Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween At Zoe

Let me first remind everyone that if you are ever in a location needing rain, please ask me to come and plan some sort of event.  Because I can pretty much guarantee a ton of it.  Remember the Sidewalk Sale?  Remember my Fashion Event at the height of Tropical Storm Lee?  Let's add to it the Halloween events in Old Town for Saturday!

In preparation, I picked up quite a bit of candy a few weeks ago at Giant, using coupons and the specials they had going at the time.  Both of my crystal bowls at Zoe were filled to the brim with candy.  Did anyone come trick or treating for candy during Saturday's Nor'easter?  Of course not.  Where is that candy now?  In my home, being handed in big handfuls to the few trick or treaters we have.  And yes, I did "sample" some on Saturday at the store.

In the spirit of things, I had also planned to combine fashion and a costume on Saturday!  One of my favorite comic strips has always been Peanuts.  (A little known fact - Jim and I visited the Snoopy Museum in Santa Rosa, CA on our honeymoon).   And I always considered Lucy as the ultimate Big Sister.

In the 2007, a group of designers was asked to create fashions inspired by the Peanuts characters.  During Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in 2007 in New York, a show was held titled "Snoopy in Fashion".  Following the show, each of the items was offered on eBay for auction with all of the proceeds going to the organization "Dress For Success".  Of course, with my love for Peanuts and my love for fashion, I had to bid.

I won one of the Lucy outfits, designed by Liz Claiborne.  This beautiful outfit has a black high waisted skirt, a black sleeveless peplum top and a satin jacket with snaps.  Here is the outfit as it went down the runway.

I had never really imagined wearing it.  I was delighted to have a piece of fashion that meant something to me and the proceeds went to a good cause.  I had thought that someday if I had room in my home, I would display it and some other items I've purchased over the years.  But here was a chance to wear it!

I did a "trial run" try on earlier in the week.  I would have loved to have found a wide belt like the one pictured on the model but a quick look at some other local stores didn't show me anything I liked.  On Saturday morning, I slipped into the outfit.  The top went on with no problem.  The skirt was quite a tight fit in the waist (ooof - I probably should not have had that waffle for breakfast).  Believe me when I say I was "sucked in" for the entire day!  Honestly, the model must have had a rib removed or something!  I've lost a lot of weight but I'm not runway model thin by any means!

Here I am, modeling the dress in the store.  I wish it were a better picture so you could see the full effect of the dress.  I should have recreated the pose of the model in the runway!

Sadly, not many people braved the weather to visit the store to see my fashionable costume (I had even created a little sign to explain the costume to anyone who may ask).  But it was fun nonetheless.  And I was so excited to get to wear it and find that it (mostly) fit!

Next:  Oh the Places You'll Go!

Friday, October 28, 2011


You can't escape it - numbers have a level of importance in every business.  And not just sales and profits and expenses but also your online presence and engagement with potential customers.

For example, I write this blog for a few simple reasons - 1) It is a way for me to share the process of creating and running the store with friends and other interested parties, 2) It provides me with a method for documenting all of the key events (and helps remind me how far I've come!), 3) It provides a reference for anyone who might want to know more about the experiences of a normal person trying to build and run a boutique, and 4) It provides a real look at the person behind the business.

I will never know who reads it and, unless they comment or email me directly, what they think of it.  But I do enjoy looking at the statistics for the blog to see what topics are being read, where my readership is located, and how they arrived at the site.  (Don't worry, I don't know who any of you are!)  This week, I seem to have a strong readership in The Netherlands (Juice, were you carrying a Zoe bag when you visited Amsterdam?)

Google provides not only the map shown above but a detailed breakdown of the browsers used and even the operating systems/device types used to read the blog.

The blog is one thing because it is fun and interesting and if people enjoy it or find it useful, that is wonderful.  But I decided this week that I needed to start tracking the visitors and their engagement with Zoe's webpage (, especially with the knowledge that I am planning to add eCommerce to Zoe's site next year.  I contacted Web Developer Phil and had him apply the Google Analytics code to Zoe's website.  And timing was perfect as I had just sent out a Constant Contact email that included a link to Zoe's site.

