Finding Peace of Mind
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. That’s precisely what Gena White, owner of The Peace of Mind Center in Shreveport, La., did 16 years ago when a twist of fate left her searching for a new career. Venturing into the unknown, she built a center for body, mind, and spirit in an area unlikely to embrace metaphysics. Retailing Insight sat down with Gena at the International New Age Trade Show (INATS) in Denver, Co., where she shared the story of her journey to store ownership and her subsequent, long-lasting success.
Maggie Feeney: When we met last year at INATS, you mentioned Retailing Insight was instrumental in starting your business. How so?
Gena White: In 1998, I moved from San Antonio, Tx., where I had been a stained-glass artist for about 12 years, to Shreveport, La. Long story short, I got into an automobile accident and hurt my back. I transitioned from making stained glass and was trying to feel out what I might do next. My husband said, “You ought to think about opening a metaphysical store,” because I had hung out at a lot of metaphysical stores selling my stained glass and had been interested in astrology and metaphysics my whole life.
One day he walks into the house holding a copy of your magazine and says, “Gena, if this is not a sign of what you need to do, I don’t know what you’re waiting on.” That same week I got a flyer in the mail about a 12-week course on how to start a small business being offered by the college down the street from me. So, I signed up for that, and I took the magazine and called pretty much every single advertiser in there. Not one person was reluctant to help me. I didn’t know when I was going to open up my store—I didn’t even have the money to open it. I just kept saying, “I’m opening up a store. Can you send me a catalog? Can you send me samples?” And they did.
I couldn’t wait to get your magazine every month. I read the articles on how to run your business, how to hire people. In between, I started researching the business. That was in spring of ’98, and we opened in April of ’99.
Feeney: So, within a year you were in business.
White: Yes, and I convinced the massage therapists I was seeing for my back to move into the building and sublease from me and make it more of a healing center. They came on board and paid half the rent. So we started a little center, and I called all those vendors from the magazine and started placing orders.
Feeney: Have you always been in the same location?
White: I’ve actually been in three locations since we opened, all within a one-mile radius, so our customers were still able to find us. In our second location, we paid a lot of rent. We had a bigger space, but when we got out of that lease in 2009, I bought a building. That lowered my overhead considerably, with the rent and all the taxes I was paying for the lease agreement. For the size building I needed, the mortgage payment was about $1,000 less than leasing. I rented originally because I didn’t know if the business would fly in Shreveport. Otherwise, I probably would have bought sooner.
Feeney: In your current space, what’s your square footage?
White: The entire building is only about 1,500 square feet. We’ve got two massage rooms, one little “floating” room, an infrared sauna room, and a kitchen, and I have a good-sized office. The retail area is probably only about 700 square feet. The way it’s designed, though, it doesn’t feel that small.
Feeney: Could you take our readers on a stroll through your store?
White: When you come through the store, the first thing that hits you is how great it smells, and you hear nice music immediately, too. The retail staff greets you, and it’s kind of like walking into a nice living room. We have an open space when you walk in; it’s not a bunch of tables and shelving that make you feel claustrophobic and crowded. When you come in here, it’s about relaxation.
Our store is feng shui’d, and it’s clean. That’s part of our daily assignments, and we space it out: You do floors on one day; you do glass on another day. You’ve only got a couple of minutes once customers come in to reel them in, or they’re going to turn around and walk out. It’s got to look good.
I don’t like to use commercial-looking displays, so, for example, our rock case is a huge curio cabinet with a glass sliding door. We have a fireplace mantle with cool statues on it and a big picture over it. The coffee table has metaphysical magazines and newspapers, and we have a couple of really comfortable chairs customers can sit in and read or use our wi-fi while waiting for a massage or a friend who is shopping.
There’s an area with clothing, tapestries, sarongs, and cool things hanging from the ceiling. Everything is very inspirational. We also have a white board that lists all our events and a shelf with information about our services and about other like-minded businesses in the area.
Feeney: How do you decide which businesses to promote?
White: People come in all the time and try to leave their promotional stuff, but we keep their information behind the counter. We ask people to ask us for permission before they hang things up, because our customers respect our opinion and when we’re giving out things, we want to make sure they’re legitimate people and businesses. Your space is valuable, so you’ve got to have things out that are either making you money or helping you network your business.
Feeney: What other networking avenues have you found effective?
White: Usually businesses come to me because they know I’m going to hand out their stuff. People are always wanting donations, whether it’s American Red Cross or the Philadelphia Center, our local AIDS resource center, or schools. Donations are just as important as buying an ad in a newspaper or an online ad or whatever, especially if you’re passionate about the cause. You can give a $50 gift certificate for your store, and that might get you listed on the T-shirts and brochures, and it helps spread your name.
I think part of the challenge, especially with a metaphysical store, is people think it’s not Christian, or whatever they want to label it. When they see your name out in the community where they work and shop and at the fundraisers they go to, they might go to your website and see you’re not there to change anybody’s religion. We’re not here to tell people what to believe; we’re here to help with whatever it is they do believe. Our motto is, “Helping you create a better body, mind, and spirit.” We’re not doing it, you’re doing it. We’re helping you.
