Even the smallest gift shops can succeed if their owners use their
This is exactly what gift shop owner Joanne Dondero does. She focuses on
customer service and maintains a community presence. Her methods are really
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
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
"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.
National Association for the Self-Employed
Information for the self-employed person
Joanne Dondero's gift shop
National Retail Federation
"The voice of retail worldwide"