“I wish someone had told me that”: Robyn Robertson, Red Chair Boutique
At a glance
Here’s a snapshot of the advice from Robyn:
- Don’t overcommit on a lease when you’re starting out.
- Keep your brands exclusive, especially if you’re in a small town.
- See the products you’re choosing for your store in person – it’s the only way to really tell what they’re like.
- Focus on customer service and quality products.
In Propsa’s ‘I wish someone had told me that’ series, we speak with seasoned small business owners to hear their advice on growing a business and what they wish they were told along the way. Click here to read the rest of the ‘I wish someone had told me that’ series.
It all started with colours
About 20 years ago I moved to Bathurst and, after a few years of working in retail for someone else and hating it, I decided it was time to do the thing that had intrigued me so much during that colour analysis seminar: I would become an image consultant.
I found an image consultant who trained others to do the same thing, did the course and, about a year later, placed an ad in the paper – and someone called me!
I worked all over NSW, and travelled interstate for clients. I did colour analysis, cleared out wardrobes and did personal shopping for my clients. I had a lot of repeat customers and then their friends would call me after they’d seen what I’d done.
I loved it until one day, after about 10 years, when my partner said, “You’re never home”. It really made me stop and think. I hadn’t realised how much I was on the road and I thought it was time to move on to Plan B: I would open a boutique in Bathurst and continue image consulting in the back room.
Lessons learned in the early days
I opened the Red Chair Boutique in 2009 in a small space before moving to a larger shop in William Street a few years later. I had some money behind me and had put together a business plan, but it was a bit of an experiment. While I’d worked in retail before, I’d never sourced products. That was a learning curve. I was lucky to have a mentor who’d run a boutique in Bathurst for years and helped me with selecting brands for Red Chair.
Brand exclusivity is really important in a small town. Because there are a limited number of boutiques, ideally you want to make sure you’re the only store stocking a particular brand. It can get quite fraught as I discovered early on. A brand rep had mistakenly sold a brand to me that was already stocked in another shop. They pulled the brand from me and it was a really stressful and upsetting experience.
Now I have really good relationships with the reps I work with. If they get calls from another boutique, they explain the brand is already stocked in Bathurst.
Life in retail is very different to when I first started the boutique. Online shopping has made things very tough. Sometimes people come in and take sneaky photos of a product so they can go and compare it online. I also see mistakes people make from online shopping. They rush in after buying three dresses online for an event – they’re all awful and they need a good dress from me!
I had an online store for a few years but it just wasn’t worth the time or the money I had to put into it. And I’m a hands-on person – I like to be there with my customers, helping them put an outfit together. They trust me to help them find something that works for them.
We used Instagram and Facebook a lot over lockdown which helped pay the bills, and some people really made an effort to support the store. But that community loyalty only goes so far.
Lockdown made people much more comfortable with online shopping. When I go to the post office now, it’s packed with women picking up deliveries. It doesn’t help that people see the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales really spruiked now – they expect huge discounts which we just can’t afford to give.
I wish someone had told me…
To start with a short lease! I would definitely advise anyone starting out not to succumb to pressure to sign a long-term lease. I started with two years on the lease and the business went really well so it worked out. But flexible lease terms are crucial when you’re taking the leap into opening your own small business.
My other tip would be to try to have your labels and brands lined up before you get started. It’s a lot of work, and you change direction and grow with the business, but having some key labels in place when you first open is a great way to kickstart your business.
There’s a lot of challenges to contend with these days! Delivery costs are higher and deliveries are often delayed too. And, like a lot of other boutique owners, I can’t wait to get back to gift fairs and brand showrooms. It’s a cost – you have to travel and pay for accommodation when you’re not in a capital city – but it’s always worth it. There’s nothing like seeing the products and feeling the fabrics in person. People can make anything look amazing in a photograph, but to really judge quality you have to see it for yourself.
Offering beautiful quality products and fantastic customer service is the best way to rise to the challenges. It’s hard to compete with fast fashion and online shopping but we stay consistent and every time a customer leaves happy, I feel happy too. It’s still a thrill. Bathurst has such a diverse array of customers – more diverse every year. And I love it when visitors come back to the store each time they’re in town.
I’ll probably put the shop on the market soon. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’d like to see more of my grandchildren! But sometimes when I’m sourcing new ranges for the coming seasons, I think “oooh, that is gorgeous, I’ll have to make sure I’m still here when that arrives”.
I’d love to see the Red Chair Boutique name continue so I could walk past the store and say, “I started that boutique”.
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