Six years ago in 2012, I was frantically preparing to open a “Holiday Store” in the largest mall in the Northwest US – in Tukwila, Washington (a suburb of Seattle, sort of near the airport). I had run some numbers and was convinced that the margins allowed for factory direct purchase, importation into the US, and then selling it all through a Holiday Season “Pop-Up” store. I was going to make a killing!
I had family in both Seattle and the Washington, DC areas where I could stay for free, so I limited my searches for a pop-up, rental space to those two metropolitan areas. The DC area was more complicated. I looked at malls mostly, and didn’t find anything regarding location, foot-traffic and price in DC area.
I had several friends that offered to help me in Seattle, so that won out. I considered many locations in Seattle, contacting many shopping centers throughout the Seattle area. Most malls had nice spaces available. As you can imagine, all were very interested in renting me space for my “hand painted Spanish pottery”. They get their rental money, and they get a cool store for their customers. A win-win for them, a no brainer, with no down side.
I considered a “shopping cart” sort of stand, but handling ceramics daily wouldn’t work with that and storage was funky. I had to have a space I could set up once and then just refill shelves. I finally settled on a corner store in the Westfield Southcenter Mall, the “largest mall in the Northwest”.
I planned on opening the store from November 1 through the end of January. There were a lot of stars to align, including a container that would arrive from Spain almost at the moment that the store was to open. I could not ship a container without a place to unload it and store it, and I did not want to rent temporary storage and move the pottery twice. So, I carefully planned for the container to arrive shortly after November 1st. Hahaha. See a recent blog post here, for what can go wrong with container shipments between Spain and the US.
A good friend Marty (who has since passed away before his time), and Mike, my brother-in-law and closet comedian, were the boots on the ground in Seattle for the initial set up before I arrived. I had asked Marty to paint the store in the colors of the Spanish flag, sending him a jpg of the flag. I think he must have printed it out and matched the colors to his printer, because when Mike and I got there the red was more of a pink, and the yellow too bright. Mike said it looked like a Chinese whorehouse. So we repainted it.
I put my heart and soul into that store. Mike and I visited several thrift stores for tables, chairs and odds and ends. I got a cash register. And we opened the store! It was great fun and the store was beautiful!
There were several wrinkles as you can imagine. The biggest wrinkle was that the container would not be available for delivery until November 15th, and then it got flagged for an inspection. We were set on having everything going the week before Black Friday. I somehow managed to finagle the delivery of the container, but was alerted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that I could not sell anything on the list for inspection. Basically everything that could be used for serving food. So, the initial opening of the store was with nothing but garden pots and decorative items, such as lizards butterflies and ceramic hangers of different sorts. An FDA “Full Monty” inspection was called for, which can run into at least a week and thousands of dollars. But, since the store was within 50 miles (or 20?) of the FDA office, I could get the container delivered, but not sell anything marked for inspection until and FDA agent visited and inspected the merchandise. I waited a week almost, and when no agents showed up to inspect, I brought out all my wares. I think an agent did walk through the store at one point, but it was nothing official. At one point they released the load.
Mike and I staffed the store. Over Thanksgiving weekend, Mike went hunting so I staffed the store for 32 hours straight on Black Friday/Saturday (if I remember correctly). The mall encouraged store owners/renters to stay open all night on Black Friday, so I slept little that weekend. During the night there were “herds” of young people with smart phones storming up and down the mall in search of the great deals. After about 2 am in the morning, I don’t think anyone entered our store until after 8 am the following day. It was loads of fun!
Mike and I would divide the shift usually. I usually had the late shift and closed up shop at 9 pm each day. November and December went fine, and January was slow.
My family showed up over the Christmas break, and helped me out with the store. My boy Vincent was a willing hand, and my daughter Matilde even wore a Flamenco dress one day.
Over the two and a half month period that the holiday store was open, Mike and I mostly talked to each other at the turn of the shift, and then via cell phone. A couple of days in mid-January, we had less than 5 people enter the store each day. It could be depressing. We were running sales at that point and it was a almost a museum. I always had scented candles burning and Spanish music at a low volume. It was a great place to enter and browse. I might have “hovered” over potential customers a little too much, but we tried our best. Infrequent visitors to the mall would stop in and compliment me on the beauty of the store and the wares, saying “I never knew this store was here!”. That happened a lot.
This was my first and only introduction to the world of commercial real-estate management. I dealt with a young man mostly (fresh out of college), who managed my lease and tried to appease my needs and requirements. In the process of opening the store, a young lady on the admin staff offered some “marketing ideas”. She forwarded her ideas, and what I remember receiving was 5-6 jpgs of free-ware cartoons. The mall administration did try to bring foot traffic to the front of the store. They set up a coffee stand in front of the store where they gave new single portion coffees away for free. Less than a year after my store closed, all the people I had dealt with had moved to new jobs or were let go. Pretty crazy environment. They made their money though.
