Thursday, October 2, 2008

Retail Therapy: Romp

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# of employees:
1 Fulltime (me) plus 1-2 partimers, depending on what's happening.
Did you write a business plan (y/n)?
Yes. I found it to be an incredibly helpful experience. I haven't looked at it in years, but when I was formulating my business, it helped me focus my thinking, convince myself that my ideas were legitimate business ideas and not just pie-in-the-sky fantasies, get a handle on the financial constraints, etc. I have always liked to sort out my thoughts through writing, so for me it was a natural thing to do. I also used it to acquire funding.
Day your doors opened:
July 8, 2003
Jenn LaBelle

>> click here to continue reading about Romp

>> Think you're ready to open up a shop? Read on and find out what really goes on behind the register...

1. Name one thing that completely took you by surprise when you first started ROMP - something that neither biz how-to books or any "SCORE" workshop prepared you for.

This sounds sort of silly, but I wasn't prepared to be viewed as an expert in the products I sold. I loved everything I had and chose it for the 'right' reasons, but I was initially surprised that people assumed I knew so much about the toy/kid market in general, age/ability milestones, etc. I did quickly become an 'expert' but it was a crash course!

2. What is your professional background and what compelled you to go into retail?

I was trained as and worked as a designer for 10 years prior to opening ROMP. I was trained in Industrial Design and worked for a firm that did everything - from graphics to exhibits, products to interiors, we also did a lot of branded interiors and tradeshows, which gave me a great sense of how to set up a space and present a unified point of view as a retailer. After being home with my daughter for a year, I realized how many great things there were out there for like-minded parents, but at the time, no one was presenting them in a cohesive way. Also I love to shop and know I have a really good eye.

3. You describe your shop as...

"ROMP started out as a kid's store with a deep respect for play. we offer toys to stand the test of time and engage kids' natural curiosity and sense of joy and wonder with the world."

Can you talk about how you came up with this concept and was it your original concept prior to opening the shop or was it something that the shop organically transformed into because of the location/neighborhood/target market?

Brooklyn Shop
To me, it was an outgrowth of being a Mom and designer. It was definitely the idea of the store to begin with, but I think I paid more attention to the design of the toys in the beginning. Design has always driven my product choices for ROMP but it is my approach to parenting that drives it even more.

I had (and have) pretty strong ideas of what I want to encourage and inspire in my daughter. While she's still young, I want to shelter her as much as possible from the over-commercialized world. I want her to be a kid with a vivid imagination for as long as possible and I want her to trust her own instincts about what she wants to do and who she is. There are so many toys out there that tell kids how to play with them or are very very specific about gender, age, etc. Many of these toys aren't about play; they're about distracting kids, not inspiring them.

I could go on and on about my opinions about toys and be too serious and preachy about it, but really it's about play and letting kids be kids.

I knew I wasn't alone in these ideas and knew I was surrounded with like-minded peopl in Brooklyn when I first opened the store.

4. Do you have a magical "buying" formula? Can you please share some things you've learned about buying and deciding how much inventory to purchase with first-time buyers getting ready to make their first batch of wholesale orders?

My buying philosophy is "trust your instincts". First time buying is hard (in fact, buying is always hard!), but vendors have a real interest in your success. Trust them to tell you what works and what doesn't but overall trust yourself and listen to your customers. I have always had things in the store that sold so well I could barely keep them in stock, and things that I adored but sold so slowly I had to make sure to keep the dust bunnies away.

Sometimes the things that people go crazy for and talk about are not the ones that sell the most. It's all about the mix - high and low prices. Simple and lavish things. I love that mix of stuff in my own home and it was always really successful to me in the store.

Some of the reasons why Jenn and her family moved to the Hudson Valley...5. You had the shop in Brooklyn for 3 years and have recently decided to move to Hudson Valley. Did you ever considering selling the business or do you think you'll be opening up another shop closer to home?

I did seriously consider selling the business and if things had gone differently, I may have. But the right buyer never emerged and I decided to keep the brand as my own. I worked hard to create and build the brand and though I could and may do it again, I wasn't ready to let go of ROMP. I may open another shop and it may be another ROMP or it may be something else. I am also distributing (and wholesaling to to other stores) some lines through ROMP and I plan to continue this as a way to bring great new small and creative designs to the US market.

Brand new office space...
>> So you think your goods are perfect for Romp?

6. Do most of the other designers you carry approach you, or do you actively seek out new designers/crafters? If so, where?