Feeney: Has the community been receptive to your store?
White: I’m in the Bible Belt. I think there are more churches in Shreveport per capita than any other city in the United States. I pass 10 on my way to work, and I live only a mile and a half from my office. But, the first week I opened, a lady who was probably about 70 years old came in and gave me this really big hug and said, “I just want you to know that I’ve been praying for you to come for years.” So, even though I live in such a mainstream, Bible Belt area, people are searching for something a little bit more. They’re searching for a life purpose they’re not getting listening to a sermon. They want to know what their purpose is, not what their church’s purpose is.
Feeney: What’s the story behind the name “Peace of Mind Center”?
White: It came from an article my mother wrote for a magazine in San Antonio. In it, she wrote, “When I was a little girl, all I heard my mother say was, ‘I just want to have peace of mind.’ What is peace of mind? Is it like a piece of fried chicken you eat at a picnic? Is it like a piece of cake you eat at a birthday? What did she mean about having peace of mind? It wasn’t until I was an adult with children and a stressed-out job that I found out what it meant to have peace of mind.” It was a cute little article, so when I was trying to name the store, I ran across it and said, “This is perfect. It’s got to be ‘Peace of Mind.’”
Feeney: How many employees do you have?
White: We have two massage therapists, one reader who works on the weekends when I’m out of town, and right now I have two retail employees, but I usually have three.
Feeney: Do your massage therapists sublease the space or are they employees?
White: They work on a percentage basis, so they’re not locked in to rent every month. It’s good for me and it’s good for them, because when massage therapists start out, they don’t really have a clientele, and since we’ve been around for a long time, we do. So they’ll jumpstart their business off our clientele, and we draw a percentage. It’s a 50-50 split.
Feeney: You mentioned you provide wi-fi. Do you find people use it to “showroom” the products you carry?
White: If they are I don’t know. We specialize in unique things. Books are going to be the same price, so if they can get it on Amazon cheaper, then fine. Sometimes I’ll even talk about old books I don’t have. I might say, “You can get this book on Amazon for probably $4.” The thing is I’m trying to expand awareness, enlightenment. I want to stay open, but I want people to get a good deal, too. And if Amazon has it for $5, let them go get it on Amazon. If it’s a candle book and they’re talking all about candles and what to light, they’re going to come to my store to get those candles.
Feeney: Do you use a point-of-sale system?
White: Yes, I use QuickBooks Point of Sale. It’s really good. I don’t think people spend enough time combing their inventory to see what they have, and a lot of times they group all their sales together. Mine are all divided into departments, so you can see where your profit margins are coming from and what you need to order. When I order, I’ll order for the whole department. New Leaf is great because you can get all types of products from them, and you can order online. We keep an ongoing shopping cart with them, so if somebody comes in and says, “I want to order this book, but you don’t have it,” I can go online. If New Leaf has it, we’ll drop it in our shopping cart right when they’re in the store.
Feeney: And are they buying it right then and there?
White: If we carry the book all the time, I won’t make them pre-pay for it, but if it’s something we don’t, they have to put a deposit down just to make sure they come back to get it. You don’t want a bunch of products around that you special ordered and can’t return.
Feeney: What is selling well in your store?
White: Our number one department is always rocks and crystals, and then jewelry.
Feeney: You mentioned books a few times. Do books sell well?
White: Books are up there, but the percentage margin is not nearly as high. We don’t sell as many books as I’d hoped because of Amazon, and when we first opened, there was a Barnes & Noble close to us.
Feeney: Have you developed any strategies to be competitive with book sales?
White: I have learned to carry subject matter the big stores don’t carry a whole lot of. I have mainstream books, too, but I carry books about things you want to delve further into. The big stores are only doing the top five books for rocks and gems. Somebody may want to know more about moldavite or Lemurian seed crystals or whatever, so we take it that step further. We’ll special order for people, too.
It’s also good to work with companies that will exchange out with you, because if I have a $20 book sitting on my shelf for six months, I should probably ship it back, get the credit, and get a book that will sell, instead of just discounting it all the way down.
Feeney: What do you attribute your staying power to?
White: Being able to have massage therapists, because they bring in mainstream people, and to the fact that the community had such a thirst for spiritual development. I’ve got people who have been coming to the store since the first year we opened.
Feeney: How long did it take before you could draw a salary?
White: I get my salary from the astrology readings I do. It’s taken some time for me to build that up, but I have clients I’ve been doing readings for a long time. That’s my income. It took about four or five years before we were seeing any kind of profit in the store. After we moved and got out of the big rent, we saw more profit, and I started putting that into more merchandise. That’s how you’re going to end up making money—moving your inventory. People can be afraid to mark things down, to move it out. When you have consistent customers and you’re a small store, you’ve got to keep fresh stuff in there. Moving it around, having sales on items, talking to the customers—that’s key.
For the first three or four years, we did a survey at our body-mind-spirit fairs and asked customers, “What do you want to see more of? What do you primarily come to the store for? A reading? Retail? A massage? What are you buying when you come in?” That helped us tweak our product lines and services.
