Givers Get

A gift store owner in Boyne City, Mich., gets back what she gives: energy, expression, evolution.
by : 

Maggie Feeney

August 1, 2015
Givers Get

When you hear the phrase “inspired living,” how does it make you feel? Uplifted? Energized? Ready to take on the world? Just imagine the things you could accomplish! Well, if you’re lucky enough to visit Boyne City, a resort town on Michigan’s Lake Charlevoix, you might just get a dose of that inspiration with a visit to Leslie Neilson’s aptly named store, Inspired Living, where energy, expression, and evolution are served up daily.

Maggie Feeney: First, I hear congratulations are in order. Your store turned 15 years old this July. Did you celebrate?
Leslie Neilson: Yes, we did. We always have a spring sale in March, so I decided to call that our 15-year anniversary, since we’re always so busy in July—we’re in a resort town.
Feeney: Do you find you cater mostly to summer tourists?
Neilson: Not as much now, but when we first opened, business was very slow in the winter; we were actually only open on Fridays and Saturdays. We have a ski hill about six miles east of us, though, and developers put in a big waterpark, a really nice lodge, and a timeshare resort.
Feeney: That must have been a boost for business.
Neilson: Yes, it was. Now we’re busy all year long. We’re only closed on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter.
Feeney: I understand you own the building you’re in. What led you to buy your building instead of leasing?
Neilson: When we got ready to buy property 20 years ago, my cousin said, “Why don’t you come check out Boyne City?” At the time there wasn’t a lot going on here, but I could afford property. I knew being in a resort town that things can fluctuate so much, which can make it very difficult to pay rent and have a successful business here through the winter. Plus, I just knew from day one that I wanted to own. Not that I plan on selling my business anytime soon, but I think it makes it that much more profitable when you own your building. Fortunately, I was able to buy the building we’re in—it has space for us to live above our store.
Feeney: Do you find living above the store makes it harder to separate your home and work life?
Neilson: A lot of people say to me, “You must never get time away from your work,” but if we didn’t live above our store, I would hardly ever see my children. I get home at 7 o’clock at night, and they go to bed at 8:00, 8:30. If I’m working at night, they can run in and say, “Hey mom, look at this art project I did” or “This happened at school.” Also, if I’ve got to go do something and need to leave, usually my husband can step in and watch the store for a couple of hours.
It’s really the best of all worlds. And, the town we live in is amazing. Everything is within walking distance.
Feeney: Your store began as Bali and Beyond. How did the name change to Inspired Living come about?
Neilson: Yes, we were initially called Bali and Beyond and sold inexpensive handicrafts. After a couple of years we switched the name to Bali Living Imports, which was more upscale home accessories and furniture. Then about six years ago, I saw this woman walking back and forth in front of the store looking at our display of ducks made out of a coconut tree root. She finally grabbed two of them, came into the store, and said, “Have you ever thought of changing your name?” I said, “No, why do you ask?” And she said, “Well, I walked by half a dozen times before I came in because I’m not interested in Balinese items, but this store isn’t what I thought it was.”
After she left, I really didn’t think more about it until I went to a three-day business training with Bob Negen from WhizBang Training. On the way home I said to another retailer I was with, “I think I need to change the name of my store.” We started brainstorming and came up with Inspired Living, because the store had evolved into a shop with a lot of inspirational items.
Feeney: So, would you say the change in your merchandise mix was a natural progression through the years?
Neilson: It was more a perfect storm of events. I used to go to Bali once or twice a year, fill up a container, and bring it home. I loved going there because I felt like I was getting my spiritual well filled, and a lot of the products I got in Bali I found very inspirational. After I had my second son eight years ago, though, it just got too expensive to travel there with the whole family, so I started looking for things in the United States that came from Bali. I found a few, but I also started finding items of inspiration made in the U.S. My tagline now is “Energy, Expression, Evolution,” which comes from carrying these inspirational items.
Feeney: I love that tagline! How did you come up with it, and what does it mean to you?
