Thursday, March 5, 2009

Retail Therapy: White Rabbit

Quick Facts:
White Rabbit (Iowa City, Iowa)
+ Cortnie Widen, Owner
+ 3 employees including owner
+ Works ~30 hrs in the shop & at least another 20-30 at a home studio
+ Didn't write a business plan
+ Doors opened on December 2, 2006
* Cortnie is currently working on revamping the site, in the meantime you can check out her etsy shop at

>> 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 opened the shop - something that neither biz how-to books, small biz workshops or any "SCORE" workshop prepared you for.

I suppose how many people I would meet would have blown me away. I didn't read any business how-to books because when I first started it was sort of a hobby, I didn't know it would grow into what it is today.

2. How did you come up with the name? Can you share 3 other names that were close runner ups or ones that would have been disastrous in hindsight?

I don't remember any other names that were even in the running, I know there were some, but I have long forgotten them. I was and am to this day a huge fan of the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" (it's my karaoke song). I thought it represented my aesthetic well.

3. Where there any stand out books, resources or tools that were really helpful during the planning phase or even up until now?

Up Until 3 months ago, I had been doing all the book work on actual paper! I finally got Quick Books and it has made my life so much easier!

4. Can you tell us a little about your background and what compelled you to get into retail and start a business?

I was compelled to start the shop because I was so inspired by some of the other artists in town I thought it would we so great to have a place to showcase their work! I also wanted a place to sell my own things. I had been selling things at a few businesses downtown, but I wanted to do more with it. I wanted to do it full time.

>> So you think your goods are perfect for White Rabbit?

5. Are you still a 60/40 consignment shop? If so, your cut is the MOST generous split I've EVER EVER seen. Could you explain the thought behind this and could you offer some advice and tips re consigning products to aspiring shop owners. What to avoid, must do's etc.

If you can believe it at our first shop our split was even more generous! We did 70/30 while we were in that space! I have been on the other side, and know how hard it is to even make it worth you time! With our second space we changed to 60/40 since our rent went up a bit, and we are still at the same 60/40 at our third shop. I sell enough White Rabbit merchandise that it hasn't been a problem.

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

I seek out people and people seek me. I usually peruse etsy or the backs of magazines or online handmade shops.

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

My process is fairly simple. I look for quality of construction, uniqueness and function. I also have to keep retail price in mind, especially since the economy is in a slump.

8. Owning a shop means constantly wearing different hats. Here's how Cortnie ends up spending most of her time:

Buying 10%
Marketing & Promo 10%
Production & Operations (photos for site, hang-tags, display) 35%
Customer Service 20%
Fulfillment/Shipping 5%
Accounting/Billing/Finances 20%

9. They say that "A business that doesn't grow eventually dies..." How has your shop evolved since you first opened your doors back in 2006?

Since White Rabbit opened in 2006. We have had 3 stores. Each one bigger than the one before, and each one in a better part of downtown Iowa City with more foot traffic. With the last move we have incorporated vintage clothing and boots! I'm very happy with our progress considering our humble beginnings! We started our first store in a place called the Hall Mall. It was tiny! The rent was cheap but there was virtually no foot traffic, we organized events like local music or art shows to get people to come up, but it was hard. I was also working a decent paying part time job at the time, so I wasn't expecting the store to support me in the beginning. It was just something I was passionate about doing. I believe we started our first store with $1,500.00 tops. I have never had a credit card nor taken out any loans, and am proud to not have debt! I'm looking forward to moving one more time before we settle in and expanding our online presence.

10. 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?

I'd use it for a partial down payment on a building, It would be nice to own and not pay rent! Otherwise I'd spend it on supplies to make more things.

11. What's one thing that you wish you had known prior to opening your shop?

I wish I'd have known the amount of time and energy it takes! It has been awesome, but it is way more than full-time, especially when you're making a lot of the product.

White Rabbit Gallery
109 South Linn Street
Iowa City, Iowa 52240

Thanks Cortnie!!


Melissa de la Fuente said...

How awesome! And I love that she used to be part of a water skiing show! So great! Off to check out the website right now!

Katrina said...

I loved this interview! I'm definitely going to check out the White Rabbit website. :)

Unknown said...

Great interview. So wonderful and inspiring!

I love it that she didn't expect the shop to support her straight away.

I see too many people that start by jumping in the deep end and expecting an over-night success.
This is such a refreshing and grounded approach from this lovely young lady!



we have also 60/40, but some people don't think it*s generous... what's
"normal" in usa? my little shop is in germany...

geat interview, best, miriam

our shoP: