ADVICE ON GROWING A RETAIL BOUTIQUE - INTERVIEW WITH ALL SHE WROTE
Our Studio had the amazing opportunity to work with Jennifer, the driving force behind All She Wrote, a gem in Chicago that has been inspiring locals and tourists for years, to work on updating their website and packaging.
During a trip up to Chicago for the grand opening of another client, Batik, we were able to meet Jennifer in person for the first time and she was nice enough to spend some time with us to talk a little about her retail store and what her journey has been like.
Join us as we have an inspiring conversation, peering behind the scenes of this iconic boutique and learning what it takes to run it successfully.
If you'd rather watch Jennifer's interview, simply click the video below.
All She Wrote Boutique
Hey guys, we're back with a new series which is going to be interviewing small business owners at all different stages and asking different questions of how they started and hopefully to help you guys out starting your own business or whatever stage you are at.
I'm here with Jennifer from All She Wrote.
We are literally sitting in her boutique here in Chicago, so I'll let you find of kick things off and just tell us a little bit more about your business and stage of business.
I'm Jennifer, I'm the owner of all she wrote.
The store has been located here on Armitage, on the corner of Armitage and Dayton in the heart of Lincoln Park since 2001. So, for just over 20 years.
I'm actually the third owner of the shop and I've worked here for seven years and I've owned the shop for just over five, so I would say the store has been around for a while - we're certainly established in the neighborhood.
I still feel like a new business owner. I wonder when that feeling will fade.
I'm five years in now and we are a stationery and gift shop.
We specialize in wedding invitations, personalized stationery and really any sort of personalized gift, hostess gift, birthday gifts, celebrations in general.
How it All Started
We'll do a close-up video so you guys can see all the cute stuff that they have because I already have a few pieces that I want to buy!
You started out working here first, right?
I was the in-house graphic designer
Yeah! I was working with wedding clients, designing their wedding suites and then just also doing a little bit of designing for the store as well.
I would say that was the main part of my job.
And then of course, I also worked physically in the store as a Sales Associate too.
And then what ended up happening? You got to be the owner?
After about two years working here and working under Megan, the previous owner who was not from Chicago. She had just made the decision that she was going to move her family back to Florida.
She wanted to know if me or the Assistant Manager at the time were interested in buying the store, and I was.
That all went very smoothly and our manager had actually just kind of retired as Megan was making this decision.
It was a very seamless transition between me buying the store from Megan and then promoting Katie to become Manager.
We've been working together for seven years and it's a wonderful relationship and certainly I would have never even considered buying the store had I not had Katie because she was such a wonderful presence in the store. And I couldn't do what I do without her.
That made the decision much easier.
You already had that solid team.
Physical and Online Retail
That's so good!
When you first started, did the owner do physical retail and online?
When I bought the store, we obviously had this location, and our website was honestly, it was a little bit like a landing page.
You could shop it - It was shoppable, but it didn't look shoppable, if that makes sense. It really didn't look like it was. I knew it was shoppable, but I don't think the customers knew that it was shoppable.
And that was certainly something on my list from the start that I really wanted to get to.
Was that the first version that I saw before?
I think so, yeah.
There are so many things to do as business owner that it kind of kept getting pushed to the back of the list, so it didn't end up being the first thing that I worked on.
There were a few physical aspects of the store that I wanted to focus on first because online at that time didn't seem that important to me because people didn't shop us online - They didn't know that they could.
And so, it was really important to me to focus on what the boutique looked like physically in the moment for all of our in-store customers.
So, the website kind of got pushed to the back burner for a little bit.
Yeah - And I think that makes sense, seeing how many people are wanting to come in, you're like, “yeah, we need to focus on physical here first”!
When we first started working together, you had already worked through a rebrand right?
With a different designer. And then we ended up working together on a website.
What prompted the decision to rebrand?
Because I think there's also other business owners that would be like, how do I tell?
Absolutely - When I came onboard to All She Wrote in 2015, the previous owner had just redone the logo. I really liked the logo a lot, and I kind of worked on pushing out the brand a little bit more as the in-house designer.
When I became the owner, I was happy with everything for a while, but eventually you're like, “well, I want to put my own spin on it”.
It was more about me wanting to put my own spin on things than feeling like it was necessarily needed.
Which is what was the catalyst for the rebrand in general.
But as I did that rebrand, I was like 100% now is the time we need to start working on the website because I think that that is a huge way to show off your brand.
So that's when I reached out to you.
And we didn't know it at the time, but online sales were going to become very important because people weren't going to be able to shop in person for a while.
The timing of it couldn't have been more perfect.
I think it was right before the beginning of COVID.
We did the rebrand at the end of 2019 because I remember Katie and I were going to a show and we were planning out every single website feature, you know what I mean?