Neilson: After I decided to change our name to Inspired Living, I needed a new logo. I had six graphic designers—totally unrelated—all come into the store at separate times to shop. I told them what I was thinking about doing, and I gave everybody a mini-interview right on the spot. I ended up hiring one of them. She came up with the “energy, expression, evolution” tagline.
Feeney: What was her inspiration?
Neilson: She asked me, “What does ‘Inspired Living’ mean?” And I said, “I want stuff that has positive energy, I want to inspire people.” The “energy” in the tagline comes from having things in your life that lift you up; the “expression” is all about our individuality and how we choose to express ourselves through our jewelry and clothing; and “evolution” is choosing to continue on our spiritual path to treat the earth better, to eat better. I started looking for products that went along with that theme. Now 75 percent of the store is products made in the U.S. or Fair Trade.
Feeney: Was it hard to find USA-made products that fit your mission?
Neilson: It’s not as difficult as I thought it was going to be. Every time we get Retailing Insight, my employee Jen Cousineau scours it and puts little Post-Its on the stuff she thinks we should look into. One of the companies is Soul Flower. It’s a great company. I love being able to tell people we have a clothing line that’s 50 percent recycled plastic, 50 percent organic cotton, and made here in the United States ... and it’s affordable!
Feeney: More and more consumers are putting their money where their values are, so to speak, and making socially and environmentally conscious purchases. It sounds as if you have done that as a retailer and changed your inventory mix as a result.
Neilson: It’s interesting, when my store was called Bali Living Imports, every single thing in the store was from Indonesia. Reps would come in, and I would say, “Nope, everything comes from Indonesia.” One day a rep came in from Quotable Cards, and she said, “Oh, that’s fine, but one of the things I have learned over the years is if you’re not paying your rent selling greeting cards, you’re doing something wrong.” I did not have one greeting card in my store at the time.
I tried to get some cards from Bali—they were beautiful, but not what I wanted. I loved Quotable Cards and had bought them myself to give to people. It’s a good product—they’re made with wind power and printed on recycled paper using soy-based ink. So I said, “Okay, maybe I should get them in my store.” Quotable Cards was the very first item I brought into my store from a U.S. company, and everything just slowly built from there.
Feeney: And have you been able to make your rent from card sales since you started carrying them?
Neilson: Yes, and now I have three different card lines in the store: Quotable, Compendium, and Great Cosmic Happy-Ass Cards.
Feeney: That’s great! So, how much retail space do you have?
Neilson: It’s a little under 1,000 square feet and very narrow—only 12 feet wide and 80 feet long.
Feeney: Does that make displaying your merchandise a challenge?
Neilson: It does, but I have an amazing employee, Jen, who has a gift for bringing in new merchandise and making beautiful display vignettes. In The Hands-Off Manager, Steve Chandler says you have to figure out what your employees’ strengths are, and her strength is making the store look amazing.
Feeney: Did reading that book influence the way you manage employees?
Neilson: It did. I can’t have two people good at doing displays and nobody good with numbers or with computers. Fortunately, I don’t have a lot of employee turnover, and I feel I have empowered my employees with the knowledge they need to make decisions and get things done.
Feeney: What is your staffing like?
Neilson: I have three part-time employees. I usually work a 10 or 12-hour shift on Saturdays, which allows me to keep in touch with my customers, who may only get up here on the weekends. It also allows me to retain some good employees—who doesn’t want a retail job where you don’t have to work every Saturday?
Feeney: Does having only part-time staff limit your ability to take time away from the business?
Neilson: No, I have amazing employees. One has been with me for 12 years, another for seven. When I first opened, I used to travel to Bali for a month or so at a time, and I would leave my employees in charge of the store. Just last year we went away on a trip to Australia for three weeks.
Feeney: Your employees sound very committed to Inspired Living.
Neilson: I am successful because I have amazing employees, and I let them know I appreciate them. We are a team. When young people start working at the store, I’ll ask them, “What is your goal? What do you want to do?” A lot of times they’ll say, “I don’t know,” but I say, “Here’s the deal. You’re 19 now. If you do not have a plan, I can guarantee you will be in the same place 20 years from now. You might not be in my store, but you have to have a plan.” I tell them, “You help me be successful and I will help you with your dreams.”