While it has only been up and running for a few days, I'm already finding the statistics fascinating.  Please note I do control myself and only check it once a day!  It is really interesting to see what city the user is located in while looking at the site, what browser and operating systems are used, which service providers they are using and even the screen resolution if they access it via mobile device!  It is also very helpful to see "where" they came from (the referring sites vs. an organic search).  I know there is much more to learn from the information!

Next: Halloween at Zoe!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Planning For The Holiday Season

It is hard to believe that Christmas is now less than two months away!  But in the retail world, we've been planning for it for quite a while.  I am very curious to see how Zoe's first full holiday season will play out!

You may remember my Black Friday post from soon to be a year ago - it was the first time Jim had seen Zoe's space since I signed the lease just prior to Thanksgiving.  I had been curious to see the shopping traffic in Old Town during that time frame.

Let me make the confession that I have not ever been a Black Friday shopper.  I have a friend who, with his wife, does ALL of their Christmas shopping on Black Friday.  I've just always struggled with the concept of early rising and the crowds. But Zoe will be participating in the Black Friday promotions in Old Town!  Like last year, parking will be free on the streets and at many garages in Old Town.  And many merchants will be opening early and offering great deals to their customers.  For more information on Old Town's Black Friday promotions, you can visit this special page on the Shop Local website.

And then there are the coupon books.  For years, we've received the "Shop Alexandria" and "Dine Alexandria" coupon books.  And now Zoe is going to be in the coupon book!  The team that publishes the book sent a photographer to take exterior and interior shots of the store and designed the coupon based on the offers that I determined would work best for Zoe's customer.  I had an opportunity to see a proof of the coupon yesterday and had very few adjustments.  That book will be mailed to local zip codes (both residential and business) in mid-November as well as distributed in local hotels and in the visitor's center.

Back for another year is "Small Business Saturday" sponsored by American Express.  They have already sent me a window cling for the store with the message "Shop Small" (I love it!)  The same offer stands as last year - Cardmembers who have registered their eligible American Express Card for the Small Business Saturday offer can take advantage of a $25 statement credit by shopping at Zoe and other small businesses on November 26th.  American Express also provides a number of promotional tools for businesses to help get the word out, including a $100 worth of targeted Facebook ads.

I will look forward to reporting to you on the results of all of these different promotions in a future (post holiday) blog post!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Meeting Mark

On Sunday evening I met Zoe's web designer, Mark, for the first time!  As you may remember from last Fall's blog posts, Mark was recommended to me by one of Cori's colleagues.  He lives in a suburb of Durham, NC so all of our work was done via email and phone.

Mark had originally lived in the DC area and was returning this week for a conference called "An Event Apart"  billed as "Three Days of Design, Code, and Content".  We follow each other's personal accounts on Twitter and agreed that it was time for us to meet and for him to meet Zoe.

After being completely horrified by the work being done on the Beltway, Mark got settled into the apartment where he is staying in Falls Church and made his way over to Old Town.  He thought that Zoe looked beautiful!  We both laughed because he came up with Zoe's online "look" prior to me determining the design for Zoe's bricks and mortar home.  Yet both seem very complimentary of each other.

Over dinner at Chadwicks, we touched on topics as far ranging as Wordpress (what I use to manage content for Zoe's website and what he is using for a blog for his wife) to church to couponing!  We had the same comfort level and easy rapport as we had had when working together remotely.  I had the opportunity to also learn a lot about the company he works for and about Durham.

It is hard to believe that last year at this time, we were working through wireframe diagrams like the one below:

I am forever indebted to all of Zoe's creative team members for inspiring me then and now.  They constantly help me look at the world in new and fresh ways.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Taking The Show On The Road

In Monday's post, I talked about my plans to have a "Satellite Zoe" at the Alexandria Country Day School (ACDS) Big Top Country Market event on Saturday, October 15th.  With the exception of taking a few of Zoe's things with me when I spoke to the BIAGO women's group last month, it was the first time I had truly taken "the show on the road".

The first thing I had to do was make sure that Zoe's bricks and mortar location could stay open while I was at the event.  My wonderful friend Janice agreed to take care of Zoe while I was away for a few hours.  Knowing Zoe would be in capable hands, I then focused my planning on the event itself.

Part of the challenge was determining not only what I needed from an administrative standpoint but also what merchandise I wanted to take out of the store for that day.  Of course, my trusty lists with their ever present checkboxes were started as I had quiet periods during the day in the store.

As I made the administrative list, I quickly realized that I was missing a few key things - a sales receipt book (so that I could note what inventory was sold and also give the customer a copy of the receipt), a cash "box", and more change!  It was off to Staples (and a dispatch of Jim to the bank) to take care of those missing items.  Of course, I also had to pack bags, tissue paper, business cards, contact cards...everything you'd have at a regular cash desk.

Then it was time identify the appropriate merchandise.  I wanted to focus on items under $100 (in case people were only paying in cash).  I also considered the fact that people often are starting to look for gifts at this time of year.  I also wanted to have a subset of items that would be representative of the kinds of things I carry in the store.  The list was growing....

On Friday evening, I packed up as much as I could prior to leaving the store.  On Saturday, Jim and I first came to the store so that I could have things set up and ready to go for Janice.  Then we loaded the car and headed to ACDS.  Jim helped me unload and I set up my table.

In the same room where I was located (many of us had chosen to be inside after learning that it would be very windy on Saturday) was a stationary vendor, a woman who made painted pottery, a Stella and Dot table, a woman selling Macaroons, and two women selling flavored nuts.  The event started promptly a 10 am and ended at 3 pm.

Janice checked in with me mid-day with a sales report from Zoe's bricks and mortar location!  I was finishing with a customer when the phone rang and was at first panicked!  What was wrong?  But it was good news and things were going smoothly for her!

At 3 pm, I started taking down Zoe's temporary location (could this be equated to a Pop Up Shop?)  Jim arrived soon after to pack us up and take us back to Zoe.  Unload (again) and catch up with Janice on the activities at the store that day.

The event was worthwhile, especially for a new business like mine that is working to get the word out about who we are, where we are, and what we offer.  I had the opportunity to hand out a number of business cards, tell people about the store, and make some sales of the merchandise I had brought to the event.  An added bonus - one of my in-store customers was wearing a great Sweater Coat she had purchased at the store and people had asked her where she had purchased it!  When she told them, I had several people come to me to ask if I still had it and, if so, what sizes were available?   The best advertising is a happy customer.

Cute moment of the week:  My 2 year old niece, Allison, has a video called Minnie's Bow-tique.  My brother told me that she was recently walking through the house saying "Minnie's Bow-tique, Aunt Susan's Bow-tique."  She thinks I sell Bows.  And that is quite alright.

Monday, October 17, 2011

High(er) Tech

You can take the girl out of technology but you can't take the technology out of the girl.  Yes, it is still there.  And it is still always thinking about how to use technology to make the retail business and the fashion world a better place.

I've been thinking for a while now about the best way to set up a disaster recovery system for processing credit/debit cards.  As you may recall from reading my blog, I've had two instances (one with my router and one with a Comcast failure) that created problems in this area.  Yet, as is the case in most businesses, it is often something else that helps you come up with the solution.

I had made a commitment to have a Zoe booth at a Fall Festival held at the Alexandria Country Day School.  The genesis for this adventure came from some women from that area of Alexandria who visited Zoe one day and suggested it as a way to get the word out to more people about the store.  Although my focus would be to have smaller, affordable items at a fair like this, I knew that having the ability to accept credit cards (as well as cash and checks) would increase the likelihood of sales.

