customer is repeat customer. If you encourage it, you'll be a local gathering place for information and activism, like any pagan or eco refuge. Your customers will become your advertising. Let them put up posters, hang out drinking fair trade coffee, have your reading room stuffed with their flyers and mags that you can't find in many other places. Like Mother Earth News, Harrowsmith, and Organic Gardening. They'll come back in every month just to use your reading room! And eat some fair trade treats...

Keep in mind of course, that lots of customers will not be patronizing you because of the paganism, UNLESS you make the atmosphere positive in a spiritual but non-wiccan freaky way. Good colors, for example, with the witchcraft books and other items on a completely different end of the store. If you make it non-threatening to those who might otherwise eventually stick their nose in the pagan section, they may in fact pop by to pick up their other more weekly purchases. Customers have oodles of choices these days. The only way you'll keep them is being different than the rest of the crowd.

One of your biggest assets is your staff. Even if it's you. A monkey can sell pagan items, especially jewelry. You'll hear people say, "It just called to me and I had to have it." Not so with other kinds of products. You need staff who can do it all. Someone who impresses the customers enough that they want to recommend your shop to everyone. Word of mouth is not counted nearly enough, but in this kind of community, it can really make or break a store.

The little witchling staffers aren't usually the ticket, as they generally don't inspire confidence. You'll get lots applying though, who are begging to work for almost no money, just for perks. In this case, you get exactly what you pay for. Same with family and friends who volunteer to take care of your shop. Resist the temptation of free labour. Not only can you not fire them easily, but volunteers rarely have the buy-in of a paid staff member, and it only takes one surly, inattentive, or clueless encounter for a customer to decide that your place isn't one they want to support. In business, free is almost always too expensive.

No matter what products you finally choose, don't make the markup mistake! Grocery stores know this, and so should you. Milk and rice do not have the markup that microwave pizza has. Everything is not two times cost. Profit margins vary. Items that people come back for more often or have low value added have a lower price margin from items that people save up for a few times a year or are highly processed. Herbs for example are about 1.2 or 1.3 times cost, books are usually 2 and clothing can be three or more.

Don't lose money, but don't overprice. If your herbs and incense are the same price or even cheaper from the whole foods store down the street, then you will not only will you make a profit, you will thrive! Very few things will kill a store faster than the impression of gouging your customers, and that will never happen if the products they are used to viewing and purchase often are priced cheaply...

That covers some of the basics. I've been a merchant for many years and I am planning on opening a new brick and mortar pagan eco-store in next year myself. Witches were the traditional purveyors of all kinds of products; from health and healing, to cosmetics, to charms and spells. That's how they made their living when someone wasn't dying or giving birth. My personal mission is take back our heritage from the pharmaceuticals, oil industry and organic chemists, and provide bio-safe and sustainable products once again! If you decide to take the plunge, I hope this article is of some small assistance, and that your venture goes as well as I believe mine will.

Reprinted from my Witchvox article: