Life & Business

How to Stock Your Shop and Keep Customers Coming Back for More

by Annie Werbler

Life & Business: How to Stock Your Shop and Keep Customers Coming Back for More on Design*Sponge

In our instantly gratifying digital age, the operation of a successful brick-and-mortar shop poses an evolving challenge. “Think of your store as a tangible art show of goods,” advises Erin Austen Abbott, the proprietor of a six-year-old Oxford, Mississippi business called Amelia. Her two boutique storefronts and e-commerce site carry “a little something for everyone, from housewares, to stationery, to jewelry, to baby items.” Though web purchases are a component of many street-side businesses, Abbott believes that in order to keep customers walking through doors and not purchasing online exclusively, they should be welcomed by physical experiences impossible to translate into pixels. From cultivated merchandising displays to a continuously updated selection of unique items, the following strategies have earned Amelia locations many loyal shoppers who never risk missing a great find. —Annie

Photography by Erin Austen Abbott, except where noted

Photo above by Ashleigh Coleman

Life & Business: How to Stock Your Shop and Keep Customers Coming Back for More on Design*Sponge

Photo by Ashleigh Coleman

Okay, you are opening your own retail business. You have your location (location, location), you have your funding, and now it’s time to start stocking the shelves. I’m going to let you in on some secrets I’ve learned over the years since opening Amelia, resources for stocking your shop, and how to curate your business so that you have customers returning all the time.

Throughout college I worked at a vintage store in Tampa, FL. This was pre-Internet and certainly pre-eBay, so the items that we stocked were truly like nothing you had seen. Real vintage finds. Seeing the look of wonderment on so many customers’ faces left me wanting to open up my own shop one day, offering items that couldn’t be found anywhere else.

For eight years after college, I worked “on tour” selling and buying merchandise for different bands. In this time I picked up two crucial skills: finding more shops that were offering the same wonderment I had witnessed in college, and the art of supply and demand. I treated each new shop I came across like a field study from around the world. What made those shops stand out? What drew me in to each place? What did I want for my own retail location one day, that each shop did or didn’t have?

Life & Business: How to Stock Your Shop and Keep Customers Coming Back for More on Design*Sponge

The Art of the Find

The number one question that I get when customers come into Amelia is, “Where do you find all of these things?” The hunt is part of the fun, for sure, but it’s also nice to have a few go-to sources that you can count on to find new items for your shop. While you might already be using the following, these are my tips on navigating such places:

Blogs. I call it the rabbit hole. You read a blog post about an artist who has a blog that then features an artist who has a blog. You can find so many amazing folks making incredible work, just by falling down the rabbit hole. I also look at blogrolls on my favorite blogs (that sidebar list of other great blogs that they love). It’s really an endless cycle of resources that bloggers provide to their readers when you visit their sites.

Life & Business: How to Stock Your Shop and Keep Customers Coming Back for More on Design*Sponge

Instagram. Like with blogs, on Instagram you click through a picture that takes you to another account, and so on. This is why image composition and quality are important. You have to draw someone in based on a grid of images, so make it count! I should add, however, that this can get tricky. If you are following other stores on Instagram, don’t just source their latest arrivals to stock at your own store. Sure, you might find someone that you want to carry and the shop where you found the work happens to be nowhere near you. This may happen every now and then, but if you want to stay ahead, I don’t recommend doing this often. People start to notice the repetition.

Etsy. While I don’t turn to Etsy as much as I used to (because there are just too many shops to look at and it can be overwhelming), they do give everyone who signs up a chance to list their favorite shops. Use this to your advantage. Find an artist whose style you love, and turn to their favorites to also love — and possibly stock in your shop!

Indie markets. If you are only going to large traditional markets when shopping for your store, you may want to consider visiting indie markets as well (depending on what you’re selling). For example, if you have a shop that sells children’s clothing and you want to source lines that can’t be found elsewhere, look at a market like Playtime. Rather than 2,000 vendors, you’ll see about 45 who have already been curated for you. Renegade Craft Fair, Make, and Porter Flea are other great options to help you find lines that may not already be stocked in a nearby shop.