It was important to find a solution that would work with my current credit card processing company AND with my iPhone 3GS (so, I'm a technology laggard in some areas).  My credit card company had a solution in conjunction with Verifone that they suggested I review as my solution.

One of the things I liked right away was that the Verifone solution creates an end to end encryption.  Meaning no one's credit card number EVER hits my phone at any time but is encrypted at the time of the swipe.  It was also a very sturdy, robust card reader.  And, even better, it came at the right price (30 dollars cheaper when purchased from the Apple Store than from Best Buy!)

The set-up process was also fairly straight-forward.  The technician from my credit card company did all of the set up on their end.  I had already received the sleeve and downloaded the App from the iTunes store and the remaining set up on the iPhone was minimal.  We ran a test transaction through using my credit card and the technician showed me how to set it up to email the receipt to the customer.

The two forms of credit card acceptance are processed in different batches.  Meaning that my store's credit card receipts were processed in one batch that night and the receipts from the iPhone were processed separately.  There is a small ($5) monthly fee to maintain the ability to accept cards on the phone and a separate (slightly higher) swipe fee.  But for the peace of mind that the $5 a month gives me for disaster recovery alone is well worth it.  Plus it makes it easier for those times when I do make sales outside the bricks and mortar store.

Next up:  Adventures at the Country Market

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Year Ago

Whenever I am worrying about a current challenge with the business, I am fortunate to have some friends who remind me of the challenges I had last year at this time and how I overcame those challenges!  (That is what friends are for, right?)

Today, the Atlanta Apparel Market started for Spring 2012 Fashions and Accessories.  Last year at this time, I had butterflies in my stomach as I prepared for my first buying experience.  If you haven't read my post on my first market visit, it is one of my favorites.

I will never forget how I felt in the days leading up to that trip.  My first worry was whether or not I was REALLY qualified as a buyer?  What if I got there and they turned me away?  Believe me, I took every bit of "proof" with me as I could!  I worried whether or not I would make good buying decisions - did I have my customer base appropriately identified?  Would I spend the store's inventory money wisely?  What would the account reps think of the "new girl"?  Had I left myself enough time to do all of the buying?  It was worse than the first day of school!

Also staring me in the face was the fact that I had signed a letter of intent for Zoe's space but there was no signed lease yet.  This was the latest in several "Leaps of Faith" that I was taking, just trusting that God had the appropriate plan in place for me.  I'll never forget sitting on the loveseat in my kitchen on the day before I was supposed to leave for market, getting all of my files and information together and feeling VERY panicked!  All of a sudden, my cat Lotus jumped up into my lap, sat down, and started purring.  How can you be anxious with a cat in your lap?

In so many ways, it seems like just yesterday.  But I've continued to learn lots of valuable lessons along the way.  It is almost hard for me to believe that I am just now getting shipments in store that I ordered AFTER I had opened!

Next:  Zoe goes High(er) Tech!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Interesting People

I've posted several times before about the interesting people I meet in the course of the business day at Zoe.  Last week was no exception!

One day around lunchtime, an older lady walked in the door, stopped and surveyed the store.  She very nicely said "What do you have that might look good on me?"  I loved it - what a delightful opportunity!  I did ask one question - were there any colors that she didn't like (no point in showing someone something they will hate right off the bat).  She told me that she liked all colors.

I suggested she might like one of two sweaters and pulled her size in both.  She tried them on and we discussed the possibilities for different ways to wear each item.  Following our discussion, she chose one of the sweaters!  That was such a fun experience - most of the time people already know what they are looking for or they are browsing the store to see if something pops out at them.  While it does happen occasionally, I don't often get to try my hand at wardrobe suggestions!

Another interesting visitor was the man who collects business cards from businesses based in Old Town Alexandria.  He said that he started doing it to get exercise and get out of the house following his retirement.  And sure enough, he had a big binder full of business cards!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

For Dad

You probably remember my postings on involving Zoe in charitable giving.  Each month, I've continued to try to find ways to involve the store with local charities that are close to my heart.