While we were on the airplane, we were like, “okay, what do we need”?
That must have been February. So, I think you started in March and then we relaunched in, I think, May.
Yeah, I think so.
That makes sense - I feel like that's helpful for other people to also hear if they're buying another store or even if they're inheriting it from their parents or something, to want to put their own spin on it or mark for the direction that they want to take the company.
And it doesn't even have to be something completely different. It's just, “move it a little this way, this is where I want to go”.
I also think once you know your brand identity, making decisions becomes a lot easier.
It really does. It even helps me inform what I buy for the store, and I'm just like, “oh, that's not our vibe”.
You won't see a lot of black in the store because that's not one of our brand colors, and it feels very off-brand for us. We're all about the blues and the pinks and the soft pastels.
And that's something silly, but it really does help me, even from a buying standpoint, to just stay on brand.
Color impacts so much of what you feel and then the vibe that you're giving in the store to everyone that's walking in.
How has it been comparing online sales to physical and store sales?
I think you have already explained physical, that there's so much traffic here and it's so important.
But for somebody that's starting their business, what would you recommend: Do online first, or if you have your eye on a physical store, snag it if it’s in a good location?
That's such a personal decision. I was lucky enough to inherit this location, which is incredible.
But someone else that you worked with, Ali, she wanted to make sure that there was an interest in what she was doing before buying the physical location, which I think makes a lot of sense.
So, I don't know. That's a hard choice.
There are pros and cons to doing it either way. And I think if there is a location that you're interested in and you can afford it, sure, go for that.
But I definitely think a safer way to do it would maybe be to be online first.
Growing a Team
How has it been growing a team and expanding?
Because I know you were saying that it was you and Katie, and so now there's more.
How has that hiring process been?
It happens slowly, I think, honestly, because you have to make sure it's the right fit, which we've already talked about.
And I think I've been very lucky that girls that we have hired part time as weekend sales associates, we've just been able to develop such an amazing relationship with and their strengths start to come out and you see other ways that they could be working for you.
One of the girls that started with me as a Weekend Sales Associate is now our E-commerce Manager.
Another girl is our Social Media Coordinator.
And these all happened slowly and organically and we were just able to get to know each other and really know that it was a good fit before promoting them to those next things.
We also had to hire two full time Sales Associates recently and that took a while, it really did - to find the right people.
It's a small team and you have to make sure that you're going to vibe and get along well. You're working in a small space with a small team every day, right.
Personalities need to click. Don't be afraid to take your time. It's so much better to wait for the right fit than to try to make something work.
Work Life Balance
Yeah, exactly like we were talking about before.
Just finding the right person that you know that you can do day to day business with.
I know you're a new mom, relatively - one year old.
How is work life balance?
I know it's very elusive. We all talk about it and it's hard to get.
It is! It is so elusive because it's like some days I'm like, oh, I was a really good mom today. And then other days I'm like, oh, I was a great business owner today. I don't feel like those happen on the same day all the time.
As I said earlier, between COVID and then becoming a mom, my priorities shifted in the last two years.
That in and of itself was just a huge change because this store was my baby for so long. So now I'm kind of being pulled in other directions.
I will say that I think the only way that I was able to make this work was having the right team in place at the store that I trusted that I could step away.
And I'm forever grateful for Katie and the other girls that work at the store to allow me to do that.
So you got to take a full maternity?
I took a full maternity leave, but you're always thinking about your business, you can’t help it.
Are you here working every day now? Are you physically in the store? Do you get weekends?
I get weekends.
I'm working like crazy, and I don't even have a kid.
I think when I got pregnant with Jack, it was around year four of owning the store.
I was like, “all right, I'm ready to step back from weekends a little bit”.
Again, we had the support that I could do that, which was great.
I try to work Monday through Thursday. I do work at home a lot.
I love being in the store. So, every time I come into the store and I spend the day here, I'm like, why don't I do this every day?
I'm still trying to find that balance of where I do my best work or where I enjoy working the most, too, because I do find myself being a little more productive at home because I don't have the distractions here.
I'm not interacting with customers if I'm at home.
But I love being here. I love the energy, and I want to be a part of it.
I'm just trying to find that balance, and I hope that that leads me kind of back in the store a little more every day.
Yeah, I completely understand you. I hope one day to have a physical design studio.
Eventually in the future, I think it would be so cool to have, but I also know being with a whole bunch of other people, as enjoyable as it can be, it's not always the most productive.
Katie and I are just little chatterboxes.
But sometimes that makes the best ideas!
True, it does.
Where to Source Boutique Products?
Well, I wanted to ask one question that I'm sure that new owners will be thinking in getting started.
Where do you buy stuff from? Do you go to a market? Do you reach out to individual brands for somebody just starting out?
Well, definitely markets.
