In the past year I've received countless questions about owning our vintage boutique, Red Velvet. You can see photos of our local shop here. I thought it would be fun to sit down with a cup of tea and really write about our experiences. I invited my good friend Jill who owns Lune Vintage in Winnepeg to add her thoughts to the conversation too. We both own local and online shops that sell vintage (as well as handmade) fashion. It's a dream job, but there are many aspects to our daily workflow that you might not expect! This post is for aspiring vintage sellers and anyone curious about the daily life of a boutique owner. Enjoy....
Q: Where do you find all the vintage clothes that you sell? Elsie: This is by far the most asked question that I hear. Most people assume that I must thrift every day to keep the store running, but the truth is that I buy most of our clothing in bulk. We purchased a fully stocked store with a second level packed with even more vintage last year. Since we already have such a large inventory I only invest in vintage pieces that are a 10 out of 10 (or that could be with reasonable alterations, of course). We pass up a lot of average stuff and polyester dresses from the 1980s because we want the shop to be beautifully curated.
With that said, we buy from local people who bring (usually large lots) of clothing into the shop for us to look at. We also attend private sales on occasion. Thrift shopping is a hobby of Emma's and mine. We both pick items up for the shop every now and then, but it's by no means the quickest way to collect good quality vintage. In my experience, the best way to gather a well curated collection is from private sellers and people cleaning out homes. Also, other vintage stores that need to liquidate inventory.
As you become an experienced vintage buyer you'll learn what prices are fair, unreasonable and great deals. You'll learn which styles are easy to find and which are more rare. You'll learn which styles your customers are most interested in too. Knowing what's valuable to your customer base can be much more important then knowing the value on every piece of vintage you come across.
Jill: Yep, I get this question more than any other too. One method for building a well curated collection is extensive thrift shopping. I’m on the hunt 4 days a week at the very least in which I visit a series of stores in succession, based on a pattern of restocking that I’ve noticed for each location. I’ve also developed relationships in the past with a small charities who allow me to view items that are not suitable for their recipients (like free clothing facilities for the poor and newly immigrated who are not interested in wearing “old” looking clothing).
Not all our stock is thrifted. Having a physical location where people can make an appointment for buying or consignment helps us dig up some really rare, quality vintage. The most profitable buy is usually in a “lot”. A lot is a large collection of items, usually not entirely inspected (boxed and not inventoried) and priced as a whole. You must determine what the lot is worth to you by viewing it quickly & by its most valuable contents. I’ve come out smelling roses by piecing out lots (like the time I bought a costume jewellery lot that unexpectedly included a freshwater pearl necklace & two diamond rings, no joke!). They’re a lot of fun if you know how to deal with them.
Lastly, we make house calls. This can result in a fabled but sometimes real life vintage treasure trove, but most of the time results in a mix of mediocre items or worse yet, unsellable and completely undesirable garbage. Screening & assessing these situations is key, but knowing how to do this is sometimes complicated, and comes with experience. When it’s good, it’s great! And if it’s bad, at least you’ll always have some good stories to tell.
What do you love most about owning your local shop? Elsie: I love so many things. Before owning my shop, I worked from home (online) for many years. Running a local shop is so incredibly fun and fulfilling. If I had to choose the best part it would be a tie between meeting blog readers almost every day and building displays.
I love the process of visual merchandising. It's so much fun to build something pretty full of products that people can try on and buy! I love building displays with the dresses. Working on our shop makeover before we opened last year was one of the most fun experiences in my career... ever! We've had so much fun as a team fringing paper and wrapping things with fabric. Seeing the customer's interacting with our displays is lots of fun!
Jill: I took a year or so off from running a physical shop, and about a month after I left the space, I began to get the itch again. One day, my husband said – you just need to find another space because you’re not yourself and you’re making yourself miserable. It was true.
What I love the most about owning a local shop is being able to create an environment which is born of an ever evolving vision. It is mine, and a way I can help support our family while manifesting a vision for how I’d like to live a passion filled life. When I walk in those doors, it’s about Lune and nothing else, and I feel so happy. Sharing what I love with others who show so much appreciation for the thought put into it make me extra happy. I couldn’t be long without it.
Q: When designing the interior of your local shop, what was your inspiration? Elsie: I wanted my shop to feel like a gigantic closet with a lot of personality. We designed our layout to be fairly open so that the inventory is easy to shop and not overwhelming. I've shopped in plenty of vintage shops that are jam-packed with too much inventory. I love a breezy shopping environment, so we created a fairly spaced out layout. We rearrange and add new inventory several times a week.
My biggest source of inspiration was my grandmother, Corina, from the 1960s. I love her style and we created the shop with her in mind. Other inspiration sources were Pushing Daisies, Anthropologie (we love their insane focus on displays) and department stores that we've seen on Mad Men.
Jill: This changes over the years, but my current inspiration is a mix of a bohemian holistic crystal shop and a seaside beach shack with sun washed walls & billowing sheer curtains. Both feel like a spiritual place to me, and they welcome the kind of laid back, casual vintage style that the 70’s has to offer us. It’s easy going, natural & unfussy, but also a bit gritty, rock n roll. I’m always striving to perfect the vision. This is why once a month I re-arrange the displays & sometimes the whole configuration of the shop. My hours are limited & when customers visit, they almost always are amazed at how it looks different every time they come in. I love that element of surprise I can offer them.
