As promised, I took copious notes during our time at the Atlanta Market this past week. Notes to self: vendors to look up when I get home (simply not enough time to do justice to every aisle of every floor of all three buildings), item numbers of products I may mull over and fax in orders for when I get home, cool display ideas. Notes for blog readers: what it's really like to shop the Mart for the finds and furnishings with which we feather the shop, choice details to convey the particular oeuvre of the show and its attendees, both exhibitors (our vendors) and buyers (me and my fellow retailers).
Fair warning: I have been a rule follower from birth and actually abided by the No Photography guideline established by the Mart to protect its exhibitors' designs. After all, we are viewing product that in many cases has not yet been introduced to the general public, and designers can be pretty serious about protecting their ideas! So the only photos I will include here are the one above--the omnipresent escalators which are usually packed up and down with people escaping the sardine can-like experience of the elevators--and two personal photos. Hopefully the vividness of Market will come through to you through my prose!
By the way, just an aside: when I say "we" in speaking of The Blissful, I'm not using the "royal we." Yikes! I actually mean my mom (Debbie) and I. (My mom is an integral part of the daily workings and the overall picture at The Blissful, though she prefers to remain behind the curtain, so to speak.) Just wanted to make sure it's clear that I don't have a multiple personality complex. At least I don't think we do.
Day One, Hour One: Coat Check
The flurry and chatter of this Market can be really overwhelming. We retailers are an interesting breed. Case in point: just standing in line to check in upon arrival, rumors are flying up and down the line saying that we're all in the wrong line--that this line is for Exhibitors only. No matter how many times the Market greeters assure us that we're in the right line, we won't buy it. [sigh] Not even the clearly-worded signage--BUYERS ONLY--can assuage us. I guess we're the types who are never content to not be in the know. If there's a tip, we're taking it. If there's an inkling of something new and as yet unseen or unheard of, we're on it. Jeeminee, we're creating excitement where none need be: in a registration line. Can you imagine what it's like inside the showrooms??
Our first stop this morning: Building One, Floor One, Europe's Finest temporary exhibitors. We relish this area and make it a point to visit it first. [Quick note: temporary exhibitors set up their wares in booths in areas of the show demarcated especially for them. Sometimes these booths are fabulous, elaborate, and decked to the nines with high style and quality. Other times it's drape and pole with a blah table and product just lined up on it. Guess which temporary booths get more traffic? The temps are the place to find the hot new designers and lines. They haven't yet been picked up by one of the permanent showrooms, whose storelike spaces can go up to (and probably surpass) 20,000 square feet. I think of the permanents as the "big boys."] Our best score this year in Europe's Finest came courtesy of a new buddy of mine, a former retailer. She pointed me toward a booth she knew I'd like and hello, honey, are we happy to have gotten that tip. Thank you, X. You know who you are.
Day One, Hour Three: Glad I Wore Big Band-Aids On My Heels Because I'm Wearing New-ish Shoes
It's essential to have a plan when you go to Market. We learned this early on and have never gone without one. Our goal this time was primarily to discover new lines, and as much as possible, to do at least a quick walkthrough of every single showroom. I can tell you that that didn't happen, but we were a lot more openminded about exploring showrooms that didn't look like us at first blush. And we're usually glad we did, although as another retailer whose blog I read put it, when you really look at what else is out there, you realize why you've chosen the vendors you already have. And so of course we visited all of our regulars to see what was new. I have to say it: overall, I was more impressed by new vendors I found than I was with the new releases of my regular vendors. We were hoping to be blown away by new design, but frankly, the whole show was a bit underwhelming. This seems to be the consensus among other retailers I have spoken with.
I marvel at how much our eye has developed since we started in retail two years ago. Things I would've said "heck, no" to two years ago and I now say, "heck, heck yes." That's due to lots of different factors: my taste has evolved, I know better what sells, I am quicker to recognize what isn't my store (and can tell you why). We don't question ourselves quite as much as we did when we were first starting out. Of course you always question things to some degree: retail, in some respects, is one big experiment and you never know for sure what will sell and what won't, what your customers will respond to and what they will overlook, what they'll appreciate and what they'll pass over. And for goodness sake, I'm still at the beginning of my retail journey with just two years under my belt. I have a lot to learn.
