Turning Dreams Into Gold

The evolution of Alchemists, a Virgina jewelry and gift store for the spirit.
by : 

Maggie Feeney

October 1, 2013
Turning Dreams Into Gold

Nestled in a quiet corner of Richmond, Va., lies Stony Point Fashion Park, an upscale, open-air mall featuring a host of high-end shops. As I strolled the elegant brick pathway past luxury store after luxury store—Coach, Tiffany & Co., and Louis Vuitton, to name a few—I wondered just what I would find when I arrived at my destination: Alchemists. What I discovered was a boutique designed by store owner Jane Hayden to help seekers fulfill their dreams and delight their loved ones with beautiful gifts for body, mind, and spirit.

Maggie Feeney: Your website describes your store as a beautiful boutique for the spirit, and it really feels that way. What was your inspiration for opening a store for the spirit?
Jane Hayden:
I always wanted to open a bookstore and a place you could take classes and workshops, but another side of me comes from an art and fashion background, someone who loves to go to craft galleries, so that part of me needed to be satisfied, too. I needed a place where I could combine the two and offer my customers both aspects, because if it doesn’t satisfy my soul, it’s not going to be in here. There’s not much in here I wouldn’t choose to have myself.

Feeney: Tell me more about your art background.
I was always interested in art and went to art school, but after about a year and a half, I got married and had a baby, so my schooling ended at that time. When I was able to go to work, I wanted to incorporate that interest, but I didn’t have an art degree. I went to work for an advertising agency, and worked in advertising and printing for the next 20 years. This provided a background in advertising and marketing, which I drew upon for the shop. And, I continued to have an interest in handmade jewelry, fine crafts, and art-to-wear, which helped me choose unique lines for Alchemists.

Feeney: Have you always been in this location?
No, we were in another location for 18 years—a nice little strip mall just 10 minutes away. But, when the economy started going down, our sales started going down. With big vacancies in that mall, we weren’t getting any foot traffic to speak of. The leasing agent from Stony Point came in one day when I was behind the jewelry counter and said, “I would love to have this jewelry over at Stony Point Fashion Park.” I said, “Well, I couldn’t afford that,” but we sat down and she showed me some figures, and it seemed to me I couldn’t not do it. So, I opened the second store right in the pits of the downturn (laughs).

It was hard getting enough inventory for both stores, but all the vendors were fabulous, and I opened the second store October 1, 2009.

Feeney: So at one point, Alchemists had two locations. What made you decide to finally close the original store?
Sales weren’t strong enough; they continued to be flat. It became evident I had to make a choice: one location or the other. I decided Stony Point was the place to be. I closed the original shop when the lease was up, came over here, and consolidated. From that time on, sales gradually increased. It’s gotten better each year, and I think we’ve been through the worst. I can honestly say we’re coming out on the other side.

Feeney: What’s the story behind the name Alchemists?
The store was set up for me, almost magically. I didn’t start it. I was consciously creating a place for me to leave the corporate world and have my own business. I knew what I wanted and was really clear about all it needed to contain, but I had to turn my dream over to Spirit for it to happen. And it did!

Two guys from Massachusetts opened Alchemists just a mile from my house. An astrologer I had gone to for years became friends with these two young men, and she said, “Jane, this is it. This is your store. It’s on your chart, and it’s on their chart.” And sure enough, one of the guys became homesick and left. That took all the energy out of the partnership, and within six months I owned the store.

It was all set up for me, except it was smaller than I wanted and didn’t have the classes and workshops and readers. I had all that, though. I knew those people; I knew the community. I knew how to have a newsletter, how to have classes, how to have readers.

I debated whether to change the name from Alchemists or not, but I thought, “No, it’s got at least a head-start with the name.” So, for lack of a strong feeling otherwise, I kept it. When people ask about the name, I tell them Alchemists means transformation; it means people who work to find the secret of life. Alchemists became a metaphor for transformation, a spiritual quest.

Feeney: Let’s orient our readers. What is your square footage?
It’s around 3,700 square feet, not counting the back.