Those who have known me for a while know that finding ways to identify cancer early, treat it, and ultimately prevent it is a goal for me.  Six years ago today, I lost my father to a rare form of cancer.  I miss him every single day but have felt it profoundly today.  My mother and brother have assured me that he would be delighted that I had launched Zoe.  It sometimes seems unfair that he didn't get to see me act on this dream.

I was feeling down this afternoon when two women from Baltimore came into the store, drawn in partially by the ad that I have in my window for Chan Luu Breast Cancer bracelets.  They were so much fun to shop with and, as we were talking, I found that one of the woman had recently (within the last three months) lost her mother to cancer and the other had just found out that her mother had breast cancer.  We all agreed that the word "Cancer" is the most terrible word you can hear.  They definitely were angels sent to lift my down spirits today.  It is so odd how close you can feel to others who have experienced the same things.

I've recently focused Zoe's philanthropic efforts on different types of cancer.  We were a Crew level sponsor for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Regatta held in Alexandria in September.  We participated in a Silent Auction for the Women Mean Business of Alexandria's benefit for The Walk to Fight Breast Cancer.  We are a sponsor for the Super Survivors Contest for the National Race to End Women's Cancer in November.  And we are selling the Chan Luu Breast Cancer bracelets (Chan is donating 50% of the proceeds to, Zoe is donating 10% of all Chan Luu Wrap Bracelet sales through year end to the same organization).

I hope to always live a life as the legacy that my father told me that I was for him.  Thanks to all of you who surrounded me with your love as I mourned his illness and loss and continue to encourage me today.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Dilemma

As many details as you try to cover when thinking about opening a business, there are always so many little things that you just don't think of in the process.  One that has challenged me since I opened is what to do when I have one left of an item.

Now, I'm not complaining.  If Zoe has one left of an item at full price, it means that item has done well!  It is always exciting when you've selected something in the right colors/style/sizes for your customer population.  But then there is that one item, hanging there all alone, wanting a home.

I try to think about the best way to merchandise the single items.  Do I hang them all together?  Do I hang them with similarly styled/colored sister items?  They just always seem to stick out like a sore thumb to me!

One thing I've tried on and off since opening is offering a discount on the full-priced single items on Wednesdays.  As I've tracked sales and traffic over the last six months, I've found that Wednesdays are typically my quietest day.  I've shown the items on my Facebook page (and posted to Twitter as well) but I've never had anyone take advantage of the sale (or even anyone buy the item in the store that day without knowing about the sale!)  I've honestly been reluctant to blast my email list with the weekly deals although that is a possibility also.  Most people like a deal but they also don't want to wade through tons of email from businesses every day.  (And I've had returning customers thank me for not emailing them constantly, which is feedback I truly take to heart).

I'm open to suggestions as to what to do with the lovely but lonely single items!  Here is one of them (a Rebecca Taylor Perfect Shift Dress in a Size 6).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Six Months

Today is the 6 month anniversary of Zoe opening her doors to the public!  Jim asked me last night if I thought it seemed like 6 months - he said it seemed longer just because I had put so much work and effort into it prior to opening.  For me, it seems like it has flown by!

I can say that I am constantly in awe of what I learn every day.  And of the interesting things that happen to me (or for me).  And just think of the material I'm collecting for my future best seller!

One day recently, I noticed a group of people taking pictures on Prince Street.  Not an unusual occurrence on that beautiful and historic street.  But then they came into Zoe.  They were in the Air Force and were in training to serve as Photography Specialists!  They had been assigned to take a variety of pictures and asked if they could take pictures of me in the store.  As they were snapping their photos with their sophisticated cameras and flash apparatus, my landlord walked by.  He later came in and asked me if I was famous!  I had to explain that I did not have my own paparazzi team following my every move!  The students already knew where they had been assigned when they finished their coursework - places such as South Dakota and New Mexico!