Speaking of passing things over, another thing I'm contemplating is how there is so much available at Market that just isn't quite "it" for my store, but for other retailers, it's the bees' knees. And for my shop, it may be almost but not quite right. Vendors and artists who are interested in selling their product to boutiques shouldn't lose heart. Just because it's not right for one shop doesn't mean it won't sell like hotcakes in the shop down the street. I believe that a good wholesale relationship happens when the right line hits the right store at the right time. Outside of that chance-y yet calculated dynamic, even a great, well-designed, nice quality line or product is a complete flop.
Day One, Hour Six: I Came, I Saw, I Met Sid
So I met up with Nancy, my sales rep, at the Sid Dickens booth around dinnertime. And lo! Sid Dickens himself was on premises. Nancy said it was the first show he's attended in seven years, so I felt this was a moment of kismet. I'd always been curious about the artist behind the many-storied Memory Block collection that we carry at The Blissful. What a cool, laid back guy, the type you'd sit with in a pub and have a pint of Guinness (not that I actually drink the stuff; the scene just sounded right.) I wrote an order for one of his new Spring 2008 collections (you can sneak a peek at some of the blocks to the right of Sid in the photo below). It's colorful, heraldic, playful, and unexpected. (More details to come in a future post!) His other new collection consists of twenty-four Blocks depicting the signs of the Zodiac. Yes, I know there are only twelve signs; he's doing each sign in his creamy plaster finish as well as the pure silver finished he debuted in his Fall 2007 line. Wait until you see. We'll start taking orders for the new Blocks just as soon as we have linesheets in the store. (I'll be sure to announce it on the blog.)
It was neat to gather from him some of the behind-the-scenes workings at Sid Dickens' studio. (When I watch DVDs, I always enjoy the director's commentary as much as the actual movie.)
Day Two, Hour Five: Low Blood Sugar and an Exploding Coke
Thank goodness for the rep in the showroom who saved me with a lukewarm bottle of Coke right when I was about to hit the ground. I know the floors in most of the temporary booths are laid down over concrete and so once in a while you feel them give under your feet. But I knew I was in trouble when the floor in one temp booth actually seemed to bounce. "Is the room shaking?" I asked my mom. She shot me a quizzical, concerned look. "No," she replied, just when I realized how very real hypoglycemia is when it's 1:30 in the afternoon, you've already walked for miles, and you haven't eaten a bite all day. Fortunately, the abovementioned sales rep was on hand with the abovementioned soda. Unfortunately, the bottle must've been jostled around before she handed it to me. Otherwise, why would it have exploded all over the place when I tried to open it? Doubly unfortunately, we walked away without placing an order. Sorry, pretty lady with the reddish hair.
And then, on one of the Christmas floors, I saw him. No, not Sid Dickens again. One of my earliest retail mentors, a gentleman whose shop I've admired from afar for a long time. We were meandering through one of our usual holiday vendor's showrooms, trying to get excited about buying ornaments and Christmas trim all over again when we are just now trying to get the last vestiges of it out of our shop this week, when I turned around and spotted him not ten feet away from me. I gasped and my heart skipped a beat. I grabbed my mom's arm and hissed, "That's You Know Who." She just looked at me, not having heard what I said. So I mouthed exaggeratedly: YOU. KNOW. WHO. She just nodded, nonplussed. It takes a lot to impress Debbie, as I repeatedly tell my boyfriend. And so I admit it: I trailed him briefly, taking note of what he was looking at. Our shops aren't really all that similar, which is a good thing. But he has a great eye and I wanted to see what caught his attention. I considered going up and introducing myself, but I didn't want to distract him. Plus, he was shopping with a partner and I didn't know what they'd think of a random girl approaching. So I pulled myself back and got in step with my mom, let my eye lose him in the crowd. Ah, my brush with a creative icon.
After I'd exited the showroom, you better believe I called up my friend and said, "You won't believe who I just saw in this showroom."
Day Two, Hour Ten: A Full Belly and Flannel PJs
Some reflections from the show so far...
If there are portly men in business suits seated in wing chairs near the entrance to a showroom, I automatically know it's not for me. Somehow, you never see this in the temps but you see it a lot in the "big boys'" showrooms. I think these showrooms are the retail version of the "old boys' clubs" you hear about in different industries. Give me the Elements/Jill Schwartz booth, in which the lovely rep wears two different earrings and an Anthropologie-esque outfit and doesn't try to impress potential buyers with a sales pitch. I respond much better to a low-key approach.
Some showrooms you walk into, you might as well be standing in TJMaxx or Home Goods, both of which I enjoy shopping in out in the real world, but this is the Market at which I hope to find unique items to offer my customers and I don't wish to be looking at the stuff that the big box stores sell at such deep discounts that the end customer pays what would be my wholesale price. How ya like them apples? Why do these showrooms look like this? Because they are the vendors from which TJMaxx and Home Goods purchase. Showrooms like this are depressing.
