Along its 363-mile journey from New York City to the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal follows a meandering path through Western New York and the small hamlet of Bushnell’s Basin outside Rochester. There, you’ll find an unassuming shop nestled in a historic building a short walk from the canal. What you’ll find inside is not just another gift shop but, rather, a place where owners Denise Ellis and Laura Allard greet customers by name, helping them find inspiration among the bounty of natural products and unique gifts they offer.
Maggie Feeney: You bought your store, originally called The Pitcher of Health, in 2007. What led you to change the name to Be Inspired?
Denise Ellis: The original owner opened The Pitcher of Health in 1997. She mostly sold supplements and gluten-free food, and it had a kind of grocery store feel. Laura and I had talked about opening a store, but instead of starting from the beginning, we figured buying into a natural market was probably our best bet. Later, when we decided to move the store, we chose not to continue carrying food because there were several large grocery stores around us. Plus, that just wasn’t our thing. We wanted to do inspirational, we wanted to encourage people, we wanted to have people come in and really feel at home.
Laura Allard: It’s the whole body; we didn’t want to do just supplements. But from a business standpoint, we thought it would be smarter to buy an existing business—even if it wasn’t exactly what we wanted—so we could build from there.
Feeney: Why did you move?
Allard: We originally moved because the building we were in was bought out. The landlord increased the rent, the parking wasn’t good, and it wasn’t really what we wanted anyway, so it was a good time to transition. Now we’re closer to a freeway. So, the move was part business, part turning the store more into what we wanted.
Feeney: Did you change the name when you moved the store to your current location?
Ellis: No, we waited a few years so people could get used to where we were and what we were. We didn’t want them to forget about The Pitcher of Health in the move to our new location.
Feeney: How did you come up with the name “Be Inspired”?
Ellis: I remember the day. We were walking around the store looking at the names of all the companies we carry and looking up meanings to different words. Somebody asked us what it was we were trying to do, and we said, “We’re trying to inspire people,” and that’s how the name came along. That’s our goal, to inspire people to take care of their whole body—body, mind, and spirit.
Allard: I also find that what inspires one person does not inspire another, and we do have quite a diverse group of customers. Some are very inspired by the supplements and physical well-being; others are more into buying little things for friends in need.
Feeney: How would you describe your store today?
Laura: It’s anything natural and/or inspirational. Everything we have is handmade, and we carry organic, too. Bath and body and even our jewelry is mostly organic, handmade. Our store is much more of a boutique. We don’t carry things you would find other places; we’re a little more unique.
Ellis: We also carry products from a lot of women-owned businesses, and many donate to charities.
Feeney: Was that something intentional, seeking out women-owned businesses specifically?
Ellis: I don’t really think we had that in mind in the beginning; it just kind of worked out that way. The more we started researching, the more we started finding a lot of women-owned businesses trying to get their name out there.
Feeney: How did you two decide you wanted to open a business together? What were you doing before this?
Allard: I was actually teaching at the time. I’m going to have Denise tell the story because she dragged me into this (laughs).
Ellis: I’ve been in retail my entire life, so at the time the store was up for sale, I was working at Pottery Barn. I frequented the store before we bought it. The former owner and I had talked several times about it being up for sale. At the same time, Laura and I met through our kids at youth group, so we became friends and discovered we had the same spiritual mindset. I said to her, “I think we need to go check out this store. Maybe this is something we can do together.” Her dad, bless his heart and soul, gave us the money to do it.
Feeney: Do you find you cater more to women than men or locals versus out-of-towners?
Ellis: Our shoppers are mostly women—and women who try to get their husbands to buy them gifts (laughs). We are near a couple of hotels, so we get people who will walk around the area because we’re right on the Erie canal, but definitely the majority of shoppers are local. We started with a good following from the supplements we carried, and we still have a good portion of those people. We also have the people who come in looking for a handmade gift or a healing gift or something for someone in need.
Allard: Or something unique, which is really what we specialize in. We try not to carry anything you can get elsewhere.
Feeney: Do you each handle different aspects of the business?
Allard: She does all the hard stuff so I’ll let her tell you (laughs).
Ellis: I do all the money stuff—the bills, the taxes, all that fun stuff. Laura handles the website, our newsletters, marketing, advertising. In the store, somehow we’ve just luckily fallen into a pattern where, for the most part, I handle certain companies and she handles certain companies. It’s not like we sat down and said, “You handle these and I’ll handle those.” We certainly cross over, but there are certain things she’s more aware of than I am, and vice versa.
Feeney: Take us on a virtual tour through your store. What do customers see when they walk through your door?
Allard: We’re in a very old, historic building. We have four rooms, and each room has something different. The back room is supplements, and we have bath and body care and jewelry and gifts in the other two rooms.
