Our recent post introduced you to three independent retailers with thriving businesses in Suburban Square, a flagship Kimco property in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Nestled amongst major international retailers, such as J.Crew, Lululemon, and Apple, as well as franchises like Ruby’s Diner and Robeks, these independent retailers have garnered themselves long-standing customer followings.

In part 1 of this two-part series, we heard from three owners -- George Breslau of The Paperia, a custom invitation and stationery shop; Leslie Woodward of Dandelion, a jewelry store; and Adina Birnbaum of El Quetzal, a gifts and apparel boutique -- about how their stores came to be and what it’s like to run a small business at the Main Line’s most popular shopping destination.

Today, we’ll dive deeper into the operational processes that help stores like these remain relevant and successful in the face of big competition.

How do you choose which products to carry in your store?

George Breslau (The Paperia): We try to buy unique things that nobody else has, so that people come to us looking for things they can’t find anywhere else. Our sources for invitations are constantly updated so that we have the newest vendors. We also print everything virtually from birth to death and anything in between, from business stationery -- business cards and letterheads -- to custom designed wedding invitations. We have a machine that addresses envelopes, as well as a team of hand calligraphers. And we do a lot of personalization on other items, too. We sell rubber stampers, embossers, and we do personalized napkins and notepads.

Leslie Woodward (Dandelion): We have three primary buyers -- my sister, Lellie, myself, and Ani, who has been with Dandelion for over 15 years. We go to shows together. The core ones are in New York and Las Vegas. We also encourage all of our staff to give feedback from listening to customers. I travel to Europe every couple of years to see what’s going on there. I just got back from Thailand where we bought. We just scour everything. We carry primarily American artists, and for what’s not made in America, we’re very diligent about making sure that it’s sourced responsibly. We have core values that we try and uphold.

Chan Luu bracelets now in-store at Dandelion

Adina Birnbaum (El Quetzal): We buy from literally hundreds of different vendors, some of which are international artisans, some are American artisans, and some are more commercial. We go to over 20 different trade shows and show rooms, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, to shop for our products. Our buying team is a range of different ages, so we get all perspectives when searching for beautiful, affordable products for the store. Our most popular products right now are from American artisan Bill Campbell Studio Pottery. He’s from upstate Pennsylvania and makes beautiful blue and brown porcelain pottery that’s dishwasher and microwave safe.

How do you market your business?

Woodward (Dandelion): My sister and co-owner, Lellie, handles the marketing. We rely heavily on grassroots marketing and Suburban Square’s marketing to bring people in. We have great window displays and chalkboards. Word of mouth is also important. We provide excellent customer service and try to have special services, like gift wrapping at no charge. We also utilize social media with Facebook and Instagram. That’s to connect with our existing customers, and hopefully through them liking things, they will spread it to their friends.

Birnbaum (El Quetzal): We do all kinds of marketing in-house. Right now we’re mostly sticking with Facebook, and we also have an email list that goes to our customers. We’re also a part of Shoptiques, where we have an online presence and sell things.

Breslau (The Paperia): We have a couple of bloggers on our website that primarily write about wedding-related topics: ideas for a bachelorette party, ideas for a shower, proper usage of stationery with monograms, etc. We blog to keep people interested. We use Google Analytics to see what our customer base is and their geographic location. Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram are also social media channels we use.

A custom monogram on Crane & Co. stationery printed by The Paperia

What have been the advantages to being located at Suburban Square?

Birnbaum (El Quetzal): Suburban Square is very different customer-wise from our other location. It’s been really nice to be able to reach customers in this area. Just being in a center like Suburban Square, with such great retailers surrounding us, has been a big advantage. It has really been a wonderful experience for us.

El Quetzal shines at night in Suburban Square

Breslau (The Paperia): We get to partner with some local people and other businesses here. We partner with Elizabeth Johns, a bridal salon in Suburban Square. There’s also a local florist that we’ve been partnering with, along with some party planners and venues across the Greater Philadelphia area. Suburban Square is a very popular place and we key off of the many customers who like this location.

Woodward (Dandelion): Location, location, location. It is key here. Suburban Square is in the heart of the Main Line. People come down to Ardmore to come to Suburban Square from all over the Main Line, as opposed to a mall. It’s a great community. I’ve seen people walk there, even during snowstorms! There’s always something going on and it feels like a main street, like a town center. It’s an important part of the Ardmore community and the Main Line community as a whole, and because of that it’s a great place to be.

What advice do you have for independent retailers just starting out?

Breslau (The Paperia): The best thing I could recommend is what we did, which is to very thoroughly develop a business plan, check out competition, and make a selection of unique products. The first and best advice we got was from a Crane & Co. vice president, whom we talked to before we opened up. They gave us a word of caution, which is not to go with vertical integration. Stay horizontal and focus on your product line, and don’t stray too far away from it. That’s a key realm.

Woodward (Dandelion): Be true to yourself. Find your passion and your niche. Don’t be afraid to be flexible and take risks, because things change all of the time and you have to be able to change with them, otherwise you become stagnant. Also, don’t be afraid of locating to a great center. When you’re in a great center and paying a little bit more in rent, it reduces your average marketing spend because the center does that for you, and that’s a lot easier than trying to do it all on your own. Additionally, always make a positive impact on your customers’ lives.

Birnbaum (El Quetzal): My advice would be to start with getting an idea of what you’re interested in, whether or not other people are interested in it, and what price market is right for you. Before we owned stores, we did a lot of street fairs and we would go to different colleges and do flea markets. I think that’s a great way to dip your toe in, on a part-time basis, to get an idea of if owning your own business is right for you.

Are you a loyal customer of an independent retailer? Tell us what makes them standout in the comments!

This has been an installment of StoreFront, an interview series with leaders of successful retail businesses. For more interviews, visit the StoreFront page. To learn how you can be featured, email us. We’d love to hear from you.

  • CATEGORY: Storefront
  • DATE: Tuesday, January 17, 2017