Six years ago my sister, Jin Seo, started a women's luxury active apparel brand called 51inc. It only focuses on women's apparel and women are slightly more than half the U.S. population, thus "51". I help where I can but I am essentially a roadie assisting the talent. My core work is the developing public-private-partnerships with the aim of accelerating entrepreneurship in low-resource environments such as Mozambique. This past February Jin had an unexpected opportunity to open up her first retail store, partnering with another designer -- Keogh Designs. My time on the sales floor of Keogh + 51inc has been quite a learning experience.
Two-thirds into the summer season and time zones removed from Mozambique, I began to embrace the reality that stakeholders are clients are one and the same. Whether the product is apparel or improving health outcomes, you need to establish the value you are bringing. This isn't so easy for new projects in global health or new stores but there are three things that I have found really useful on the sales floor and my international health work.
1) Have a story... an ending and a beginning:
As we opened our doors in early May we quickly learned that the location housed an iconic shop dear to a loyal following. The store -- Zoom -- occupied the 10A Jobs Lane address for more than 33 years. It could longer than that as customers have memories of Zoom spanning back 40 years. Coupled this with the store next door being a new business we encounter daily (and continue to) legacy Zoom customers stopping in front of the store, looking perplexed and walking in a smidgen confused and slightly annoyed. Of course there was quite a bit of disappointment once they heard the business owner retired but it was almost cathartic. People want closure, they will ask us "what happened to Zoom" before they will take an interest in engaging. We gave them an ending and a point of departure to begin our story.
2) Answer the question... many times in many ways:
A question can be answered in many ways with the same information. Being on the sales floor is like being in my own personal microcosm of a big data experiment gone terribly wrong. There are products, prices, fabrics, sales, sizing and accessories. Being the designer's brother gives me a bit of camouflage (not credibility) in selling her clothes but not much. If you cannot provide the information in a way your audience can accept then it doesn't matter if you are the designer... you are cooked. So I memorized the fabrications, the design elements and most importantly how people would wear them. Form and function are important but attainable aspiration is about inspiration and credibility. Appreciating the garment is quite distant from appreciating themselves in the garment. Being able to answer the "product" questions is the baseline, without being able to wear and show them an outfit I needed to build credibility. I share with them how other customers are wearing the pieces and let them decide. Oh and when they want facts not one size fits all. For example when there is a sale going on, don't be lazy, do the math -- all the math! "40 percent off ticketed " is not the same as the sale price is "X". The first couple of times people asked me what 40 percent off of $188 and I didn't do the math fast enough. It felt like I had turrets while auditioning for a spot on the Price is Right. Be prepared, the clearer things are the easier they are.
What state do you live in? Denial
The eminent philosopher and the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson quipped, "What state do you live in? Denial". Well when we opened the store our visions of consistently super busy days on the sales floor coming home exhausted but happy were a bit (OK really) delusional. Trying to understand and predict the rhythm of sales for a new store with an unknown brand in the area is a quick path to insanity. Equally as mortifying was how we ignored the commercial environment surrounding us. It wasn't as if we did not see the 50 percent to 75 percent off sales signs weeks ago in well know branded stores. In the store coming back from coffee or lunch we would comment how the only real foot traffic seemed to be in the stores with sales ongoing. So a month later, we put our collection on sale. Surprise, surprise an uptick and traffic and sales. Be observant and act accordingly, you are not going to change the course of a river overnight.