The best way to be successful is to help other people be successful. That’s what I try to do with my employees and even with new businesses in town.
Feeney: I love that you are so invested in helping your employees discover their strengths. What do you consider your biggest strength as a shop owner?
Neilson: Marketing. I really don’t like marketing, but marketing is the key to a successful business. Fortunately early on—I was probably only in business a year or two—I took a seminar put on by our local Chamber of Commerce with Bob Negen, and one of the key things he said is you have to build a relationsip with your customers. I really took that to heart. He talked about how, especially in resort towns, businesses can look at customers as one-night stands—they come in, you’re super nice to them, they’re out the door, and you’re on to your next one. But, if you begin a relationship with them and you nurture that relationship, you can have a long-term relationship with these customers that lasts five, 10, 20 years.
Feeney: Good point! Speaking of your local Chamber of Commerce, was it involved in the effort to designate Boyne City as a Main Street community? And what has that status meant to your town?
Neilson: Yes, that has been such a boon for this community, and I’m proud to say I was part of that initiative, gosh, 11 or 12 years ago now. When I first moved here, I got involved with the Chamber of Commerce right away, and the more I got involved, the more important I realized it is. We were very fortunate to be one of the first five communities in Michigan picked as a Main Street community. As a result of that, we got a lot of benefits. Our store got two façade improvements—we were able to get new windows and an awning and get the face of our building painted. We had to match the funds, but still, it was essentially $30,000 in free money. A lot of buildings in the downtown area have benefited from that program.
Feeney: Does The Chamber sponsor any events to draw shoppers to the downtown area?
Neilson: We have an event called “Stroll the Streets” every Friday evening during the summer. We have bands, entertainers on all the street corners, balloon twisters, face painting—it’s a party, something people from all over the area come to because it’s fun. I hear other store owners say, “Well, my business isn’t any better on Fridays,” and I think they’re missing an opportunity to showcase themselves. I agree people are coming in and not necessarily buying, but I tell them, “If you’re giving people an experience while they’re in your store and you’re nice to them and you have something of interest, they will come back.”
Feeney: I love that you are looking at the event as a way to promote future customer interactions.
Neilson: Right! Half the battle is getting customers in the store. The Chamber or Main Street or whoever is delivering these customers to our downtown area. Once people walk through the door, it’s the shop owner’s job to make them want to buy something.
One summer I gave everybody who didn’t buy something a $5 gift certificate that said, “Sorry you didn’t find anything while you were shopping in our store this evening, but I hope you will think of us in the future.” People came back the next day! Some people would ask, “Can I spend this right now?” And I’d say, “Absolutely!”
Feeney: Do you do special events or promotions for the holidays?
Neilson: Yes, in our town we have a holiday open house the day after Thanksgiving with a nighttime Santa parade. All the stores are open, and people serve food and drinks from 5 to 9 p.m. That’s always a really great event for us.
The Saturday before Black Friday we have “Earlier Than the Bird.” Our whole town participates. The businesses open up at 7 a.m., and you have to wear your pajamas in order to get the benefit. At our store, the first 25 people in the door get 50 percent off any single item and 25 percent off all their purchases from 7 until 8 a.m. We serve mimosas and Teecino and biscotti that my husband makes. We’re trying to get that money before Thanksgiving and encourage people to shop local. That’s been really big.
I have said more than once that nobody will shop local unless we give them a reason. If nothing else, it’s customer service. Bob Negen said you’ll never compete with Walmart. Ever. Their prices will always be cheaper, they’ll probably have a better selection, but, he said, you can give service. And in this day and age, that’s what people appreciate.
Feeney: So true! With that in mind, do you do any other customer-focused promotions specifically during the holidays?
Neilson: Yes, I was always hearing people say, “I’m shopping for somebody else, but I want this for myself,” so I have a program around Christmas where I encourage people to come in and fill out a wish list on their preferred customer card for a chance to win everything on their list, up to $500. When people do, I tell them, “Send in your husband, send in your friends and family, and I’ll show them your wish list.” Family and friends come in and say, “Can I see Jill Smith’s wish list?” And I’ll pull out the card and there you go—there are five things in our store she wants.
