Gift Shop Owner The Buzz


Even the smallest gift shops can succeed if their owners use their smarts.

This is exactly what gift shop owner Joanne Dondero does. She focuses on customer service and maintains a community presence. Her methods are really working!

The name of the shop is Abigail's Crossing. It is set in the historic hamlet of Quincy, Massachusetts. For this reason, its contents focus on Americana.

"We're right across from the historic church John Hancock made famous," says Dondero. "John Adams, John Quincy Adams and, of course, Abigail Adams once lived in the town."

Wide Range of Stock

Dondero sells an assortment of gifts that might be found in any gift shop, with a few interesting differences. There are hope chests and old antiques, small items like candles and pottery, and collectibles.

Dondero works with something she calls "secondary marketing," bringing in exclusive, affordable and collectible gifts. She works with suppliers to bring in one-of-a-kind or limited edition items like wooden historic sites.

"For example, we do a four-piece Christmas series of little wooden houses each year," Dondero says. "They're only available from June to December each year. We retire that series at the end of each Christmas season."

That's when things get interesting. The demand for these houses continues long after the series is discontinued. Dondero says one of her sets from an earlier year has sold for as much as $3,500. This is the secondary marketing part, selling products to more than one market.

The houses are popular because they are replicas of the heritage buildings in Quincy. Dondero has a contract with a company in another state that specializes in creating exclusive wooden gifts. She buys the rights to each series of 200 custom pieces.

Her knowledge of the collectibles market doesn't end here. She also deals in a variety of other collectibles, stocking them in her store and tracking down hard-to-find pieces for customers on the Internet. Her collectible tracking service is busy -- she gets calls from all over the continent.

"I probably spend at least an hour a night on the Internet, talking to other collectors and dealers on a bulletin board, and doing other research on these pieces," says Dondero.

That's not the only way Dondero puts technology to use. She also has a computerized bar-code inventory system, something quite unusual in a shop the size of hers.

"This has been a real plus," she says. "Everyone is always so surprised that we have everything bar-coded. It helps me track my costs, it helps me understand what my customers like best, it keeps everything organized."

The results have been impressive. Dondero's business doubled during her first two years of operation, and she saw a 50 percent increase in profits during her third year.

The great thing about gift shops is that they can reflect the personality of the owner. For instance, one doll enthusiast runs a shop filled with dolls dressed in nun habits. Another gift shop in the tourist mecca of Banff, Alberta, specializes in imported German clocks and nutcrackers.

Retail is a huge growth industry, says Alison MacCallum. She is the coordinator with the Retail Management Certificate Program at Sheridan College.

"It is a very fast and viable business," she says. Shopping trends are always changing, and so is technology. After all, retail isn't about sitting behind a counter for $6 an hour. It can lead to careers in management, operations, human resources, purchasing, designing, merchandising and e-commerce.

Business consultant John Graham says other entrepreneurs should pay attention to Dondero's methods.

"Not only does she understand business, she also understands her market and her community," Graham says. "She's given a part of the proceeds of the sale of those wooden houses to the historical society. She's donated some pieces for other fund-raising efforts. She's developed some very interesting business and community relationships."

Graham says Dondero's actions have made a strong statement to the community that her business is here to stay, and intends to be a part of the fabric of the town.

"She's been very well received because she sees the store as a part of things, and does a lot of giving. She's created the impression she isn't just in this for what she can get out of her customers," says Graham.

Look Before You Leap

There are three lessons Graham hopes aspiring entrepreneurs will take from Dondero's experience. The first is not to assume that just opening your doors will bring customers in; you have to do everything you can to make them come in.

Second, you have to think about the long term, not just the short term. Third, it's important to develop some community involvement.

The "if-you-open-a-shop-the-people-will-come" attitude is often a fatal mistake.

"Some people are so awed by their idea they believe everybody will be as knocked out by it as they are. Then they're shocked when no one comes in," says Graham. "Never has it entered their mind they have to market themselves."

Graham says businesses don't fail because markets are bad -- they fail because they have not been marketed properly.

"Too many people like to be called entrepreneurs, but they don't do entrepreneurial things," he says. "Just because the economy is strong doesn't mean your business will be strong. You have to know what you're doing and you have to be willing to take some risks."

Graham says his definition of an entrepreneur is a person who creates their own market, and who is able to create a successful business in weak as well as strong economies.

"It's a mental mindset," he says. "It's how you see it. Are you in business for a weekly paycheck? Then you're courting trouble. But if you are willing to invest in creating your market, you tell yourself this will work because you will create customers any way you can."

People who get into retail need a variety of skills. For this reason, MacCallum's program instructs students in four key skills areas: people skills, communication skills, selling skills and technology skills.

The American College Retail Association also keeps an eye on shopping trends. It says shopping is migrating to where the people are, like airports.

Another trend is to combine major food chains with major retail stores, so people can eat and shop for clothes in the same store. Stores feature restaurants and even entertainment.

Another unfolding trend is the splintering of the market as people turn away from the mega-stores. Dondero is participating in a mini-revival of the small, intimate shops offering unique products.

"When I was growing up, that's what all the shopping was like," Dondero says. "I miss it. That's part of the reason I wanted to do it this way."

Back to the way it was, with a twist -- wired for service so she can reach out and communicate with customers and suppliers all around the world.

Links

National Association for the Self-Employed
Information for the self-employed person

Abigail's Crossing
Joanne Dondero's gift shop

National Retail Federation
"The voice of retail worldwide"