With no background in retail, friends and business partners Anke Lönne and Saskia Willich opened Alma („Kicks for ladies“) last October. We talk about whether things are going according to plan and what to do if they don’t.
Having an idea is one thing. Turning it into reality is another. Every once in a while, some of us dream of changing careers, of opening a little hotel or café. But most of us never do it.
Anke Lönne is a successful manager for people in the media industry, TV presenters for example. She had an idea for a long time. She loves baking and sneakers and she always had a little shop in mind: „Torten & Turnschuhe“. That’s German for „Cakes & Kicks“. She loves baking, but shoe shopping often became a frustrating affair. She likes the cool kicks for the boys, the limited editions. Most of the times they wouldn’t be available in smaller sizes for women.
The idea was there and Lönne had already identified a little niche in the market. In 2015 plans become more concrete and Lönne asked her friend Saskia Willich, who has a background in marketing, to help her with the business side of things. The working together intensified and the two became business partners.
In October 2016 they opened Alma (that’s Lönne’s mum’s name). Alma is a physical store in Cologne, but also an online shop and community for women who like sneakers. Kicks for kids are also available.
With no experience in retail, Lönne and Willich have a fresh take on things. Five months after the opening, we talk about whether things are going according to plan.
WORK WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT
You had the idea, you found yourself a niche. But opening a retail business doesn’t come cheap. You need a shop, furnishings, merchandise, a digital presence, this and that. If your financial resources are limited, you learn to work with what you’ve got.
Lönne: There’s so many ways to do this. Ours was determined by the fact that we don’t have much money – yet, you still have to make it work. I think this galvanised us to initiate all these partnerships. Who can support us and what can we give them in return? From the very beginning we had to work with what we’ve got.
If you can’t afford it, cooperate.
Willich: We simply approached them. In return they get exposure on our social media channels. We do a lot of events so there’s usually an association with artists. That’s interesting for them. Apart from the products they give us, the exposure costs them nothing.
Lönne: People who are interested in the kitchen get a 10 per cent voucher with a code from us. If they buy something at Alma kitchens, they’ll know the customers come from us. That’s how they track if the partnership works to their benefit.
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PLAN VS. REALITY
Before you can actually get started, you come up with a business plan. It helps to sharpen your own vision of the project and you need it to approach banks and potential business partners, suppliers or sponsors. A business plan contains projections regarding turnover and other targets. Five months in, does reality match with the plan?
Willich: No. But we’re growing. You can see that it’s going somewhere. We had sales every day since our opening. There’s always something going on. Even during the week. And if it’s only a pair of socks.
Lönne: And online is kicking in, too. Since New Year’s. A pair or two of shoes a day. That’s quite good for a business of our size and considering the fact that we’re relatively new.
Neither Lönne nor Willich had a background in retail. That can be risky. Suppliers don’t know you and you’re not bringing any customers. However, Lönne’s extensive network in the TV business helps. She is used to working together with brands that supply outfits for the people she represents.
Lönne: Having an existing network definitely helped. We didn’t have to introduce ourselves. People know that I’m reliable. Some said, we’ll do this – if you’re in the shop and not somebody else. So yes, personal connections are important.
Willich: You just don’t get a response at info@. If you have the email address of somebody in charge, it’s so much easier.
Lönne: We’re still working on Nike though. Some people ask for the brand. Others are like „Does it matter? You can get Nike everywhere else.“ We are still finding out ourselves, where our journey might be going. At the end of the day, our customers tell us what they want.
Maybe, in three years, Alma turns out to be something different than we think it might be today. Of course there’ll be sneakers but maybe we’ll be offering more unknown brands that we accidentally found during a holiday.
Sure, Nike is a fantastic brand and it would be great to have them. But we don’t. Again, we work with what we’ve got.
DIGITAL VS ANALOGUE
Creating a buzz for an opening alone can be difficult enough. (In Alma’s case and with Lönne’s background and access to local and national celebrities that wasn’t an issue.) But then, there is the day after, from which you have to make sure that people find you, come in and buy.
Willich: In the run up we had already started our community. People knew that we exist and that we’re about to open a store. We had established a good following on social media: Instagram, Facebook, newsletters. We make sure that there’s always a little story to tell.
Lönne: We also did all the „analogue“ stuff. Stickers everywhere. People really noticed. There’s always a stack of flyers in my bag. In every restaurant, every café I’ll leave a couple, if I may. Posters. City mags. We were very lucky that the „Stadtanzeiger“ (local newspaper) wrote about us. In Cologne, that’s important.
Willich: Print still works great. Especially our older customers discover us in papers or magazines. The affluent ones.
You have the space, use it. Today, customers love an experience. If your ultimate goal is not to make a sale, but to make your customers happy, chances are likely that a sale is going to happen eventually.
Lönne: We do Yoga classes or readings. Yes, to get people in the store but also because the space is just perfect for it. Cologne needs places like this. When I walk through cities at night I often think, why is nobody using these great spaces in the evening or on the weekend?
Personally, I don’t like to buy in shops where the sole purpose is to sell. I want to feel comfortable. I like an experience and I think our customers feel the same.
Willich: People usually stay a little while, once they’re in. For a chat, a coffee or something baked.
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#yoga @ alma 2017. we want to start new classes, that fit to your schedule. so please do the survey (https://www.surveymonkey.de/r/QK265FT) and let us know which times are the best for you. we want to see you on the yoga mat with us. remember: 10€ per class @ the alma store in palmstrasse, cologne. see you soon! #yoga #youarealma #kicksforladies #wewannamakeyousweat
Lönne is a diligent user of Instagram. Willich likes Facebook. Nevertheless, they’re not the only ones trying to get people’s attention in the social sphere. It’s not easy to get through.
Lönne: I think your personality needs to come across. It has to be personal. I follow a lot of people myself and I’m only attracted to profiles when I get the feeling that I’ll learn something about the person. I’m not interested in pictures of products. I know what shoes look like.
You get my attention if I can see a bit of the person, even if it’s only a glimpse, maybe the legs or trousers. It doesn’t need to be a professional photograph. But I like to think that I get a sneak behind the scenes. A little story is nice. Something that makes me smile or think „Wow, I can’t believe they just wrote this.“
LEARNING BY DOING
Alma caters to the women who want to wear the same cool kicks as the men. That’s how Lönne and Willich defined their niche and what makes them different from the competition. That’s the theory. However, in the process, you might find out that the niche isn’t as relevant as you thought.
Lönne: Women’s feet are way bigger than we thought. Our first orders were up to size 41. However, 41 sells quicker than 38. Now we order up to 43.
Willich: But we do need to cover the smaller sizes, too. That’s what makes us different. We need the 36 as well, that’s our niche.
Lönne: And or customers respond to that. It’s so important to understand what your customer’s actual needs are. You learn so much.
For our next orders we might order less styles per brand in favour of carrying more brands altogether. Depending on the brand obviously. Veja is great. It would be silly to order less styles from them. But I think our customer will appreciate new brands as well.
SENSE OF HUMOUR
It has been mentioned before, neither Lönne nor Willich have a background in retail. At first glance, this seems to be a disadvantage – or is it?
Willich: It’s probably good if you have experience but we’re in the process of getting it.
Lönne: We have a fresh, more open approach, I think. We’re more willing to try new things. We have more courage to buy the red pair even if we suspect that blue might sell better. That might backfire at us but for the moment I think it’s an advantage. It’s not only the numbers that count, which turns me off in the High Street where everything looks the same. If it does backfire … we have a good sense of humour.
Willich: We know other things from our jobs that save us money. We’re doing our own marketing. Or our access to celebrities. I worked as a booker for a long time and I know a lot of good DJs and artists. We couldn’t pay for that.
Should you get the idea to open your own retail business now, here’s some advice from Lönne and Willich.
Lönne: Have a clear vision. Nothing wishy-washy. Create an understandable fundament. Focus. You want to sell kicks for ladies? Then sell kicks for ladies, and don’t put in a couple of t-shirts because you think they might sell. That comes later.
Willich: Carry on. Don’t be guided by fear.
WHAT WE LEARN
– VISION: Develop a clear vision from your initial idea and turn it into a (business) plan.
– WORK WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT: You will most likely have to work within certain restrictions, mostly of financial nature. Be creative within those limits. This way you’ll also end up with a more authentic result.
– NETWORK: If you don’t have a background in retail, try to use your existing network and reputation in other ways.
– CREATE A BUZZ: Make sure, people know you before you actually open. Social Media is obviously a great tool, but don’t neglect print and the physical world. If you have a following already, it will also be easier to find sponsors and business partners.
– PERSONALITY: Make your communication personal.
– CREATE AN EXPERIENCE: Make your goal to entertain your customers and make them happy, not only to generate sales.
– SMILE: Be serious about your business but take it easy if things don’t go according to plan. Listen to your customers and adjust your strategy if necessary.