In the "Small World" category, two women were shopping the store and, in the course of conversation, one of the women said she lived in Williamsburg.  I told her that I loved "the Burg" and had graduated from William & Mary.  She then told me that both of her sons had graduated from W&M and asked my class year.  When I told her, she said that her son had graduated that year and gave me his name.  Not only did I know him but I had also served on our 20th Reunion Gift Committee with him.  What a nice surprise!

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of women business owners about the store.  As part of my presentation, I tell them a little bit about my background and how I came to open the store before I go in depth on what we offer.  After I finished speaking, a couple of the women came to me and said "I can't imagine you doing anything else - your passion for what you do is so genuine."  Comments like that are so encouraging.  I still have days where I think "What on earth am I thinking?  I must have been crazy to do this!"  I'll let you know if I still am thinking that way in six months!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What A Great Place To Be!

The City of Alexandria continues to receive national recognition this week!  A ceremony was held on Tuesday evening, October 4th to announce that King Street (our Main Street) in Alexandria had been designated as one of the "Top 10 Great Streets" by the American Planning Association (APA).  As an added bonus (for me), Davis Street in Culpeper, Virginia (one of my other hometowns) also received the same designation!

The APA website says of King Street:

Historic, vibrant, and eclectic, King Street has been enhanced by active planning and implementation through its evolution from an 18th century colonial seaport and 19th century center of trade to a center of 21st century commerce and tourism. Planning and preservation have ensured that King Street, part of the "Old and Historic District" in Alexandria's "Old Town" neighborhood, balances the past with the present. The city's Archeological Protection Code, adopted in 1989, requires impact assessments on cultural resources for new development and a Board of Architectural Review ensures that designs for new construction and exterior alterations blend with the street's historic buildings.

Also, the City as a whole has been recognized as a Silver Level "Walk Friendly" Community by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.  A Walk Friendly Community is a city or town that has shown a commitment to improving and sustaining walkability and pedestrian safety.  And, another of my "hometowns" (Charlottesville, Virginia) has the same ranking!  You can click here to see why Alexandria qualified for this wonderful designation!

One of the things I love about Alexandria (and love about having Zoe here) is that we are a metropolitan area with a small town feel!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Some Little Surprises From The City

I really love it when good things happen that you aren't really expecting.  Especially when you've just paid property taxes on your business and wonder just where that money is going.

On the night that I had Zoe's Fall Fashion Party (the night we got 10 million inches of rain), I noticed that the street light was out at the corner of Union and Prince.  I hadn't been at the store quite that late (and in the dark) before that time.  The next morning, I looked on the City's website to see how I could report the issue.  With my technology background, I tend to be very picky about how easy (or hard) it is to do things on line.  Imagine my delight when I found that the City had a very easy to use online form/questionnaire that made reporting the problem a breeze!  I was even given a confirmation number so that I could track the reported issue.

When I looked outside the store on this past Saturday's VERY rainy and dark day, I found that the streetlight that I had reported was beautifully lit!
I know...I takes so little to make me happy.  But that will be a really nice thing as our days are getting shorter all the time.

Moving on to the second happy event, Friday was one of the few really nice days we've had in September.  I had had some nice customer traffic in the morning despite some workmen grinding out the lining of the fountain in the courtyard.  As the afternoon wore on, the grinding got more intense and dust was flying.  I finally had to close Zoe's door because it was so awful.  As I stood at the window of the store, stewing and wondering how much longer it was going to take, I saw a Code Enforcement SUV drive down Prince Street and park.  The Inspector got out and came over to the workers and shut down the operation!  Turns out the City had some complaints from some other businesses about the dust!  The Inspector came in to see me (thinking I was the one who had called).  I told him I wasn't the person who had placed the call and that he should probably also check in with my landlord to explain the situation.

It turns out that the workers needed to have either scheduled the work in off hours (when the businesses aren't open) or have a tent set up to catch the dust.  What a relief!  I was never so happy to see the Code Enforcement team in my life!  With the challenges from the recent weather and the economy, none of us need anything that dissuades people from visiting our stores/restaurants!