I have a difficult time buying Garden & Floral. It's just not my category. My eyes glaze over and I want to run out of those showrooms. My mom practically has to drag me through The Gardens in Building One. It's like I'm a kid on my way to the doctor to get a shot. Too...many...garden pots. Too...many...waxy-looking plants...with fake soil. Too...many...ugly wreaths. I swear it's a minor miracle when you come across well done, affordable "permanent botanicals," as they call them. But I know that my penchant for this category--and my eye for this category--will evolve the longer I'm in retail. Heck, it may even become my favorite category one day. I dare it to.
So far, we've spent all of our time in Building One (finer home furnishings and holiday) and Building Three (apparel, accessories, and jewelry...always an immediate need at The Blissful, as we sell through our stock fairly quickly). I soooo want to go to Building Two, the Gift Mart. I just know that'll pick me right up. I'm ready for small things, grabbables, what we describe on our website as the "million affordable little pick-me-ups" [copyrighted, copyrighted, copyrighted] that customers come back for again and again. But I know we need the big stuff, the urns and the casement pieces and the grander lamps and the items that create big sweeps for the eye in a vignette. A shop can't be all little stuff. But this is where my heart lies, namely because the little stuff is what's attainable for people like me: single, one income, relatively mobile (well, not so much now), desirous of great style without the financial commitment. I like to think we have a good mix at The Blissful: a nice range of price points, a mix of large items and small, a balance between housewares, gifts, and personal items. Occasionally we have a customer tell us our prices are too high...but we have just as many customers telling us we need to raise our prices (can you believe that?)! Most of the time people say we're just about right for our local market and for the uniqueness of what we offer. I hope that's true because it's such an important part of bringing people back in.
One big disappointment: our great handbag and scarf line of this past fall and winter was, unfortunately, a total bust for Spring. We didn't see one thing from their new line that we wanted to order. The style just wasn't there. What a bummer. What a bummer for our customers, who were anticipating the arrival of their Spring line in our shop. Wah. Luckily, we did pick up a great new handbag line we've had our eye on for a while. The prices are a bit higher than the other line, though not crazy. The styling is spot-on for chicness and versatility and both my mom and I loved it equally. That line's going to be a winner. All in all, it was a pretty decent show for us in terms of accessories, apparel, and jewelry. The orders we wrote are peppered throughout the year. We 'll keep you advised as new shipments arrive.
Day Three, Hour Two: No More Trolling iTunes
One of my most valuable finds of the show: Josh! Josh is a long-haired guy who represents a line of musical CD imports, really great cutting-edge European stuff that you won't find in Borders (hopefully). Music sets the vibe in a shop to a large degree. As a shop owner, selecting music to play (and sell) in the shop is a huge priority for me. If the music isn't right, the whole feel of the shop is off. Have you ever attended a party where the music unexpectedly stopped and the energy in the room just died? We've had moments during store events at The Blissful when our music player got tired of shuffling and the tunes came to an end. The same customers who were laughing and chattering avidly automatically start to whisper and mince around. They suddenly feel a bit awkward and less at ease. The right music sets a tone to put customers in a certain mood and mindset. I want my customers to be simultaneously relaxed and enthralled when they're shopping my store. Nothing about our music can be humdrum or run-of-the-mill. I won't say what we play in the store because I am so obsessed with my proprietary mixes that to me, it'd be akin to giving away the recipe for a love potion. But I will say that we're not a Pachelbel and Vivaldi type of shop.
Exhibitors understand that buyers get very tired, hungry, and thirsty. There are massage stations set up near escalators on certain floors of the show! Many showrooms ply you with eats and drinks, everything from those devilishly good Riesen candies to pita and tahini to...Vodka with lemons? One of our regular vendors featured four of their beautiful etched samovars (glass decanters with spouts) filled with the stuff. The real stuff. The rep, who'd indulged in more than his fair share by 10:30 in the morning, couldn't believe we didn't want to partake! I did help myself to a couple Doritos though.