Ellis: The building is an old house, so it has a lot of character. When you walk in our door, it’s very warm and inviting. The entrance is all windows, so it’s bright and sunny. We have jewelry and gifts in that room. We use mostly antique pieces—jewelry cases and pieces of furniture—to display the jewelry and gifts.
From there, you walk into the room where our register is and, again, more antique pieces of furniture with displays of candles and jewelry and miscellaneous gifts. The next room has our body care, skin care, makeup, soap, essential oils—all the body-care products. In the last room we have all the supplements, which is nice because that’s not what you see when you first walk in.
Feeney: How many employees do you have?
Allard: We don’t have any employees—Laura and I each work three days a week. The days off are the days when I do newsletters and orders and Denise does all her bookkeeping. That’s hard to do when you’re waiting on customers. We’re able to do this because we have good friends who help fill in when we’re at trade shows. We also have a friend who comes in and freshens up our displays, too. She also takes great pictures.
Feeney: Does she change out your displays on a set schedule?
Ellis: No. She comes in maybe on average once a month to re-do the jewelry cases. If we’ve gotten anything new or there are things that are selling down as we merchandise, she’ll also re-do those so they look better. She does a really nice job; she’s very creative that way.
Feeney: What products are your dependable bestsellers?
Ellis: I would say candles. We also have one or two body-care lines we have to keep stocked.
Ellis: Yes, we sell a lot of jewelry, all handmade. The artists change out their pieces on a regular basis, and Laura and I are always looking for new and fresh lines to bring into the store. There aren’t really any duplicates of jewelry in the store. They’re one-time, one-of-a-kind pieces.
Feeney: That must be an incentive for people to come in often.
Ellis: Yes, because it’s always something new.
Allard: And then we have people who are just coming in for the supplements. That’s where we get a lot of men shopping with us.
Feeney: Are trade shows the primary way you source your products, or do you mainly work with local artists?
Ellis: We definitely work with several local artists; that’s how we started. We try to go to trade shows at least once a year, but we also do a lot of ordering from magazines like yours and from websites online that have all handmade artists.
Feeney: Have you noticed any of your lines trending up lately?
Ellis: We’re not that “trendy” store, so when people come in, they’re looking for something they’re not going to find at Macy’s or Lord & Taylor. So, because we don’t do “trendy,” we don’t really have trendy items, but I would say jewelry is probably the most consistent item that trends all the time in the sense that it is a consistent seller.
We do have things that become very popular in our store, but they probably wouldn’t be known outside our circle. We have a pewter sculpture of the word “Be” by the artist Tamara Hensick that comes with 50 cards, each with a word on it that people can place next to the sculpture as a word of the day affirmation, like “Be confident” or “Be strong.” That has been a very popular gift, but it wouldn’t be something you would find in a big-box chain store.
Our jewelry is more inspirational and all made from gemstones or wood, materials like that. We even carry one jewelry line that the artist makes entirely out of natural elements. A really extreme example is a piece he designed using a real silkworm cocoon. It’s so cool! Everything that goes into his jewelry is all natural, all from nature.
Feeney: Those products sound so unique and different. How do you point them out to customers when they come in?
Allard: Through conversation. The pieces by artists, we have their information and cards there. What I really want to do is create a handwritten letter next to these pieces describing how we met the artist and where we found the product—something with a more personal feel. We mainly tell people about the products through conversation, though. That’s what we love. We love our customers, and we also love our vendors and our artists. We’ve become good friends with quite a few of our artists and reps.
Feeney: Isn’t that a testament of a unique place to shop, that you actually know and are friends with the people who make the products you sell.
Allard: And even our customers. We know …
Ellis: … their whole life stories (laughs).
Feeney: That’s great! Let’s switch gears with a nuts-and-bolts question. How many square feet do you have?
Ellis: About 800 square feet. It’s tiny.
Feeney: Do you use a computerized POS system?
Ellis: We have an antiquated register.
Allard: A dinosaur!
Ellis: That’s probably something we would change if we had to start over. We took the register with us from the old store, and that’s what we use. We bought a newer used one, but we haven’t had time to put inventory in it, so it’s not up and running yet.
Feeney: Do you offer in-store events or classes?
Ellis: Yes. Most of our events are geared toward women, although a couple years ago we had a skin-care event for men.
Feeney: I bet that was fun! How often do you host events?
Allard: We try to do one a month. When we initially started, we did a lot of informational events around our supplements. One night we had local professionals for a meet and greet, so people could come in and find out about all kinds of alternatives, everything from acupuncture to oils to homeopathy. Since we now carry gifts and other things, we don’t do that quite as much. We have had artists come in, and we do a lot of bath-and-body and face-care events with an aesthetician who does mini-makeovers and mini-facials. We had a couple people do medium readings and psychic readings, too, but the body and face care is probably the most frequent type of event we offer.
