Balancing Making + Shopkeeping - Elizabeth of
Philomena + Ruth
This miniclass is part of our Wholesale In a Box Mentor Intensive, which is offered free for Wholesale In a Box makers. You can find the rest of the miniclasses here.
Elizabeth Hann owns and runs the beloved shop Philomena and Ruth in Waterloo, Illinois. She is also the maker and designer of a line of socially conscious accessories and t-shirts that is sold online and in likeminded shops around the country. Her joy, authenticity, and deep sense of caring all come across in everything she does -- and her perspective as a maker and shop owner is powerful and empowering. In this miniclass, Elizabeth talks about what she really looks for when buying lines for the store, the things she’s learned about staying sane while running a store and a product line, and why your tags are probably too big.
On becoming a maker
I've been a maker all my life. I was draping dresses for my knock-off Barbies since I was 6 years old. My mom gave me a basket full of fabric scraps, a needle and thread, and let me completely go nuts with my imagination.
It still blows my mind to be making a living at this now. I started my own line of handmade clothing and accessories (Just Liv) in 2007, and it's literally been the most beautiful and natural progression I could imagine. I mean definite hiccups along the way, but I've come out all right. I thought the corporate world of fashion was for me, but after a few years in product development and buying, I knew that it just wasn't a fit. There was no authenticity. Even while working as a buyer, I immersed myself in the St.Louis craft scene. I opened an Etsy shop, vended at local shows, and joined the local Craft Mafia. I even convinced a few local stores to sell my feather headbands! So when I had finally had enough of my asshole boss, I up and quit, and threw myself into being a full time maker! Now I'm balancing that act with being a store owner, but having the experience from both sides is what makes me a success!
What Elizabeth learned from shopkeeping about making
Having a store has definitely changed how I approach my designing and making. Even within the 3 1/2 years the store has been open, I've changed things up multiple times. I'm constantly learning and evolving. I'm literally in the midst of an evolution as we speak, freshening up my wholesale process (with the help of Wholesale In a Box!)
First and foremost, the connection that I have with my customers on the daily is invaluable. I aim to create an open dialogue, and true friendships with my customers, especially the regulars. I listen to what they like and don't like. They help a lot with colors, sizes, and variety of product. The on-the-spot feedback I get from owning a store has accelerated my design process in a way that has been a total surprise - it's amazing. It's also allowed me to be more experimental with my designs. I basically have a built-in focus group at the store.
On the flip side, as wonderful as this constant one-on-one interaction is, it keeps me from the studio, making actual product. This was the most dramatic/traumatic shift I experienced going from full time maker to full time shopkeep. It was a bittersweet transition. I definitely had moments of "did I make the right decision?" and "I feel like I'm losing my identity as a designer" and "Am I really ready to give up my weekends?" and "Uh, holy shit, when are me and the hubs ever gonna have time to hang out?!?!"
This was also the time that I realized that, although I'm an extrovert, I need ample alone time to recharge. I wholeheartedly give it my all when I'm with my customers. I crave authenticity, so when you walk in to Philomena + Ruth, you have my full attention. You are a guest in my home. So I made the conscious decision to shift my focus from being Elizabeth the maker, to Elizabeth the shopkeep. Since I couldn't have my head down sewing all day, I decided to dust off my old Illustrator skills and try my hand at some t-shirts! I've been sketching out t-shirt designs for over a decade. I had several failed attempts at Yudus and Mod Podge screens, and stamps throughout the years. But something I heard while attending the Midwest Craft Con stuck out to me, "You don't have to DIY your DIY business." For the longest time, I felt like I would be some sort of cop out if I didn't do EVERYTHING for my business. Like somehow outsourcing any sort of work made me less of a maker. Well let me tell you something, that is bullshit. And as soon as I embraced that, my creativity went into overdrive. And you know what feels awesome? Hiring other local makers to do the things that they are experts at -- like screen printing. I started with 6 designs: HUMAN, tiny HUMAN, FEMINIST, tiny FEMINIST, Music is Life, and The Highway Men (Waylon, Willie, Johnny, Kris). I got them printed on the softest t-shirts I could find, because we all know that comfort is key, am I right?!?! The shirts were a hit, I kept designing more, they kept selling. And even though I wasn't physically making product at the moment, I reclaimed that title of designer that I had so desperately needed. And now that the store is going into its 4th holiday season, everything is running smooth enough that I can get back in the studio with more hands on things. I needed to take that time to really baby the store, and it's better for it. And getting to know my customers has inspired me to design more clothing. So expect to see lots more knit dresses and crop tops as I get back to pattern making, cutting, sewing, and dying things in my alley!
How to stand out to store owners
Make sure that your product doesn't need too much in-person explanation. That works at craft shows because you are there, talking to each customer, and they are willing to listen because that's part of the experience. But in a store setting, your product, or its packaging, needs to tell the whole story. Having info cards to display next to items works sometimes, but if it doesn't fit in with my display, I won't use it. Visual merchandising is my number one priority.
You should also look at your price points. Not every store has the customer base to support high dollar goods. Make sure you're doing your research on stores before you waste your resources. On the flip side, maybe you're not charging enough? If you don't see value in your work, how can you expect anyone else to. It's also important to have an established brand. Do you have business cards and cohesive packaging? Do you have a website and a social media presence? This doesn't have to be your full time gig, but are you devoting enough time to your business that you'll be able to consistently fill orders?
You just gotta catch my eye. Don't get caught up in presentation in the traditional sense. Authenticity is everything. Often times, Instagram is the first thing I look at when checking out a new brand. I like to see the heart behind the goods. How are you communicating with the world? If I want to follow you and be your friend, them I'm going to want to share that with my customers.