Speaking of which, my mom always laughs about my uncanny knack for spying out all of the food offerings in any of the showrooms we venture into. Did I mention the hypoglycemia? I have to keep myself fueled, you see. Here's a typical exchange between my mom and I in any given showroom. Her: "Ooh, look at those silver serving trays!" Me: "Ooh, look, they have Reese's Cups!" To each her own. [ahem]
One last funny food-related story. There is one particular item we have been searching for forever (well, for a good nine months). We knew it was imported from a very well-respected French company and despite knowing that company's name, we were unable to locate a U.S. distributor for it. So on Day Three, I found myself being lured into a showroom by the intoxicating aroma of chocolate. Warm chocolate. A chocolate fountain, to be exact, accompanied by all manner of sweet dipping treats: marshmallows, strawberries, cheesecake bites. Yum. I should mention that were it not for my need to feed myself every two hours, we would never have ventured into this showroom. But who turns down a chocolate fountain? So we walk in and I act interested in the actual merchandise before casually spearing some sweets on a stick and running it through the fountain. Sated and happy, we were just about to amble out when we spotted...our long-sought find! A thousand dollars later and we've got a great new home decor item that we most certainly will be adding to our online boutique come February (not to worry--they won't cost you $1000--we just ordered lots).
Day Three, Hour Twelve: Sisters in Retail
I knew one of the highlights of my trip to Market would be meeting up with my friend Jamie Duly, who is the proprietor of Dahlia's in St. Charles, Missouri. Jamie and I met through the blogosphere several months ago and have become fast friends. I am convinced that no one should go through her retail experience--or her business launching experience--alone. You must find a sister in retail with whom to share the experience. Jamie and I are that for each other and let me tell you, it makes the journey so much more rich. If one of us is having a frustrating day, we can vent in an e-mail to each other. Having had different backgrounds, different types of shops, and different talents and gifts within our businesses, we are able to be good sounding boards for each other and to provide perspectives the other one needs at key times. And we just make each other laugh.
Our dinner at Mama Ninfa's in Peachtree Center was every bit as fun as I knew it would be. With both of our moms joining us, we talked, we giggled, we commiserated, we swapped stories, we sipped Margaritas. I think this will become a ritual. Especially if we can go back to Mama Ninfa's and get the aged cheddar enchiladas again.
Day Four: Thoughts from an Airport Terminal
Time to go home already. Three and a half days is not nearly enough. I read one retailer's blog saying that she only had two days at the show. God bless her! That would be really challenging. Next time we will aim to arrive on the first day the show opens so that we can spend more time in the permanent showrooms and hit the temps the day they open with nothing else hanging over our heads. I'm thinking that's the way to do it...but I bet it still won't feel like enough time!
And so, in summary, some final reflections:
No. 1: We wrote 43 orders at the show, 24 of which are new vendors for us. I hadn't been keeping track of how many (just how much $$$) and was quite surprised when I counted them up. It felt like I wrote only half as many as I actually did. Never underestimate a woman on a mission. This means LOTS of great new stuff for The Blissful, as we never write orders we are on the fence about. No passion, no purchase order.
No. 2: Our Favorite Finds of the Show: Josh (see above); the item we've been looking for forever (see above), mostly because we've been looking for it forever!; affordable (yay!) PJs in prints that can only be described as "funky French"; lots of cute new tees in a glorious array of soft, washed-out colors, all with hip, understated graphics; a handful of great new jewelry lines, from totally vintage to totally contemporary (think the pages of Lucky and Domino); earthy European kitchen accessories and serving pieces.
No. 3: We felt the same quiet undercurrent of lackluster-ness that many other retailers at this show seemed to come away with. It's amazing how thousands upon thousands of us buyers walked through floors and floors of showrooms and so little of what we saw felt new and worth it. Many of the lines that once turned my head just left me cold this time, even those that we rely on season after season.
The good news is that there's always a new season just around the corner and new vendors entering the game. And I don't want to emphasize the negative...far from it! We've got some wonderful new finds on order. Shipments will begin trickling in as soon as these vendors go back to their headquarters and begin to process show orders. Check the blog regularly for updates on new arrivals.
If you're local and reading our blog, stop in to see our new candle line (handpoured in Ohio and somehow not the least bit Midwestern in feel) and the new collection of vintage necklaces, bracelets, and earrings we scored at the show. It's pretty amazing stuff! Repurposed and retooled findings, some chunky (per my usual penchant), some more delicate, casino chip necklaces on gold chains and pendants fashioned from old shoe buckles. If you've paged through a fashion magazine lately you know that rhinestones aren't just for the dinner hour anymore. I'm loving this stuff paired with jeans, a tee, and a cute jacket for Spring.
Now, we've got to go tear the store apart in preparation for new Printemps vignettes. More to come...