Feeney: When you put on events, do you offer special discounts?
Ellis: Yes, we do. We’ll discount whatever product is being highlighted that day, and we usually also will have some kind of storewide sale to get the people who may just be into supplements or makeup to shop for the other things we carry.
Feeney: How do you promote not just your events but your store in general?
Allard: This year we are trying something new through Welcome Wagon (www.welcomewagon.com). They put together a book they give people moving to the community. They will only put in one type of shop or service per area. For instance, we’re a gift store so they won’t feature any other gift stores. The book is handed out all year. We’re going to see how that goes. And, I’m going to do some direct mail, because now the postal service will allow you to direct mail to just one street at a time. We’re going to try that locally and send out to a small area at a time. Most of the business is word of mouth, though. People come in and if they love it, they tell everyone. It’s usually because of the spiritual, inspirational aspect of our store. They’ll say, “This is my kind of shop!”
Feeney: Do you sell your products through your website?
Allard: Our website is capable of doing online sales, but it’s not set up for that yet. We do ship things, though. We have a number of customers who go to Florida for the winter that we ship to. We have customers who are here for a business event and will find us. Once they discover us and know what they like, a lot of them will return annually to get gifts, or they’ll call us and we’ll send things to them, especially bath and body products. As far as selling items online, though, some products, like supplements, can be ordered anywhere. So, if we sold online, we’d probably just do gifts.
Feeney: What is your favorite part of owning a gift shop?
Ellis: Meeting customers, getting to know them personally, knowing them by name, having that relationship. Meeting the vendors, too, because a lot of them—especially the people who make the jewelry—are of the same mindset, spiritually. It’s just fun meeting the artists.
Our most favorite part is getting the two of us together for trade shows. We don’t work together on a daily basis, so it’s our time to reconnect and bond again and get rejuvenated for the next six months. We always have a good time and laugh, and that definitely keeps us going.
Allard: We used to get together with our families on Monday nights for dinner until we started a business; we find we actually see less of each other now. When we do our trade shows, we have so much fun. The only thing we miss about doing business is we aren’t together as much as we used to be.
Feeney: As you look back on the years you’ve owned your store, is there anything besides the point-of-sale system you would have done differently?
Allard: Yes, the number one thing was the register. We would have done that right from the beginning. The other thing we would have done differently is have more money! I say that in a funny way, but it’s the truth. Although we planned the expense of purchasing the business, we didn’t plan on all the changes we wanted to make. We wanted to start bringing in gifts and that sort of thing right away, but we had to do it bit by bit. We just didn’t have money to bring in all this new product. Now we’re where we want to be, but it took six or seven years to really get here.
Feeney: Was there something you weren’t expecting along your retail journey that was a pleasant surprise?
Ellis: Because I’ve worked in retail my entire life, the pleasant surprise for me was the kindness of our customers. Working at Pottery Barn, working at Lord & Taylor, you don’t really hear anything from your customers unless you’ve done something wrong or something falls apart. You’re always hearing bad things. Here, it’s pretty much the exact opposite. We get a lot of positive feedback from our customers, and that’s something I wasn’t used to.
For the first year or two, every day after Christmas I would come into the store paranoid and on pins and needles because my experience before was customers coming in saying, “It didn’t work,” “It broke,” and so on. Instead, we had people coming in buying more! We have a very low return rate and a lot of pleasant feedback. For me, that was a huge, pleasant surprise.
Feeney: Do you have a piece of advice for fellow store owners from the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Ellis: When I go into a store I’m always aware of the customer service, and I find a lot of places fall short. For me, that’s the most important aspect of running a store, so I guess I would just say to treat customers the way you want to be treated, because that’s what I try to do. We have a lot of older customers, so I always think about our parents, my mom in particular, going into a store. I always try to treat them the way I would want somebody to treat her in their store. We’re probably not the best business-minded people, so nobody is going to copy our business plan, that’s for sure (laughs), but we do this from our heart. I guess if they could copy anything, it would be the care we give our customers.
Allard: I would add on that same note, I don’t care what your business is, it’s the connection with people—not service for the sake of service—that makes the difference. It has made all the difference in how much we love what we do. Whatever the business, love what you do and try to connect with the people you’re with, whether co-workers or customers or vendors or …
Ellis: … or people coming in looking for directions.
Allard: It really doesn’t matter what you do, whether retail or whatever, if there’s no connection, I’m not sure what the point is. It’s the connection with others that makes life rich.
First published in Vol. 28 No. 4 of Retailing Insight. © 2014 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.