Feeney: Do you do special sales to bring in customers?
White: We have a sale every Friday, and we’ll discount a whole department. We also sell preferred customer cards for $15 for the year that gives customers 10 percent off all the time. If it’s a special day, like a body-mind-spirit fair or a Christmas special, they get 20 percent or even 30 percent off.
Feeney: I read on your website you hold body-mind-spirit fairs five times a year. Tell me more about those.
White: The body-mind-spirit fair is a day when people can come in and sample what we do. I try to bring in something we don’t do, too. During the fair, our spiritual readings are just 15 minutes, and we make it light and fun and friendly. We might discount massages or have chair massages that day. And, we discount the store—20 percent off everything if you buy a service. We usually do a free door-prize drawing, too, especially near a holiday.
Feeney: Do you use social media to promote your store?
White: Yes, social media brings a lot of people into our store. We have a Facebook page and a live Facebook feed on our website.
Feeney: What about traditional advertising?
White: I took away from my business courses that you really do need to spend on advertising in your first three years in business, especially your first year.
Probably one of the best things people don’t realize they can afford is cable advertising. I do a lot of cable advertising in our area, and I can run commercials as low as $4 and $5 a spot. You have to commit to a larger advertising package, but when they said, “You can get these spots, but you have to spend $1,000 in advertising,” I said, “I don’t have $1,000 to spend in advertising in one month, but if you’ll split that up over a three-month period, I’ll do it.” They didn’t want to say no to a sale, so I got these great advertisements that would run just in our local area.
Another thing with cable, if they don’t sell all their slots and you’re a good customer, they’ll give you the fill-ins, the empty spots. You might be running on the Weather Channel at 3 o’clock in the morning, but people are up and that’s a free ad.
Feeney: Did you make the commercial yourself or did you hire someone?
White: I called the cable company. They have a private consultant who does their commercials. It cost $800. I have a 30-second and a 15-second commercial. I did the voice over in the commercial, and that saved a few bucks. We put our 30-second commercial on our website, too, so people can click on it and see the shots of our store.
Feeney: Switching gears, I understand Shreveport has several casinos. Do you get a lot of tourists from casino traffic?
White: We do get tourists. We also draw a lot of people from all over the state for Mardi Gras in February. Our store also does a lot with the movie industry.
Feeney: Oh wow, that’s unusual!
White: We have a big movie industry in Shreveport, believe it or not. They used to film a lot in New Orleans, but when Hurricane Katrina hit, they started a movie industry in Shreveport.
A cable show called Salem films here. They’re always coming in wanting cauldrons and black scarves and old-looking tarot cards. When Gerard Butler was filming here, I had to get all kinds of copper bracelets for him. Meg Ryan played a Buddhist in a movie filmed here, and we loaned them a bunch of our artwork. We’ve got things all around the store that have been in different movies and shows! Sage is one of the biggest things Hollywood people come in looking for—they want to cleanse the area they’re filming in—and we’re the only store in hundreds of miles where you can get sage. That’s one of our biggest sellers!
Feeney: Interesting! Besides your Hollywood connection, what would you say sets your store apart?
White: One of the things that’s gotten lost in this age of Internet ordering and social media and big chain stores is customer service and actually connecting with people and helping them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked through Target and can’t find anything or anybody to ask for help. That doesn’t happen in our store. Our staff is trained to remember customers’ names, because we ring up all of our sales under a person’s name. If somebody comes in and says, “I’m shopping for my wife; She shops here all the time, but I don’t know what she really likes,” we can pull up her sales history and say, “She loves amethyst,” or “She loves this incense,” or “Here are the bath products she likes.”
Feeney: How are you able to ring people up by customer name?
White: We have a “How did you hear about us?” card, and when customers come in, we ask them if they want to be in our system. We put their information into Quickbooks and into our MailChimp email list, too. The staff can then ring up sales under a person’s name, and if they want to buy a preferred customer card, we can put that in and do the discount for them. If they have a return but forgot their receipt, we can go to their sales history, see that they bought it and how much they paid for it, and do a return right there on the screen, whether they have their receipt or not—if we ring it up under their name.
Feeney: What’s your biggest piece of advice for other independent retailers?
White: You can’t do everything; you need to know your weak spots. If your weak spot is inventory, you need to have a manager who is on top of that, because you can’t just say, “We’re going to spend $5,000 this month on inventory.” You have to know where you’re going to spend it. If you don’t have a head for math, it means you need a partner who is good with numbers. And don’t be afraid to get rid of what’s not moving, even if you thought it was going to be the best-selling thing in the world. Let it go, clear the shelves.
Feeney: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want to share with our readers?
White: I think with any venture, you reach a point where you have to believe in yourself. And if you’re bored and you’re doing the same old thing, you need to do something different. You need to change up your store. The main thing is you have to be willing to show up at your store, look at new ways of doing things, be willing to look at change, and stay positive.
First published in Vol. 28 No. 6 of Retailing Insight. © 2014 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.