The store had a back storage area which was very convenient for storage and for conducting work when the store was closed. But because the pop-up holiday store was actually a “store”, some issues arose regarding water and electricity not being up to code. A building inspector came around several times (from the city of Tukwila) and wrote up several issues that had to be addressed. I was always helpful and earnest in my dealings with the inspector. When he finally arrived with his final recommendations, I explained that the store would close at the end of January and that it would be hard to address the issues. He was surprised! He thought the store was a permanent store. He quickly told me that I can probably skate by, not being up to code in everything. I gave him a ceramic, hand painted lizard that hangs on the wall, and he went away very happy.
One of the mall maintenance men came by to visit frequently. He always looked longingly at the colorful lizards hanging on the wall (several which I had glued back together after they arrived to Tukwila with tails broken off). When I finally moved out at the end of January, I gifted three to him and he was a very happy camper too.
At one point in mid-January, with the crickets chirping and Mike and I looking at each other sadly, I realized that I was not going to sell all my wares, … even with sales. So, plan B went into effect. I made several forays into the local business community gauging interest in my inventory. Most everyone had their hands full and I learned that many small business people really are just flying by the seat of their pants. Opportunity could bite them in the butt and they would skedaddle. Most had little money, time, energy or ability to take advantage of opportunity. Just day to day survival.
Finally, I decided we would fire sale all the big stuff that would be difficult to ship through the mail. And I would save all the smaller pieces that can be easily boxed up. This proved to be the starting point for our online store (gringocool.com).
As you can imagine, there are always people looking for great deals. Several ladies were monitoring the store, waiting for the right moment to buy some of the dishes at the lowest price possible. Near the end of January, I specifically remember one lady insisting that I should sell her sets of plates for less than the fire sale price marked. She really, really wanted to purchase a set of dishes, and she was indignant! She was like, “… you have to sell me the dishes at this price!”, and I said, “…No I don’t”. Her,….”Yes you do!” Me, ….”No I don’t”. How could I hold out! She knew the store was going to close in a week or so, and she just was just sure that I should almost give her the set of dishes. Her husband stood behind her when she was lecturing me and sort of whistled while looking at the ceiling. Eventually she went away empty handed.
Hey, I made a lot of really sweet deals with customers, specially with young couples that appreciated the product. If this lady had been a little more tuned in, I would have loved to make a deal with her. But somehow, she got my back up.
Looking back on this pop-up store experience generates many feelings. The store was a huge effort and I learned many lessons, some painful. But, the fundamental memories I have are colored with love. My wife Pia, my daughter Matilde, my son Vincent, my brother-in-law Mike, my late friend Marty, my sister, my family and so many others were so supportive of my mad cap project. And every day was an adventure! Anything could happen! Get up and get to work! Today is going to be a GREAT DAY!, … LEGENDARY! …… I am such an optimist. I wasn’t smoking anything, it is just that a part of my brain sees rainbows all the time and it was in full bloom at that point. I enjoyed every single day and have wonderful memories.
What did I learn? Well, …let me think a little.
#1. Foot Traffic and Location: I spent some time trying to find the right place, with a lot of foot traffic and in a good location. I settled on a corner store in the Westfield Southcenter in Tukwila, WA, the “Largest” mall in the Northwest. I still feel it was the best option at that point, but I will make 2 important points. First, I took everyone by surprise. Many customers told me they never expected to see my kind of store there and that they had already spent their budget for gifts. And they would follow up asking if I would be there again next year. Second, my product is a “luxury” product and maybe not the perfect match for the foot traffic in Tukwila. My stuff was not expensive but “hand painted Spanish pottery” is not on everyone’s “to get” list (something I still have a hard time understanding today
#2. Internet rules! Throughout my brief foray into a brick and mortar environment, many people (mostly young people), would ask me if they could buy my stuff online. At that point I did not have my online store set up and so the answer was no. They would look at me like I was a fool and kind of embarrassed like, suggest that I open an online store. This was a no-brainer. I just couldn’t do everything at once, and all my energy was on the holiday store project. I should have opened the internet store first.
#3. Advertising: Once I got everything set up, I made several efforts to advertise the store. Via radio and via the mall. But it was too little too late. If this sort of effort were to be hugely successful, many, many people would have to learn about it. A sustained advertising effort coupled with a sustained store could very well be a good business. But again, a lot of people would have to learn of it’s existence and that does not happen one day to the next.
#4. Slow & Steady: I was out to make a killing! Going to get rich in 3 months! Sock the money away and off I go. Didn’t happen. I almost broke even after everything was said and done, and a by-product of the effort was inventory in the States which I used to start up my online store. So, it was a step forward. But, if I were to try something similar in the future, it would have a 2 or 3 year time line to it with a sustained effort projected. Not a 6 month, mad cap project.
If you would like to see a youtube virtual tour of the store at it’s peak, check out https://youtu.be/KFkyswgq72I or click on the photo below
I will close saying that I have so many great memories from this mercantile adventure. What a loon I was. And everyone was so patient and supportive of the loon. I learned a lot. And we had so much fun!
Comments and questions are always welcome. Thanks for reading – Steve