Keep your packaging simple
When tagging and labeling your products for wholesale, keep it simple! Every store owner has their own unique way of merchandising, and the less bulky the tags, the better. Think about the size of your tag compared to the size of your product. For instance, business card sized tags are too big for pretty much everything. We've all used them. They're great for craft shows, but they suck for retail. Aim for something about half the size. Sad but true, most tags just get ripped off and never looked at. If you can, put your brand name somewhere on the product. Oh, and leave space for a price sticker! I find myself covering up emails and websites all the time. But people gotta know the price, man!
Consider being a little more offensive and delightful
I see a lot of the same ol' same ol'. And even though your product may be totally rad, it will get lost in the shuffle if your email format, catalog layout, website, and everything else look just like everyone else's. To be honest, a lot of products are starting to look the same as well. Things are trendy and beautiful, I get it. I'm not holding anyone to a standard of complete individuality. But know that about yourself. If you make jewelry or stationery or candles, or anything in a super competitive category, make sure that you are a step above the trend. I just started carrying this new line of cards called Offensive + Delightful. As you all know, stationery is a very saturated market. And rightfully so: people buy the shit out of cards. So when I saw the bright, retro colors of Offensive + Delightful, they really stuck out. The cards have a similar sentiment to many other cards. But there's that something extra that puts them above the trend. And my customers notice, too. Don't lose your individuality because you're trying too hard to look like what you think your buyers want to see, or what you think a professional presentation should look like.
On becoming a bestselling line
My best selling line is Crow Steals Fire. Maker Donna Fox offers charms and chains that customers can use to create their own necklaces. It's a success because, in a store that already promotes handmade, people love to be a part of the making process! They make great gifts, and charms can be added over time. She also offers a variety of price points, which is perfect for when you have customers whose ages range from school age to retirees and beyond. I want everyone to feel like they can buy something special at Philomena + Ruth, no matter their budget. Shopping local and buying handmade can sometimes be intimidating for shoppers who aren't rolling in the dough (uh, that's me! Hell, that's a lot of us). But we don't want anybody to feel unwelcome! Come in! Shop! Take a little piece of us with you. We've got something for everyone! Any time you can offer something that's like a "starter" piece to your brand, that anyone can afford, it's a thumbs up in my book.
Crow Steals Fire is also a maker who is local to my area. That makes it easy to get refills and custom jewelry in a hurry. I carry makers from all over the world, but I always start looking as local as possible. So don't be afraid to build your wholesale accounts from the center of the bullseye, out. Gaining local and regional support can be a real launch pad into building your brand nationwide!
On juggling between shopkeeping, making, and life
It's a juggle for sure. And juggling is delightful. Who doesn't love juggling?!? But juggling is hard. And I sometimes drop things, but I've learned that that's okay. It's taken many years, wins and losses that have taken my breath away, and a lot of talking myself out of sad places. What has worked for me is surrounding myself with people who bring me joy and inspire me to be better. Drop the negative people and bullshit from your life. I've personally found that copious amounts of weed and very large cats helps with this. But hey, you do you.
Just take the time to evaluate the things that are taking up your time and energy. And don't try to be a hero. Ask for help. If you don't have friends or family who you feel comfortable asking for help, you need some new friends. You have to have a tribe. I have the most amazing, supportive husband in the world. He's legit my best friend. If I didn't have him to bounce ideas off of, and high-five when things are great, or hug real tight and long when things aren't so great, things would not be as cool as they are now. I have a tribe of friends from the local maker community who I sometimes think are living inside the same brain as me. They help bring my ideas to life! And we have the most fun doing it! You need those moments.
Some of the best advice I ever got when I first opened up shop was from a couple who owns the Bar & Grill down the street. It's the friendly neighborhood bar & grill that you see in every small town movie. It's even more wonderful in real life, and I sometimes can't even believe that this is my life. Jeff and Denise have been in business for 30 years, and they told me to never feel bad about taking time for yourself. They said, "Your customers will understand. Close for special days with family and friends." I knew exactly what they meant. And it's been my motto ever since. So if you come to shop on a holiday weekend, and I'm closed, I sincerely apologize. I'm probably road tripping somewhere with the hubs and taking way too many pictures. But I'm also recharging, practicing self care, and probably coming up with some of my best ideas. Also, set realistic goals. Even if it's making a list just so you can cross something off. Celebrate the little wins.
Elizabeth’s insights as a store owner and maker are so helpful for makers who would love to be in stores that really value handmade goods.
She shares some concrete takeaways, too, including:
Learn from the people who buy your products. Find opportunities to interact directly with people and allow that to inform how you design.
You don't have to DIY your DIY business. Ask for help and outsource to people who can do things as well or better than you can.
Make sure that your product can tell its own story. You won’t be there to explain, so the product and packaging has to speak for you.
Keep packaging simple. Make tags small but make sure there is always a place for a price tag.
Don’t lose your individuality. Store owners are looking for something unique and authentic -- and if you end up following the crowd, it ends up hard to stand out and compete.
Regardless of your price point, offer something that's a "starter" piece to your brand, that anyone can afford. This gives store owners and their customers an easy place to get to know you.
When growing wholesale, start local. Local and regional presence can create a strong jumping-off point for nationwide growth.
Evaluate the things that are taking up your time and energy. If negative people or situations are sapping you, consider moving in new directions.
Take time for yourself, away from your business. That’s when you recharge, practice self care, and come up with new ideas.
Have questions or need a hand?
This miniclass is part of our Wholesale In a Box Mentor Intensive, which is offered free for Wholesale In a Box makers.
As always, we’re here to help! If you have clarifying questions, want us to take a look at what you’re working on, or would like to schedule a coaching call, just drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.