For a local dance retailer, systems and policies are key to mastering the leap to multiple locations, so that everything is to your standards, and you can be present without being present.
For local brick-and-mortar dance retailers who launch second and, especially, third locations, sophisticated, up-to-date systems can provide connectivity among the stores, while giving each independence to shine in its own way. Take Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique, which has three stores, in Maryland and Virginia. “We really push the umbrella idea that all locations, including Footlights online, are the same single company,” says owner Joy Ellis. “We make sure that all locations follow the same general rules with everything from fittings, returns and day-to-day responsibilities.”
By the time you have a third location, professionalizing your operations is essential so that you present a unified buying experience—and brand—to your customers.
Connected, But Independent
You want to present a unified brand to the public, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of each store has to replicate your other locations. Store hours depend on the neighborhood and its clientele, so perhaps you vary late hours from store to store. “Codifying systems is important, but be flexible, too,” says small-business advisor Rieva Lesonsky. “That allows each store to be independently successful.”
Your customers are likely drawn to you as an independent retailer for your unique attributes, so the new store’s selling floor can have its own personality. Size and even the look can vary—say, brick walls for one, white walls for another—as long as the overall vibe remains on-brand. Consistent use of signage and collateral, as well as color scheme and fixtures, will unify the brand experience so that, whichever threshold customers cross, they know they’re in your store. For Footlights, Ellis found three distinct spaces—high ceilings spanning two rooms for the first, a boutique feel for the second, a boxy space for the third. However, by hewing throughout to the same light color scheme (pink, red, purple), she says, “we can maintain a cohesiveness that represents Footlights as a whole.”
Systems Are Your Friend
To keep three stores in sync and humming along productively, up-to-date systems and professional management practices are a must.
Since your volume of purchases will be higher, make sure you evaluate your payment system to be certain it can handle secure storage of customer data and credit card information. And location management is essential for all systems, from sales and inventory to fitting appointments and employee timecards. Storeowner Kelli Widener and her team ofemployees run three locations of En Arabesque in Bucks County, PA. While each store has its own inventory that it’s responsible for, Widener can view everything in Lightspeed, the stores’ point-of-sale system, giving her a picture of the overall business.
Keeping the shelves stocked at three stores will mean a bigger investment in inventory, of course. “Having enough inventory has been a challenge, at times,” says Ellis, whose three stores typically keep $1 million wholesale in inventory. “It’s expensive to buy so many of an item.”
On the other hand, if one store is missing something a customer needs, Footlights’ larger inventory means Ellis can get something more quickly from one of her other locations than from a manufacturer. Transfers routinely happen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Where you stow the physical merchandise will depend on where you have storage space and how much sales crossover there is among the stores. (Factor in online sales, and you have a fourth store.) Besides having the square footage to stock merchandise in each location, consider: Is it cost-effective to have deliveries from manufacturers split? What’s the time and cost to move merchandise from one location to another? For En Arabesque, small orders go directly to their individual locations; however, Widener finds it more cost-effective to have one store receive bulk orders, which are then distributed.
When owners are planning staffing, “they can forget to figure in themselves,” says Lesonsky. As you’ve often told yourself, you’re just one person. Maybe you’ve been completely hands-on until now, or perhaps you already delegate to superb managers. A third store can be a tipping point. That’s why the first two locations need to be self-sufficient enough that you can focus on the new start-up. This is particularly important if you’re renovating your new space, since remodeling invariably involves delays.
At Footlights, Ellis, who brought her son Joseph into the business, instituted a management framework that establishes distinct positions and a chain of command to fluidly support the multilocation business. “Each role varies slightly from another,” she says. “Our distribution manager has responsibilities a store manager doesn’t, and vice versa. The primary focus of sales associates is on customer service.” Everyone is held to the same standards and regulations, she adds. “At the core, each location runs on the same basic responsibilities and systems.” This is all spelled out in a 40-page employee handbook.
In addition to having a lead person at each location, En Arabesque keeps communication notebooks at each store in which staff record everything that happens each day—conversations, thoughts, phone calls—so that as every employee arrives for the work day, she knows what has already happened. “Communication is key,” says Widener.
Retail typically has high turnover, but even as your business grows bigger, with less personal contact, you can take steps to build a loyal and competent staff. Lesonsky suggests creating a comprehensive training manual and reviewing it with all staff once a year. “All processes, policies and the employee handbook should be corporate in outlook, so it’s a duplicative process,” she says. That also makes it easier if staff need to move back and forth between stores.
When you give your customers more options for where to shop, they’ll also expect more options for ordering and returns. Your three locations (and e-commerce) should function together to give customers the most convenience. Footlights customers can buy at any one location and return to any other. They are also able to return online purchases to any of the brick-and-mortar locations.
To avoid upsetting customers, En Arabesque events and promotions occur at all locations. “You can’t do one without doing all,” says Widener. And like customers, your dancewear suppliers will expect the same opportunities and exposures at all your stores, too, she says. “Vendors look at your business as a whole, but they also look at each store individually.”
Getting the News Out When You Add a Store
You can’t overcommunicate when you’re adding a new store; it’s like introducing a new family member—friends must understand how the latest addition fits in. Promote the launch at all locations so customers understand immediately that you are not relocating or shutting down store one or two. Use branding to manage your existing customers’ understanding of this expansion. If your third location prompts a retooling of your logo or website, get it done before the third store launches. And use Facebook and Instagram to create anticipation in the days leading up to the grand opening of the new store.
Make sure customers know how to find you. Before the new store opens, update all online information by adding the new location’s address and phone number and revising your company history or bio. That means on your website, Google and Yelp listings and social-media pages. (Instagram doesn’t allow more than one account per business, and you can’t list more than one full address on one account. While this can help unify three places under one brand, it may cause confusion if you are promoting one store at any given time.)
The Bottom Line
Managing multiple locations isn’t for the fainthearted. But then, neither is retail. Sometimes, with stores spanning two states and three separate counties (each with different taxation and bills to pay), Footlights definitely feels like three different businesses, says Ellis. But at the end of the day, it all comes together as one. “All of our receiving/distribution and purchasing is done in one location, which really helps tie us together as one whole company vs. three separate businesses,” she says. Remember that relying on others to do the hands-on work in parts of your business doesn’t mean you’ll be an absentee boss. “Be flexible,” says Widener. “And be with your team every step of the way.” Then with systems and policies in place, so that everything is to your standards, you can be present without being present.
Charlotte Barnard is a writer in New York City who often reports on retail trends, design and branding.