Feeney: And how many employees do you have?
I have eight part-time people.

Feeney: What’s your process for building your inventory? Do you go to shows?
I go to shows. I go to INATS and occasionally New York, and I go to the Atlanta Gift Show twice a year. If I can, I go to one more crystal show, but I can’t always do that. All those resources have an abundance of wonderful things.

Feeney: Do you also carry locally produced merchandise?
We carry a number of local Virginia artists, and I try to stock made-in-the-USA lines as much as I can. I want to continue to expand my USA-made inventory, but items also have to be affordable, too, and you can’t always find made-in-the-USA gift lines with affordable prices. I can’t get around carrying some lines made outside the U.S., but I choose carefully and from reputable, good companies that stand behind the quality of their products.

Feeney: How do you tell customers the story behind your products? If someone comes in looking for a special gift item, do they ask you, “Is this made in the USA?” or do you convey that through signage?
I always mention it when they’re looking at something, and I also have signage. It’s very important—they want to buy products made in the USA, and we want to sell them. Absolutely.

Feeney: It sounds very important to you. Have you always made an effort to carry made-in-the-USA products?
It’s been something that has grown and increased. All of us became more conscious of the importance of products made here when our economy turned down. To me, it was pretty obvious everything had started being outsourced. I think until that time we weren’t so conscious of outsourcing, or some of us weren’t, and we didn’t make much effort.

I want to have high-quality jewelry from local artists and from Virginia artists, so I’m making more effort to get that, to find them. Plenty of good artists are here in Richmond because we have an art school, so we have lots of talent to draw from.

Feeney: Have you ever had an item you thought was the “bee’s knees” but when you brought it in, it didn’t quite take off?
Yeah (laughs). All of us have had some of those! Also, some things will sell in one store and won’t sell in another. It may be price range, but I don’t know. It’s sometimes hard to tell. You have to do some experimenting. You’ll never be 100 percent.

Feeney: You’ve done a nice job of setting up your store in a way that invites maybe a more mainstream person to dip their toe into body-mind-spirit topics.
It’s a very broadly based store. We set it up so you can be comfortable when you come in. You’ll be more open that way. To me, the store is more about conscious living. “New Age” is not a term that really helps us, in the sense that some people are turned off by it. I mean, it’s what drew me personally; it drew all of us who needed what New Age represented. It still draws some people, but it turns off just as many. I didn’t want that connotation. I wanted the store to be about positive self-empowerment and conscious living. We need to reach those people who just want to come in and look for gifts or cards or art. They’re not necessarily looking for something more. To have a broad enough customer base, we have to pay attention to that.

Feeney: What’s your biggest seller?
A third of my business is jewelry. At least a third. Books and gifts are unfortunately way down right now, but they’re such an integral part of the store, it’s absolutely essential to me to have them. And, the more I can build up books and gifts and spoken audio, the more people are drawn here because customers appreciate those products when they find them. I just need to have more variety, so they won’t feel they have to buy online or go to Barnes & Noble. I want them to find what they want here.

Feeney: What category of gifts, besides jewelry, sells well?
I would say more of the motivational, inspirational, nice little gifts. Curly Girl Design, Kelly Rae Roberts, and Papaya!, all of those are wonderful, and they all have a message. Those are what I’m known for. And crystals, we do well with crystals.

Feeney: Do you offer any kind of customer loyalty program?
We do. We have one my friend Jean Haller from Journeys of Life in Pittsburgh introduced me to. It’s called the “Six-Box Card.” It’s simply an index card you record a customer’s purchase on, and after six visits, you total up all their purchases and give them a rebate of 10 percent, or whatever you decide on. Ten percent is what we do. Mine is a gold card to represent alchemy—turn your purchases into gold! We keep the cards on file here, so customers don’t have to carry them around in their wallets. In the two years of the program, participation has grown to at least 3,000 customers. Customers really like it because they’re getting 10 percent off everything in the store. That’s straight across, whether the item’s on sale or not.