Life & Business: How to Stock Your Shop and Keep Customers Coming Back for More on Design*Sponge

Curating Your Shelves

Since I opened Amelia, my motto has always been “Where the new wave of craft culture meets design and makes it an art.” This plays into every facet of what I stock. Of any prospective item, I ask, “Will it feel like a piece of art, or just an object on the shelf?” I stock a mix of work at Amelia from over 175 different artists in only 187 square feet. I have handmade jewelry, baby clothes and gifts, housewares, stationery, magazines… But walking in, you don’t think about how many different things are on the shelves. You notice how it looks on the shelf, next to something else. I have pretty cards next to ring dishes next to bottle openers, and so on. Upon walking into some shops, you can feel how the display flows, or if it’s not done well, you may feel immediately claustrophobic and have to leave. I work really hard to create that engaging flow for the customer.

I use Pinterest’s secret board feature for items I want to add into the shop. I use it to get a visual of how it will all look together, and next to my current offerings. Does it feel out of place? How does this clutch look next to this bowl? Pin them next to each other in your secret board and you can see. Map out your whole store if need be. You will quickly see the piece that doesn’t work glaring back at you. I do this for art shows I’m curating, too. Think of your store as a tangible art show of goods. I feel so confident in this system that I know if an employee moves something around, it will still look great, because it feels like a collection as a whole, not just a mix of things on a shelf.

Life & Business: How to Stock Your Shop and Keep Customers Coming Back for More on Design*Sponge

An Extension of Your Home

I see a lot of small businesses where the owner is never in the shop and doesn’t know his or her customer base. They’ve written it into the business plan to hire employees so they don’t have to work behind the counter. You will never learn to whom you are selling this way. Sure, you can look at data to get an idea, but you are missing out on the vital conversations with everyone who walks through your door, what they are looking for, and which things you have selected to sell that they love. You miss the chance to know what’s working. Even the best-trained employee can’t know your business the way you do, nor can she know what you want for your business.

The second point I’d like to make is when you are lining up who you want to carry in your shop, look at each artist’s stockist page on their site. If they don’t have one, ask them in which other stores they are already stocked. There’s nothing worse than finding out, after you have placed an order, that a particular artist is already stocked around the block. When I first opened Amelia, there wasn’t a single line I carried that was sold anywhere else in Mississippi, and sometimes the entire South. It gave customers that wonderment I saw back in college, and today has some stopping in almost daily to see what’s new to the shop.

Lastly, find your voice, your style. Look at your shop as an extension of your home, a place that feels comfortable to the shopper, but also a place where you love to be. That feeling will resonate with your customer base and will always keep them coming back.

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  • Great advice Erin! Having previously owned a shop, I totally agree on all points – providing an experience that cannot be obtained online is everything. I wish Pinterest had been around when I had my shop – love the idea of curating products + store displays there.

  • Such great advice, Erin! It’s always so fun to hear other shop owner’s stories and I love your reminder about the importance of knowing and interacting with your customers – it’s the best argument for what make small shops so beloved! xo

  • Thanks so much Erin! One of these days I want to open a shop as charming as Amelia (Side note: I also love Clementine – I stalk both Instagrams with joy) and this is great advice. I have tons of secret pinboards of lines to carry, storefronts, classes, business advice (where I will be pinning this) and more. I hadn’t thought about using them for a merchandising lookbook!

  • Thanks so much for having a post like this. Lots of great insights and tips! I’m thinking about opening up my own storefront down the road. To get ready for that, I just started pdxpause.com to find my own voice and edit.

    Would love for you to check it out and get connected.

    Thanks for giving me my daily pause!


  • What a wonderful post with such valuable advice, Erin. I especially love how you aim to capture that sense of wonderment that you felt in your college job. It’s that very same feeling that I hope to offer readers of my blog, and maybe even one day, my own store! Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Hi
    I spend much of my free time (not that there’s much of it!) curating my dream shop (I like the secret Pinterest boards for this too). However, what I’d like to know, if I’m ever going to make this anything other than a daydream, is, how & when do you pay your suppliers? In other words, would I have to buy everything up front & wait for profits, or is it common for suppliers to supply & take payment at a certain point in the future or when you’ve sold their items? If you need to pay up front, do you have any suggestions for funding this initial step? Thank you (I’m in the UK btw), Barbara