When visitors leave Bella & Co., Isabelle Bell doesn’t say goodbye and come back to shop again soon. Instead, the gregarious owner of this two-year-old boutique asks visitors to come back and chat soon. She always has a pot of hot coffee available and loves to get to know her customers.
Bell’s easygoing demeanor sets her apart from shop owners who crave the adrenaline rush they get from running a retail business. “I’m so thankful I get to run a shop like this,” Bell says. “It’s a lot of fun.”
While fun is a key component for Bell, she is still mindful she is running a successful business operation. Although just over two years in business, Bell is a quick study and uses her life experiences as a stay-at-home mom and avid traveler every day in the store. Prior to opening Bella & Co., she lived in Vancouver and Singapore and visited neighboring countries and regions such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Tibet.
She moved to Wilton, Conn., in 2005, and when she found herself at a crossroads in her personal life, she decided to open Bella & Co. In January 2010, she found retail space in a charming building designed to look like a home in the historic Cannondale Village community. Her goal? To offer beautiful gifts, jewelry, and accessories. She signed the lease in March, opened a few weeks later, and hasn’t looked back since.
Finds from near and far
“I lived and traveled overseas for many years and saw that no matter where you live, from Singapore to Vancouver, design and art inspire all of us and have a place in our daily lives,” says Bell.
Bell sources her pieces through traditional methods such as visiting trade shows and reading trade magazines, but she’s always mindful of the end goal—finding that perfect something for her shop. “I don’t attend trade shows blindly,” she adds. “I read the trade magazines and do my homework ahead of time so I know what I’m looking for.”
Other times her best finds come through her customers, who often recommend products to carry. “It’s not unusual for customers to come in and tell me about a new piece of jewelry or artist,” Bell proudly notes. “I have the best customers who are always looking out for me.”
Another trick to finding lines that aren’t in the U.S. market yet? International magazines. She makes it a point to pick up magazines from her travels, scour the pages for items she thinks will do well in the shop, and find out if they’ll ship to her in the U.S.
Among Bell’s criteria on what gets real estate in her shop—other than price point, quality, and how it’s made—is whether she is the only one in town carrying it. “While all the shops in Cannondale Village, which is our shopping area, are different, we’re all respectful of what we carry so we don’t overlap,” Bell says. “If I don’t carry something a customer wants, I’ll be more than happy to send them to another shop in town. It does none of us any good if we’re all carrying the same thing.”
Bell prefers to carry a line just once and keeps her inventory fresh by constantly adding new designers, both local and global, to the mix. She supports local artists by carrying their products in her shop. If she’s not sure about how an artist’s work will perform, she’ll offer to carry the line on consignment. Bell says that works well for her and the artist, as it gives the artist an opportunity for exposure.
“By carrying items on consignment, I can offer a broader range of the artist’s designs and gauge interest,” she says. “Also, this makes it easier for the artist to come in and change out designs and have a place for people to find their pieces to buy.”
She also incorporates items from different countries, including fair trade products such as African baskets from Ayindisa and olive oil from Sindyanna of Galilee, which is created through a partnership between Palestinian and Israeli women in western Galilee.
“It’s important for me to support our local community and artisans and buy products that are made in the United States,” notes Bell. “It’s also important to me to bring in products from other parts of the world because there is so much beauty all over the world. When I came back to the U.S. and decided I would open a store, I wanted to do both.”
Personal focus and local support
Bell has stayed true to her mission, often merchandising her global pieces with personal artifacts she bought on her travels, such as Buddha statues from Tibet or framed pictures of images she’s taken around the world. “Those pieces give the merchandise a more personal touch,” she adds.
Jewelry remains her best-selling category, but accessories in general are strong. Her two best-selling jewelry lines are Energy Muse and B.U., both of which incorporate inspirational messages into the designs, popular among women at any age.
“Energy Muse has been a huge seller for us,” says Bell. “And B.U.’s inspirational messages are particularly great for young women.”
Bell has some built-in market research among young women since her daughter attends Wilton High School, and her daughter’s friends (and their mothers) are regulars at Bella & Co. Bell is equally supportive of the school, often donating items for fundraisers and dedicating an entire display to Wilton High School Warriors merchandise.
She’s looking to ramp up her home accessories collection, a category she introduced last holiday season, much to her customers’ appreciation. “I’d love to add more home accessories, and while I’m constantly on the lookout for new pieces to add, I have to be careful because I just don’t have enough room in the shop to bring in a lot of this category.”
Among her favorite home accessories pieces are from Dana Elle, scented candles handcrafted in small batches in Maine, a line she’s carried since she opened.
Another point of differentiation for her shop is men’s accessories: sports-inspired cuff links, pens made from salvaged Yankee stadium wood, and a bottle-opener made from a broken baseball bat.
Live and learn
Looking back at how she started, Bell admits there is not a whole lot she would have changed since she believes everything happens for a reason. However, one thing she wishes she would have done is buying more store furniture to use as part of her displays when another retail business was closing. “I bought a few pieces at the time, and now I wish I would have bought it all. It’s hard to find other furniture pieces to match what I have now.”
Better research of her point-of-sale (POS) system was another thing that, in hindsight, should have had more attention, but she just chalks it up to a learning experience rather than one of regret. “At the time I was opening, my number-one goal was to open.” She’s committed to her POS system for another two years, so she has plenty of time to research her options between now and then.
Meanwhile, Bell spends much of her time promoting Bella & Co. using social media tools, especially Facebook and Twitter which, she says, is the way most people are learning about the new things she carries in the shop and definitely drives traffic.
“We’re constantly having to come up with ways to reinvent ourselves,” notes Bell. “Facebook, for me, works. We post a photo of something new, and we’ll get immediate reaction.”
Bell also tests different marketing methods to see what works and what doesn’t. “We used to do trunk shows, but with artists doing these pop-up shops, that’s gone by the wayside,” she acknowledges. “We used to do events and workshops, such as a free meditation class, but we don’t have much space for that anymore.”
Rather, Bell focuses on what seems to have traction, including emails and social media. “We still do emails, especially for our older customers who aren’t on Facebook all day long,” she adds. “We just have to keep doing a lot of different things to connect with people.”
The future looks bright
It is no surprise that you hear the excitement in Bell’s voice when she talks about Bella & Co., or that she very much enjoys putting that key in the door every morning. She loves the experience of sourcing new lines, meeting with vendors, many of whom have become personal friends over the years, and enjoying a cup of coffee with customers as they come in to see what’s new or chat with her about what’s happening in their community.
Bell also is considering a larger space where she can expand her housewares category, and a YouTube channel is her next social media undertaking. She has no plans to slow down as she grows Bella & Co. Perhaps that’s why the coffee pot in the shop is always warm and full.
Store name: Bella & Co.
Owner name: Isabelle Bell
Address: 32 Cannon Road, Wilton, CT 06897
Date opened: April 2010
Store hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.; noon–3 p.m. Sun.; closed Mondays
Employees: Owner; daughter Kayley Bell; dog mascot Bella
Square footage of store: 500
Best-selling products: jewelry, women’s and men’s accessories, home accessories
Favorite wholesalers: Energy Muse, B.U., Dana Elle, Ayindisa, Sindyanna of Galilee
First published in Vol. 26 No. 4 of Retailing Insight. © 2012 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.