I love retail. When I was in college, I dreamed of being a buyer in New York one day. Mine was a winding career path, but ultimately, I did land as a buyer for a specialty retailer with over 500 stores. It was a lot of work, but I loved it. Then, I had my first child. The balancing act began and I decided to leave my job and the long commute from Connecticut to New York. I have never regretted my decision.
I did, however, start to experiment with business concepts that would provide me with a creative outlet while still enabling me to spend the time I desired with my children (my second child arrived 23 months after the first). For a while, I designed and made children’s furnishings which I sold through Etsy or at craft fairs. My real talent, though, is buying. Buying might not sound like an actual skill, but I consider it a great complement when someone says “you have a great eye.” I love to find talented people that create great products that meet the standards of style, quality, and price – making things that are new, different, and unique - things that customers find worthy of their dollars. The job is part economics, part psychology, and part instinct. A buyer’s talent is confirmed concretely when customers vote with their wallets.
I moved on from crafting and started an e-commerce boutique – www.bluestarbazaar.com – offering gifts for women and children. The internet has revolutionized retail. It sounded great. I could set up a shop online and run it from home. No overhead. Work any hours you choose from wherever you want (home, Starbucks, the school pickup line). Click and ship online. In many ways it has been great. There are a few drawbacks though. It’s not as inexpensive as you might think to run an online shop. You pay for web hosting. You have to find a place (your dining room?) to store the inventory. Most critically though, you need to find customers. More specifically, you need to pay for customers to find you. Google, Facebook, Twitter, blog ads, print ads – there are lots of ways to advertise but they all cost money. Also, I missed the energy of seeing my products in a “real” store and watching customers react to them.
I started to develop a long term plan of opening my own shop in Fairfield County somewhere – maybe when both my kids were in school full time. The thought was a little daunting though. I’d heard stories of small to medium size spaces throughout Wilton and surrounding towns that cost five to fifteen thousand dollars a month to rent. If a store is open for 50 hours a week, it costs about $3000 per month to staff it with just one person. Small retail businesses need to do at LEAST $26,000 per month in sales to cover the cost of merchandise plus the $13,000 shop expense ($10,000 per month in rent plus $3000 per month for staff not to mention insurance, utilities, supplies, etc.). Wow. I’d have to do over $300,000 a year in sales just to break even – no salary for myself. Yikes!
Then, a new idea surfaced this past September. A friend posted a photo online of a sign in Norwalk advertising a new concept – SoNo Marketplace. “I can’t wait for this place to open.” she commented. I followed a few links to get more information. The new concept was for a European Style Indoor Market with food, artisans, and boutique vendors. Turns out they were hosting an open house. “Hmmm…Could be worth checking out.” I thought to myself.
I took a tour. The location was certainly off the beaten path but the concept sounded great. They were seeking a variety of high quality vendors that offered a broad variety of food and products. Each small business would occupy a booth which they could develop into their own little shop. At night, each vendor could lock up their space. It would be a destination where local residents could “eat, shop, learn.” I would only have 120 square feet, but the rent was a fraction of what a larger, stand-alone shop would cost. It would also be open primarily on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – a manageable schedule for a small business starting out. My husband and a few other family members showed enthusiasm. It was enough to encourage me to sign a lease.
There were a few hiccups and logistical issues to overcome before opening. Proximity to Wilson Cove combined with Sandy’s storm surges certainly created a few delays. The entire market – but especially the restaurant spaces – needed to make sure all the “T”s were crossed and “I”s dotted in terms of health, safety, and fire requirements. In the meantime, I scoured Goodwill, Minks to Sinks, and the Turnover Shop in Wilton for shelves, baskets, and light fixtures to furnish my shop. I posted job openings on local student employment boards.
