Retail 101: Silver in the City

All Photos by Michael Cottone

Silver in the City is an Indianapolis boutique filled with unique knick knacks and gifts of all sorts. In 2000, owner Kristen Kohn opened the first shop on the popular Mass Ave which has since then expanded to open a bigger store on Mass Ave and also open another location in Carmel. From jewelry to mugs to politically correct pins, Silver in the City sells all of the gifts and novelty items that you could ever think of buying. In this installment of Retail 101, Kohn sits down and discusses what both developing and growing a business is like.

Store Name: Silver in the City
Store Address: Downtown location- 434 Massachusetts Ave, Indianapolis (opened July 2000) and Carmel location- 111 W. Main Street, Carmel, IN (opened May 2015)
Store Website: www.silverinthecity.com
Store Instagram: @silverinthecity
When did you open the store: We opened in July 2000, up the street at 715 Mass Ave. A little over a year later we moved and expanded to our current location. We opened our store on Main Street in Carmel in 2015, after participating in a seasonal co-op pop-up with other Mass Ave retailers in 2013 & 2014.
Number of Employees: Currently we have 12 full time employees and 20 part time employees, and up to 45 total during the holidays.
What do you sell in your store: It is a gift store that sells jewelry, housewares, earth friendly knick knacks and every little gift for every holiday and birthday.
Previous jobs/ventures: Graphic Designer, Retail Advertising Coordinator and Window Dresser for Chicago-Area Discount Department Store, Professional Dog Walker, Magazine Ad Sales

Why did you decide to open your own storefront?
I’ve always enjoyed creative problem solving and taking risks, and that doesn’t always fit into corporate culture so well. During two summers of full-time unpaid advertising internships, I worked part-time in a small shop in the Fell’s Point neighborhood in Baltimore. Even though it was 40-60 hours of my work week, they were my favorite hours. I loved merchandising, making signage, helping customers, talking about our products, even closing up at the end of the night and entering data into the ledger, nerd alert! I even loved spreadsheets and reports. I would always talk about opening a shop of my own in a fun main street environment. When I was living and working in downtown Indy in the late 90s, I was frustrated with the limitations of my job and also with the downtown retail offerings. I could see the potential of Mass Ave to be a destination for visitors. I always loved those afternoons of walking through a neighborhood, browsing the shops, and visiting cafes and restaurants. I wanted Indy to have a neighborhood that residents could take their visiting friends and families, a place to spend time and enjoy a unique experience. Becoming a part of that experience has been so fulfilling.

Which came first the online store or the bricks and mortar store?
Well, since we were still a dial-up society when I opened…. B&M. Our online store started around 2011 and it is currently a very small percentage of sales in comparison to in-store. We keep our focus on our in-store experience, while maintaining a presence online that matches fun products with great service.

List five skills/qualifications that you think are important to have before launching a storefront:
1. A balance of strength and flexibility. Be able to stick to your vision and make your own decisions while allowing space for outside ideas/advice to contribute.
2. Ability to be humble. It should be less about yourself and more about your product/experience/customers/employees. Surround yourself and acknowledge talented people in your business and community. Collaborate rather than compete (internally and externally).
3. Ability to always be learning/growing/developing as a leader.
4. Ability to learn as you go. Be a sponge, read, explore and research. Opening a store is just the first step. Eventually you need to know how to take care of customers, employees, build product knowledge, new technologies. A lot has changed since I opened my store, such as the birth of social media and ecommerce. It is important to be able to utilize new tools to work smarter.
5. Understanding that it’s not always about more, at some point it needs to be about better. We look at how we can improve our experience for customers and employees and how we can be better citizens of our community and environment.

What’s the most effective marketing tool that you’ve been using recently?
For a brick and mortar store having an amazing customer experience, followed closely by a strong social media presence is the most effective marketing tool. If I had to choose only one, I would choose the interaction with the people in front of me on a daily basis over digital interaction. The payoff is tenfold. I am concerned about a society that places more emphasis on digital identity over who or what they are in real life. I do appreciate social media as a tool for connecting with people and we have a lot of fun sharing who we are via our social accounts.

What’s more important when opening a storefront: Location, having a nice cash cushion or having a lot of retail experience? Why?
It all depends on your goals. If ecom is your goal, then cash. Cash can buy experience and lots of digital marketing. For brick and mortar, it’s all about location, but a cash cushion is highly recommended. An expensive buildout and design is fantastic, but not if you don’t have access to cash to stay afloat during lean months (or years).

How do you decide which vendors/products/brands you want to carry in your store?
Typically I choose jewelry and gifts that I would want for myself or a friend, products that surprise and delight me. Lately we’ve been focusing on products that make us better citizens of the environment, like reusable straws and wax food wraps. We love carrying creative solutions to living better.

Do you work with vendors on a consignment basis?
Occasionally, to test the waters, but if I’m not sure enough of a product to purchase it outright, then I’m probably not going to incorporate it long term. If a product is doing well, it is just easier to purchase outright. We have several of Quincy Owen’s light sculptures in our Carmel store!

Do you carry any local vendors/brands? Why/Why not?
Yes! We carry t-shirts, jewelry, prints, and candy from local makers. We love being able to showcase local makers and brands.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in running your business?
Being taken seriously as a business owner. I think many times female retail business owners are viewed as women who are supported by their spouse or family while pursuing a “hobby.” This affects how we are treated when negotiating leases, applying for credit or loans or whether or not we are recognized by the male-dominated business community. I started and built this company on my own, I love my husband and his love and support (including technical support – he’s an IT guy!) has enabled me to flourish. I totally bounce ideas off of him and he provides feedback, but I have always been the sole owner and decision-maker of my business.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of opening their own storefront?
Stay true to your vision, when others provide insight that doesn’t feel right to you, ask what their motivation is (could it be getting a space they own leased? Or selling more ads?). The only person looking out for you is you. Ask for help when you need it. Don’t overextend yourself financially, create a plan that allows you to start small and have a plan for growth, including a bigger space or more product. Save some money for rainy days or a downturn in the economy. Develop three financial models:

  • The breakeven to sustain a small shop with a single proprietor
  • The moderate sales- what you hope to achieve to maintain your vision for years
  • The best case- what you plan to do if things are going well (hire more employees, move into a larger space, etc.)

What advice would you give to an up-and-coming brand looking to build a strong relationship with a retailer?
Put yourself in places that retailers can find you when they are looking for your product. I like to do my own discovery, not just pick up what is placed in front of me. Get some media, build your social following, or jump onto Faire. Make it easy for me to find you and also easy to begin doing business with you. Also, understand that you are asking a retailer to invest in your brand. They may not have the money or space to incorporate your product. Your product may not fit with their vision. Research for a good fit before reaching out. If you get a no, ask if you can send them occasional updates on your brand and products. Sometimes it can take years before I and my customers are ready for a certain product. Show discretion and look at a neighborhood to identify the best match for your product, not necessarily the biggest retailer. We don’t sell pet products, fair trade or baby categories, because our neighbors do.

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 can’t think of anything specific. The biggest thing I do is stay connected to other business owners and our local communities, and realize that I myself am a consumer. What motivates me as a consumer? I will chase down products and companies that I see in my social media, or magazine editorial. Sometimes even just tracking down a piece of jewelry worn by a character that I’ve seen in pop culture.

All photos by Michael Cottone

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