Last year we did over $30,000 in December, which is closer to what we make during our busy summer season. Men especially waited until the last minute to do their holiday shopping. They would come in looking like deer in headlights saying, “My wife said something about a list?” I would pull out the wish list, put all the items on the counter, and nine times out of 10, they would buy everything!
Feeney: Visiting your website, I noticed you sell through your own website, but you also have a link to merchandise you sell through Shoptique. What is that?
Neilson: That’s something new. I’m still feeling out that situation, but I thought it would be an opportunity to increase our website presence. It’s a “you’re going to get out of it what you put into it” kind of thing.
Feeney: Do you have to pay them a percentage of your sales to be listed?
Neilson: You pay an initial set-up fee, and they take, I think, 20 percent of each purchase for commission. If they take the pictures of the item, the commission is 25 percent. They also track whether a customer heard about them through me, and then I get a commission based on those purchases.
The nice thing is they sent me all the packing materials, so when I get an order, they send an email alert and then I just pack up the item with the materials they provided and drop it off at a UPS location. Shoptique pays for all the shipping.
Feeney: Do you have to set aside a certain number of your product exclusively for Shoptique sales?
Neilson: You have to keep your available numbers updated. If I have five of something, I put down that I have three, so I don’t run out. It’s all self-managed, and the website is actually very intuitive. You can update it and do everything yourself.
Feeney: Do you any advertising to promote your store?
Neilson: Yes, and one of the things I learned early on is that in order for advertising to be effective, it has to be consistent. You don’t have to advertise every week, but if you’re going to advertise in a big paper, then you need to be in there three out of four times a month. The fourth time they’ll assume you’re in there and they just missed you. The same thing with monthly advertising. You need to be in there at least three out of four months.
We have one local paper that comes out once a month, and if I have anything going on in the store, that’s where I will advertise. It’s a free paper that is delivered to everybody’s house, and a full-page ad costs $295. I can gauge my return on investment by putting a coupon in there for $5 or $10 off.
I used to send out postcards for my annual clearance sale, but I went from 2,000 people on my list to almost 6,000 people, and that’s $3,000 in postage. I figured I can put on one heck of a party for $3,000, so I advertise the party in the paper. It’s the first day of spring. The store is closed to the public, and I put that in my ad and put notes on the door that say “Today is a private party just for HIP club members only.”
Feeney: What is the HIP club?
Neilson: That’s the name of my preferred customer club. HIP stands for “happy, inspired people.”
Feeney: Tell me more about the party!
Neilson: The party starts at noon. We have food and beverages and really great sales. I tell my preferred customers these are the best sales we have all year and I want them to have first choice. And of course, if somebody who is not a preferred customer opens up the door and says, “What’s going on,” we tell them about it and ask, “Would you like to become a preferred customer? Come on in.” We never tell them, “Get out of here!”
Feeney: How do customers become members of the HIP club?
Neilson: When a new customer comes into the store, I train my employees to ask if they want to be in the club. Bob Negen calls it a “nonnegotiable standard.” At first it wasn’t going as well as I wanted it to with my employees, so I thought about what would motivate me as an employee to leave my comfort zone and ask someone if they want to be a HIP club member. I decided money—money would motivate me. So I pay my employees a dollar in store credit for every person they sign up for the preferred customer program. Sometimes it might only be $10 a month; sometimes it might be $40 or $50. It’s up to the employee how motivated they are.
Essentially, a customer comes up and hopefully you’ve had a dialogue with them while they’re in the store: “What brings you in the store today? Where are you from? How often do you come to Boyne City?” From that you can usually gauge whether they would be a potential preferred customer and ask, “Would you like to be in our preferred customer program?” Sometimes they say no, and I say, “Let me tell you about it real quick. It’s super simple. You give us this information and we start a card that we keep here on file for you. Every time you make a purchase, we put it on the card. Once you make six purchases, we give you a gift certificate for 10 percent of the combined total, so you essentially get 10 percent off all your purchases all the time.” That sounds pretty good. And then I say, “Make sure you give us your birthdate. You’ll get a $10 gift certificate from us to spend in the store.” We make that good for a year and a half, so customers will have plenty of time to get up here to spend it. We always give them instructions on how to use the certificate online in case they don’t get back up here to shop in person. We also include gift certificates for other places around town, like the local health food store, the wine emporium, a local massage therapist, and our yoga studio, so they get a nice little bundle.
