Retail 101: Black Sheep Gifts

Photography by Michael Cottone

Name: Lisa Bennett
Store name: Black Sheep Gifts
When did you open the store? May 2010
Number of full-time employees? 1 full-time and lots of part-time “helpers.”

What do you sell in your store? We offer a wide variety of gift items. You can find something for everyone on your list. We like to say we can take you from cradle to grave.

Previous jobs/ventures? In my former life, I was in the packaging industry. My father owned a corrugated box plant, and after college I followed in his footsteps. I always wanted to own my own business, and always said you couldn’t even find a good greeting card in Irvington. After his death on 2009, I decided to take his life insurance money and invest in my own retail shop. The name of my business is Thanks, Frank LLC, but I do business as Black Sheep Gifts. Frank was my father’s name.

List five skills/qualifications that you think are important to have before launching a storefront? Patience, good with figures, must be a people person, flexibility, and open-minded.

Do you have an online store as well? No. I rotate and change inventory so often, it is nearly impossible to keep up with it online. I do tell people if they see anything online, we can take payment over the phone and ship out the merchandise.

What’s the most effective marketing tool that you’ve been using recently? We have found social media to be the best way to reach the largest audience.

What’s more important when opening a storefront: Location, having a nice cash cushion or having a lot of retail experience? Why? You HAVE to have a cash cushion. I made sure I could go three years without a paycheck. In the early years, I also held down a part-time job to help make ends meet. But, for my type of retail store, locations is crucial. If not for the restaurants on both sides of me, there would not be enough foot traffic to sustain the business. With that said, the popularity of those places makes the price of rent a bit more.

 How do you decide which vendors/products/brands you want to carry in your store? I look for unique things you don’t see at box stores. I try to focus on locally made, made in the US, Fair Trade, and eco-friendly merchandise, but have products from all over the world.

Do you work with vendors on a consignment basis? When I started, I did a lot if consignment. This allowed me to have merchandise without much financial risk. As my business has grown, consignment went away and I buy everything outright with the agreement I can exchange merchandise (not return) if it doesn’t sell.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in running your business? Adjusting to the amount of time and money (and did I mention time) you have to invest.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of opening their own storefront? Make sure you are truly committed to the long haul. On average, it takes 3 to 5 years to know if you can sustain the business. Be patient. If you have a particular location you want to be in, wait for an opportunity to arise.

What advice would you give to an up-and-coming brand looking to build a strong relationship with a retailer? Be open to advice. And remember each store is different. What sells in my neighborhood is very different from what sells downtown or on the north side. Trust me to know what’s best for my store.

Are there any online resources that you regularly visit to help you run your business better, or keep up with the latest industry trends? I attend three to xsix shows a year. I also make a point to visit as many shops as possible. When we travel, we go to other retail locations and talk to the employees to find out what sells well for them.

Do you carry any local vendors/brands? Why/Why not? We carry a few local brands such as Frittle, MAD soaps, and Sky Footwear. We like the idea of helping our neighbors. Over the years, we have had a lot of local artists come and go. Our biggest challenge is finding artists who treat their craft as a business, and not a hobby. Years ago, when we started to carry jewelry, I had someone local making 90% of my inventory. She was my go to person. She maintained her inventory, helped with merchandising, and did demos at the store. We became (and still are) great friends. After four years of success with her jewelry, she decided she no longer wanted to make jewelry and began painting.

 

Visit Black Sheep Gifts at 5626 E Washington St. 46219! You can also check out their website and give them a follow on Instagram!

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