Feeney: Do you offer returns or exchanges?
We offer exchange or store credit in 30 days, but we’re very lenient about the time period. They just need a receipt and I’m happy to exchange it. We have a pretty good selection, so most people can find something else. If someone absolutely wants their money back—if they are firm about it—I’ll do it, but we try to keep returns to store credit, and most of my customers are fine with that.

Feeney: You’ve been open 20 years. Do you have any advice to offer other store owners about how to remain successful long-term?
I’ve been through some really rough times, and I can honestly say I refuse to give up (laughs). I have vendors who stuck with me through the roughest times. It was very hard and I had a lot of difficulty, but, like I said, we’ve come out the other side.

I had everything into this, and I was convinced it could be successful. I was not going to give up. When I made the decision to consolidate, everybody said it would be the right move. And I felt it. With the help of my vendors, I feel more secure, more like we’re holding it together now.

Feeney: That’s great!
We have so much to offer. We’re not the typical store. I know we have the most wonderful gifts and jewelry, and it’s only a matter of reaching enough people. Getting them just to come in the door, just come in one time, that’s the challenge.

Feeney: What is your marketing strategy? Have you delved into social marketing as well as traditional advertising?
I’m not comfortable with technology. It’s not my thing. It’s a generational thing, I think, and not something that comes easy to me. I have a presence on Facebook, but I don’t have the time or the expertise to devote to it. You really need to be committed to it. You also need to be more outgoing, and I’m more a behind-the-scenes person. I know what needs to be done and I get it done, but I’m not out there telling everybody what I did today. It’s just not me. But, I make sure I do what I need to do to get our message to my customers.

Feeney: So, do you do any traditional advertising?
Yes, we do a little advertising. I’m finding a lot of support with my media reps. We tried some radio for our anniversary, and the reps were totally behind us. They love the store, so they gave me really good deals and extra exposure. I also run an ad in a very fashion-oriented section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It’s a unique, vignette-type display ad that has worked well for jewelry trunk shows, that kind of thing. That brings people in, but I still have to be very careful because of the cost.

Feeney: How do you advertise your readers and the classes and events you hold in your store?
Mainly on the website and through my email list. I have quite a large list, but you still get a small response even with a large email list. At least it’s free! And people do come in from reading our emails. We don’t advertise readers and events other than through the website and emails.

Feeney: Which events have been the most popular?
We’ve had some big names over the years and some really exciting events, like crystal bowl concerts with the beautiful Alchemy crystal bowls. Those were well attended. People love them. We have a nice little space here for maybe 35 people. We’ve even had as many as 45 people attend events in the store, but sometimes we don’t get a large group and we’re disappointed with the turnout. It goes up and down, and we don’t always quite know why. But, events and classes are a very important part of the store. The variation, not offering the same thing all the time, is important.

Feeney: Are you a morning person or an evening person?
I’m a morning person. Get up, get moving, and get it done. I start at 7:30 in the morning at home and do a lot of paperwork, that type of thing. By the time I leave the store at night, I don’t do much. I put my feet up—I don’t get on email and work all night. I can’t do that. I know where my energy lies.

Feeney: Do you have any words you live by or turn to for inspiration?
I just try to do the right thing for myself and my customers and my staff and my family. That has carried me through good times and bad times. Also giving your work everything you’ve got. Alchemists has been a labor of love, no question. I love everything I do with it. It’s the creative part I need in my life. It satisfies so much to have your own business, to not only do what you love but to enjoy growing it, finding how it’s going to evolve. You never know for sure, because it changes, it unfolds.

Feeney: It’s not the same store twice!
No, you really have to be open to seeing where it’s going. It’s like an organic, living entity. I really feel very fortunate I can do what I love and continue doing it. I went through so much for many, many years before I got the store 20 years ago. I went through a lot of what my customers are going through. I was searching, and I was miserable in the work I was doing. It didn’t fit me anymore and I knew that. I experienced it all to find what I love, to be able to do my career as my spiritual path. So that’s what carries you because there’s such a strong commitment.

Maggie Feeney is Managing Editor of Retailing Insight.