At this point, it's about half and half. Looking for new things is my favorite thing in the world, but now that I have a presence people definitely find me too. I do feel like it's my job to stay ahead of the curve in finding new things to bring to market.

7. What is your process in choosing merchandise and what 3 things can artists do to stand out in your mind?

I really appreciate persistence - you're not bugging me, and if I don't think what you've got is right for ROMP, I'll tell you.

As I've mentioned, I really trust my own eye and buy what I like. I don't really have a formula.

1. I can't tell you how much I appreciate when a designer or craftsperson has done their homework and approach me with something that they know would be great at ROMP.

2. Some smaller craft people make gorgeous things, but aren't set up to sell to stores - different mark-ups, quantities, etc. - so this has eliminated some things that I might like to sell, but I'm always happy to talk with craftspeople who are looking to break into selling to stores (especially if I like their stuff!)

3. Also, be patient and be persistent; buyers - especially those who run the whole biz as many of us do - are busy and are usually doing 10 things at the same time. If I like something, sometimes it takes me a long while to get around to buying it. I really appreciate persistence - you're not bugging me, and if I don't think what you've got is right for ROMP, I'll tell you.

Owning a shop means constantly wearing different hats. Here's how Jenn ends up spending her time:

This so depends on what I'm doing each month/week/day, but I'll try to think about the whole year:

20% Buying | 15% Marketing & Promo
30% Production & Operations | 10% Customer Service*
10% Fulfillment/Shipping | 15% Accounting/Billing/Finances

* now that I'm online this is less - in the store, it was much more!

I'm moving towards personally focusing less on what you're calling production and operations and more on marketing and promotion. It's VERY hard to stay focussed on what I know I need to do to sustain and grow my business and not get pulled into reacting to the constant small crises that always emerge.

9. You've been in business for over three years - was there a year where you felt some kind of sigh of relief and felt confident that you weren't going to be part of a statistic? They say that in the restaurant business, you shouldn't expect to see any profit until your second year - is it the same for retail in your experience? What should aspiring store owners be prepared to expect?

It's hard for me to answer this one, mostly because I essentially started a new business (the wholesale part) in the midst of running this one. Also, closing the physical store and moving to online only is such a major change. Also, I was a bit under-capitalized from the beginning and cash flow is the biggest challenge fro retailers. You probably won't make any money in the first year, but if you can afford to pay yourself, do it!

Jenn's beautiful family...
10. How many hours do you work per week and how has owning a business changed your life?

I had a hard time finding design work after 9/11 and I wasn't sure entirely who I was after becoming a mommy...

Anyone who owns their own business would probably tell you that you're always working. Since I have a young daughter, I don't have a conventional or regular work week. If I need to be with her, I'm available (which is great!) but I often work evenings or weekends if I need to. I think about work all the time! Since I closed the physical store and moved up here, I can honestly say that the weekends are usually my own.

Owning a business has completely changed my life! It gave me a sense of purpose and belief in myself when I really needed it (I had a hard time finding design work after 9/11 and I wasn't sure entirely who I was after becoming a mommy). It has connected me with amazing women (and a few men!) who are also entrepreneurs.

It's allowed me to travel, shop and look at things with a fresh set of eyes. It makes me respect and appreciate anyone who puts themselves out there and does something (anything!) that's their own. It truly inspires me every day. I don't know that I could ever go back and work full-time for someone else, but who knows. I think it also has to be said that it also gives me a ton of stress and makes me doubt myself in ways that I didn't when I was just an employee (this happens less than the positive things, but it's a very real part of owning your own business and is the #1 reason that I have to connect with other small business owners or I go nuts!)

11. We all have days when we throw up our hands and say "I can't do this anymore!" - what 3 things do you say to yourself or do in order to snap out of it and persevere?

12. If Oprah decided to give you $10,000 tax free for your business, but you had to spend it in one week, what would you do with it?

Book private Yoga classes and find an obscure but exciting trade/craft fair in Europe and make a working vacation of it with my husband.

1. wooden play animals $7-$18
2. happy bins $9
3. handmade suede shoes $58
4. ragamuffins $62.00
5. Initial Pillows $58
6. sculpted wooden animals $20-$36
7. wallpaper silhouettes (giraffe shown) $100
8. house of cards $28/$38
9. mini suitcases $5.50-$21


Thanks Jenn!


Melissa de la Fuente said...

LOVE and have always loved Jenn's shop! I have been wanting one of the wallpaper menagerie forever. So happy for her and her lovely family that they made this move and all the best in the new adventure!