Window displays are hugely important in my opinion. I consider them to be a billboard for your business. We have our website smack in the foreground of our window, with the display being the backdrop. In a way, it’s like the intro landing page to a website. I try to think of our entire shop as the physical representation of Lune online, so when you see it, I want you to feel as though you’ve stepped through your computer screen and into our world.
Q: How many pieces of clothing do you keep in stock? Elsie: Our shop is a little on the larger side, so we can fit about 500 pieces of women's clothing plus accessories, some housewares, children's and men's. In our warehouse we currently have several thousand more pieces on racks and in piles waiting for us to shift through it. Since we have a larger building, we need more inventory, but I think a lot of vintage stores can get away with much less because quality truly is more important than quantity.
Jill: Lune is a small shop at about 300 sq feet of sales space. This means I have to be selective and smart about how I stock. I don’t hold on to stock for too long because our storage space is low, but I’d say at any given time, about 100 clothing units are out on the floor. The remainder is accessories, bags, belts, and love lune apparel.
Since our space is small, I don’t keep out of season stock on the floor. For example, when spring arrived I pulled all our wool & plaid skirts, Nordic cardigans, lined boots and fur collared jackets. Those which were fairly new stock or special inventory I packed away for fall. The filler stock which had been around since last year I put on major clearance for a short time, and then donated. Stock which isn’t moving takes up space, even in storage – and space costs money. It’s good business to know when to let stock go to make room for something that will work for your customers.
My best advise would be to sketch out and visualize your target customer. You could even have a couple different 'types' of shoppers. If you keep your target customer in mind when shopping you're much more likely to fill the shop with things they would love! I think that focusing on quality, rather than quanitity, is incredibly important for a young retail business. Also, be sure to purchase items in a wide range of retail price points.
Here are a few tips for buying vintage that I've picked up along the way. Make connections: If you find a source to buy vintage from you can most likely buy from them on multiple occasions. People cleaning out estates and liquidating stores are great sources to purchase in bulk from. Put an ad out: Use your local newspaper or craigslist to let people know that you pay cash for vintage clothing (be specific about what types of clothing you are interested in). Thrift often: If thrift shopping is a good option in your area then create your own schedule to visit weekly and be very choosy about what you buy.
One last thing... We work with about 3-5 alterations ladies at any given time so a very high percentage of clothing we sell has been altered, repaired or refashioned in some way. Having this resource makes the buying process infinitely easier. More than %50 of the dresses we sell have been hemmed or had their sleeves removed to make them more wearable. Hiring an alterations person (or learning to do them yourself) is pretty important, in my opinion!
Jill: My advice would be to spend several months stocking. You’ll need a head start on stock because a few good days can clean you right out of your best pieces. I believe in always making sure you have several stand out items, even if this means purchasing them at retail prices and selling at cost. Your extra special items will put your “filler” stock in a better light, because they lend credibility to your inventory as a whole.
That filler is important to purchase too. In fact, it’s the small $5 - $20 purchases that add up quickly to pay the bills. Stocking for a casual buy at a lower price point will make your shop accessible, and build good buzz for your shop as somewhere you can go to find a little something special for a great price. Vintage customers can be so loyal, treat them well!
Q: Do you make more money online or locally? Elsie: On vintage, I make more money locally. The reason is because a lot of women (like me) prefer to try things on before buying. Also, to be fair, our invertory is much much larger in the local shop. For time reasons, we can only offer so much vintage online each month. Restocking the local store takes less than an hour, while restocking the online store takes at least one full evening of photo shoots plus one full day of listing. There are definitely advantages to owning a local shop. Depending on where you live, it may be an incredible option! In my town there is enough interest to keep us busy, without too much competition.
Jill: When vintage is concerned, definitely local sales are more profitable and easier for Lune. While a $15 item hardly seems worth styling, listing and shipping for the sale online, it’s a quick and easy turn over locally. I love shopping online, but most people are still more comfortable purchasing a garment when they’ve tried it on themselves. When an item leaves our store, I know it’s being loved and that the sales transaction has been completed. As business owners, every moment we spend on our work is worth money, so a quick sale is in our best interest.
I enjoy offering some of my favourite pieces in our webshop Love, Lune too. It allows us to share what we’re creating here with vintage lovers around the world. When an item from our shop ships to a new location, I feel like a piece of me is going with it. In fact, I get excited when it’s a place that I’d love to visit myself. Silly maybe, but it’s all part of the fun!
The thing about vintage style is that you have to be very aware of current and upcoming trends that affect your buying choices. Sometimes a trend may be on your radar when it isn’t quite on the minds of the majority of your local customers. Offering your collection online opens it up to a whole new set of vintage lovers and fashionistas – allowing you to stay both current and profitable.
Jill: Thank you to Elsie for asking me to talk about my favorite subject & share it with all of you. Vintage business is very unique and for the completely dedicated. If you believe in your ability to accomplish set goals, learn from your experiences over time, and discover how to stay relatable in a modern market, you’ll find yourself building a loyal customer base for your own vintage business. It’s always an adventure. Good Luck! (visit Jill's blog here)
Elsie: This was really fun! I loved sharing some of the things I've learned from owning our local shop. I can honestly say that although my standard for "amazing vintage" has evolved, the butterflies I feel for beautiful vintage dresses are just as strong today as they were in highschool when I found my first 1950s dress! It's a magical biz to be in. If you want to hear me talk more about business stuff, check out my e-course Dream Job.♥ elsie