Feeney: Great, sign me up!
Neilson: Yes, and that’s just it—as you’re telling them, their friends are like, “I want to sign up!” Okay good, here you go! And if somebody says their birthday is next week, I tell them, “You know what? I’m just going to give you $10 off on your purchases today.”
Feeney: Wonderful! You’re making people feel happy—and motivating them to come back.
Neilson: And that’s Bob Negen: Givers get!
Feeney: Givers get. I like that!
Neilson: If your hand is always clenched, holding onto something, it’s never going to be open to receive. When my son was little, I used to shop at a children’s toys and clothing store that had a preferred customer program. We would go down to her store all the time. We might only spend $5 or $10, but make sure you get that on my card! I went there recently, and she said, “Oh, I stopped that. I was having to give out $20 or $30 gift certificates, and it was all the same people.” And I thought, “You were rewarding your customers for patronizing you. Why would you not want to do that?” But, she couldn’t see beyond what she considered a $30 loss.
Let me tell you, when I’m writing out a $40 or $50 reward gift certificate, I’m getting. I’m getting because that means this person spent $500 in my store! I’m so happy! And I don’t care if it’s just $10. I’m like, “Oh my god, this is so cool!” And half the time, the customers has forgotten about it, so they are extra excited when they receive it.
Feeney: How can that not be a win all the way around?
Neilson: Yes! We have people who signed up when they were young, only 10 or 12 years old, and are 23 now, and we’re their favorite store! Sometimes you get the people who come in and just spend their $10 birthday certificate, but I tell my employees to put the biggest smile on their face and say, “Happy belated birthday. Isn’t this cool? Thanks for coming in.” Make them feel good, never bad! If it’s a gift, it’s a gift. Don’t give a gift with expectations.
Feeney: Good point! Switching gears, I understand you also run a yoga studio. Are you a teacher as well?
Neilson: No, I don’t teach, but I love yoga. I have nine instructors that work for me, and we also offer PiYo, spinning, Zumba—we’ve got a lot going on!
Feeney: Is the studio something they approached you about or was it something you wanted to do?
Neilson: I decided to open a studio here because I wanted to do yoga but I had to travel 20 minutes down the road and it was so expensive. I knew some of my customers were yoga instructors, so I asked them and we started looking for space. We opened up in September 2013, and it’s been going really well. My big thing is I wanted it to be affordable, so you get a 10-class pass for $80 or a five-class pass for $50. Once those passes are used up—and this is where the cross-marketing comes in—they become worth $5 or $10 in my store.
Feeney: Brilliant!
Neilson: The name of the studio is Balanced Living, and I had the same graphic designer do the logo for that one as the one for my store. So when you look at Balanced Living, you think, “I wonder if that has anything to do with Inspired Living.” We call it our sister store. And, now we can offer meditation cushions and clothing and blocks and straps, so we have all of that in the store, too. It’s just a great relationship between the two.
Feeney: What do you love most about running your store?
Neilson: I love having a person come into the store with a need, a problem, or a want, and be able to help them find the perfect gift to give or the perfect card to help someone. Or, when someone is going through the grieving process, having something in the store that is going to lift their spirit and make their soul less sad. How lucky am I? This is my job, this is what I get to do!
I’ve discovered my purpose in life is helping other people figure out their purpose in life. And when I see people come in—they’ve lost their job, they’re recently divorced, their spouse died unexpectedly—I’m like, “Let’s figure this out. What are we going to do?” Sometimes it’s just listening to them, but often I can send them out of the store with something that is going to help them put the pieces of their life back together. And helping somebody figure out what their purpose in life is? It’s awesome!
Feeney: If that isn’t inspired living, I don’t know what is! Thank you, Leslie.

Maggie Feeney is Editor in Chief of Retailing Insight.