What to Know If You Want to Open a Design Shop

Even in the age of Amazon, there’s romance in running a store – the kind of place where people walk in, browse the curated selection, chat with the owner, and maybe even buy something.

For many interior designers, the ultimate example was Treillage, Bunny Williams’s carriage-house shop on the Upper East Side, which closed in 2015. “People shop online so much more now,” Williams explained to AD at the time. “Plus, it’s much harder to find great things.” But many designers still want to give it a try. After all, a brick-and-mortar store can be an effective calling card for a design business.

Plus, it’s a smart way to justify a shopping habit (i.e., you don’t need to wait for the perfect project to snap up that vintage dining set). It can double as a showroom if – like designers Peter Dunham and Meg Braff – you have your own lines of wallpaper or furniture. Not to mention the fact that having your own store can be, well, fun.

“I love to talk, I love to meet people, and I love to tell the stories of pieces,” says designer Allison Caccoma, a Bunny Williams alum who opened her San Francisco shop, Decoration, in July 2017. AD PRO asked four designers with retail stores – Braff, Caccoma, Dunham, and Patrick Mele – to give us their best advice on keeping shop.

Alison Caccoma finesses a display in her shop’s window.

Refresh, Refresh, Refresh

Nothing kills repeat customers like a stale display. No matter how beautiful and balanced a vignette may be, it must be switched up after a couple of weeks. Fortunately for designers, this sort of tinkering is their forte. According to Dunham, the vintage pieces at his L.A. shop, Hollywood at Home, are sold very quickly, creating a need for “almost daily tweaking and rearranging of displays.”

About once a month, he also oversees what he calls “a big turnover” of the shop that involves, say, a freshly dressed bed moving across the room, a newly painted backdrop, or the introduction of a new range of ceramics or textiles. “A tired display is one of my pet peeves,” says Dunham. “After a couple of weeks I’m bored!”

Furnishings and textiles on display in Dunham’s Hollywood at Home.

Be Prepared to Host

Cocktail parties, book signings, trunk shows – it’s these types of events that keep a store from being just, well, a store. Hosting functions does take time and money, but events keep your shop on people’s minds even after the disposable wine tumblers are long gone. And don’t worry if your store is on the small side. “I’ve styled the store to feel like like a home, so it’s a place where you might want to sit and have a glass of rosé,” Caccoma says of Decoration, her 700-square-foot shop in Presidio Heights, where she’s hosted elegant events for India Hicks, Carlton V, Julia B Linens, and the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, where she’s a board member.

Charlotte Moss signs a copy of her latest book at Meg Braff’s shop in Locust Valley, New York.

Reach Out to the Neighborhood

Stores need foot traffic! So think of your neighbors as allies, not competitors. When Meg Braff hosts evening events at her Locust Valley, New York, shop, she likes to give nearby businesses a heads-up, in case they might want to stay open late or throw an event of their own. “We all benefit when people shop locally,” she says.

Dish towels, candles, and other small objects round out the merchandise at Patrick Mele’s place in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Don’t Forget the Impulse Items

By all means, put that $4,000 antique table on your selling floor. But also make sure to stock up on small items that customers can pick up for $100 or less. Caccoma does steady business in Bunny Williams Timeless candles ($62). At Patrick Mele’s shop in Greenwich, Connecticut, a casual shopper can satisfy the itch for something new and pretty with a Charvet French linen dish towel ($28) or a petite Nicholas Newcomb ceramic plate ($44). That mix of attainable and aspirational creates a relaxed shopping experience and “helps keep things moving,” says Mele.

One of Braff’s three locations on Forest Avenue in Locust Valley, New York.

Take Your Real Estate Opportunities When They Come

Let’s say you’ve been running a successful little retail shop, and you realize you need more room. The most obvious step would be to pack up and move into a larger home. But it’s not necessarily your only option. From 2010 to 2015, Peter Dunham operated Hollywood at Home out of two separate storefronts four doors apart on La Cienega Drive. “It wasn’t ideal and I don’t exactly recommend it,” says Dunham. “But I was committed to the neighborhood, and the options for expansion at that point were limited.” (In April 2015, he moved into his current storefront at 703 N. La Cienega.)

Meg Braff, too, added square footage as her business grew. She still has her original location, at 92 Forest Avenue in Locust Valley. But in 2017, she and local dealer Elizabeth Pash decided to split the space next door at 96 Forest. And in early 2018, Braff, needing yet more space, leased three more floors at 98 Forest, which she and her staff refer to informally as “the annex.” All the spaces are part of the same Tudor building, but have separate street entrances. “It’s easy enough to hop from shop to shop.”

Instagram. .. or Else

When it comes to e-commerce strategies, Dunham, Braff, Caccoma, and Mele have wildly differing approaches. (While you can buy a boatload of cushions and even a king-size bed on hollywoodathome.com, Allison Caccoma says she has no interest in ever selling online.) But Instagram? All four designers are in deep. “There’s a growing type of customer I call the ‘Pinterest client,’ the person who is not working with a decorator, but is informed about design and is sourcing everything herself,” says Dunham. “Instagram is huge for her. We’ll post an image of something new and often we’ll get a call about it the very next day.”

Mele and his mother, Pat.

Find Good Help

All four designers have thriving design businesses to which they say they devote at least 75 percent of their time. So finding staff who can run their shops – or at least hold down the fort when necessary – is key. “You need to have great people whom you can trust to represent you,” says Braff, who has a staff of three devoted to her retail operation. For Caccoma, who isn’t at the point where she can hire a full-time staffer dedicated to the shop, the solution has been to keep her desk in the store. “The goal is to eventually have someone who can run the shop, but for now I like to be there, because so much of it is my story,” she says. Few designers have been as lucky in this regard as Mele, whose not-so-secret-retail weapon from day one has been his mother, Pat, who lives in Greenwich and manages his store full-time. “I would never have tried to pull this off without her,” says Mele, who lives in Manhattan and comes up to the shop a few times a week. “She’s so chic, she’s worked in retail for years, and she knows everybody in town. There’s nobody I trust more.”

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