Going to physical shows in person is huge because not only do you get to see the product that you're buying, but you get to speak to the people that are creating it.
You learn so much, and you also get to see how they're displaying it. I think that really gets your creativity going.
There is a wonderful wholesale online market called Faire. It’s relatively new, it's a couple of years old.
I have loved that so much because for me, it is so incredible to be able to make multiple carts and then just check out all at the same time.
I also think they have some really great benefits like payment schedule, and they do zip code protection, which I think is great - a lot of brands will offer that.
That basically means that if I'm selling something, the store down the street is not allowed to sell it. Not every brand will do that and it's okay if they don't. But it is nice to have that on a few things.
That makes it a little more special that you carry this and somebody else doesn't.
I love Faire. I love going to markets and there are markets for all different types of industries.
I go to New York twice a year for New York Now and Shop Object.
Then I try to go to Atlanta once to twice a year. They have these gift shows usually in January and July.
Then there are some that are in Vegas and San Francisco. I haven't been to them and I have no interest in going to the Vegas one, but I would like to go out to San Francisco. They have one out there sometimes called Noted and it's more about greeting cards.
There used to be a national stationery show but they unfortunately do not do that anymore.
Okay, that's so helpful to know! Faire is good but also physical events to be able to meet people.
I think for networking it’s also great.
For your vendors to get to put a face to your name just as it is for you.
And that's where you see the new stuff. It's important to be in the loop on all of that.
If You Could Start the Business from Scratch...
If you could do anything different, would you?
If you were going to start from scratch is there something you would do different in your trajectory?
Well, I will say if I was starting from scratch, I think the most exciting part about that would be actually getting to just have free range over what the store physically looks like.
Everyone is so kind when they come in - Family, friends, strangers. They're very sweet about the store.
But as the owner I see all the imperfections. So, to be able to design my own store - I mean that would be like a dream come true as opposed to making due with what I have.
And revamping - Yeah, I get you.
That would be amazing.
I would have prioritized a rebrand and a website redesign sooner.
I'm happy that it happened, absolutely. But I had already owned the store for three years by the time we did that.
I think I probably would have focused on that a little bit sooner. I really would have.
So then what's next for All She Wrote?
Do you have future plans for things?
Yeah! You and I are talking already.
I mean, there are website improvements we want to make. I think that's something we'll always be tinkering with.
That's such a good question.
I would love to work on the physical aspects of the store. We have an office that I have not figured out what the purpose of it is yet.
I don't know if it's our shipping headquarters. I don't know if we're going to move to have our stationery meetings in the back over there. So, I've got to figure that out for sure.
That's probably high up on my list for this year.
I was talking with Katie - I just want this to become a well-oiled machine. I think we're getting there, but I just think a few tweaks in our productivity or just how we run things is going to make a big difference to us.
I think part of that is we need to figure out how we're running the online store now that we have it.
We're getting a lot more orders online now, which we never had before.
That's opened up this whole other world of shipping, packaging, and advertising and all of that.
Tips for New Business Owners
Yeah - I feel like that's like a middle stage of business where it's like, “okay, everything is up and everything's operational, but how can we refine processes to make it easier for everyone where we're not having to rethink this each time we do it”?
What advice would you give any other business owner that's just starting out?
I personally think my advice would be to talk to other business owners. I really do.
It doesn't matter if they're in the same business as you because you're going to have such similar experiences regardless if you're selling stationery or clothing or jewelry. You're going to have some of the same issues, some of the same obstacles, some of the same achievements.
There are a few reasons why I love talking to other business owners.
It's because it's really nice to feel seen. You're like, “Yes! I know exactly what you're talking about”. That feels great. I think you learn a lot from someone else.
And I personally, I feel like I get really reinvigorated when I speak to another business owner. It makes me fall in love with what I'm doing all over again.
I think it's just nice to have somebody to talk to that has an idea of what you're going through, especially if you're starting out.
I would say to try to maybe get a mentor or if it's not a mentor, then just a peer that you can chat with and get together with occasionally to just discuss, do regular coffee dates, meet up.
I’ve enjoyed any other business owner that I have been able to sit down and chat with.
And I think that I could do a little bit more of that too.
It's my advice for a new business owner, but I would also say be sure to continue that and foster those relationships.
Yeah! That sounds so good.
Thank you so much for chatting and I'm so stoked to be able to be physically in your store.
I'm just excited to meet you in person!
I know! It's been a long time coming and yeah, I'm excited to be here.
As we wrap up this behind the scenes interview with Jennifer, we're feeling inspired by her passion for her business.
Jennifer has not only grown a much-loved Chicago boutique, but has also become a big part of her community, helping her visitors connect with others through meaningful gifts.
We're honored to have worked with her on her website and we'd love to hear from you too if you'd like to work together!
Reach out to talk to us here.