We finally opened the weekend after Thanksgiving with a Grand Opening on December 1, 2012. The energy and feedback from customers has been exciting and energizing. The Market is a perfect combination of rustic and urban. The décor consists of stained concrete floors, exposed rafters, vintage light fixtures, handmade farm-style banquet tables, retro food market banners, and chalkboard menus. It’s been compared to Faneuil Hall, Chelsea Market, and Eataly in New York City. The developers chose a mix of vendors that gives a broad range of high quality shops and restaurants from which to choose. Food includes Italian food, pickles, fresh bread, gourmet coffee, chocolate confections, fish & chips, hot oatmeal, fresh granola, local dairy and more. The boutiques include artwork, home accessories, vintage gifts, refinished furniture, handmade soap, handbags, toys, jewelry, lingerie and more.
For me, as a business owner, the Marketplace has brought pride, a creative outlet, and several other fruits of success. The things I’ve enjoyed most during my 6 weeks since we opened:
- Helping customers pull off a surprise. People frequently come in as a group. Perhaps a wife with a husband or a child with a parent. I love when someone shows excitement for a product and their family member takes note. I get a look from the family member letting me know they want to make a “secret” transaction - may sound a little shady but it's totally legal and quite heartwarming. I package the item and hide it until the right moment for the sale. I’m touched that people are paying attention to their loved ones. It brings me satisfaction to help in a small way to pull off this gesture of kindness.
- Customer feedback. As I mentioned earlier, I consider it a great complement when someone says “You have a great eye.” I certainly hear this a lot more in person than I ever did online. I also especially enjoy when someone returns after making a purchase or receiving a gift and comments that they love it. Even better, they may return wearing or using a bag, piece of jewelry, or apparel item. That is the ultimate positive feedback.
- Writing paychecks. I’ve been the boss at work before. I’ve never signed my name on a paycheck though. It feels really good to hire people and be able to pay them. It's an incredibly satisfying way to make a small contribution to the economy.
- Getting to know customers and other vendors. I am fortunate to have family and many great friends in Wilton. Most people I spend time with are between the ages of 35 and 45 and are married with kids under the age of 10. That description fits me, too. People in this group have a lot of similar interests to me and show great understanding for what my day to day life is like. We pass each other at school pickup, Ambler Farm Day, and the Rotary Club Carnival. It’s always been important to me, however, to get to know people that AREN’T just like me. At the Market, I meet customers from all different towns, of different ages, professions, and family status. Among the vendors are farmers, photographers, chefs, bakers, artists, florists and designers. We’ve become a wonderful community. The people here want to see each other succeed and help each other out by offering ideas and even referring customers.
The SoNo Marketplace has so much to offer vendors and local customers. As someone who has spent a lot of time here and gotten to sample many of the offerings, I have a few favorite products I want to highlight:
- Soup. I eat soup almost every day for lunch. I rotate between three of my favorite spots at the marketplace. Try clam chowder from Bloom Brothers, butternut squash soup from Wave Hill, and a changing variety including Kale and Chicken Sausage soup from Festivities.
- Granola bites. Peanut butter, banana, chocolate chip banana bites from Nuthin’ But Foods. Wow. These things are tasty, chewy, and I can pronounce all the ingredients. Nuthin’ But also offers hot steel cut oatmeal each morning with a dozen or more toppings to choose from.
- Lemongrass Ginger Soap. Komfort Zone handmade soaps are right across from my shop. I stop in almost every day for a little olfactory pick me up. The lemongrass ginger scent is my favorite but she has dozens of natural handmade soaps to choose from. At $7 per slice, it’s an affordable luxury.
- Turkish Towels. Tag n Bundle has beautiful gifts and accents for the home. Their Turkish towels are not only lovely, they’re super soft and make a perfect gift. Small sizes start at $16. Why not give one as a gift with a bar of soap from Komfort Zone?
- Turquoise Accent Table. At ReFabulous, you can find vintage treasures updated for modern life. I love the little blue side table which would look great next to a twin bed piled high with books by E.B. White and Roald Dahl. It’s $120.
- Custom Home Platter. Wirth Salander will create a custom platter painted with an image of your home. Platters start at $350 but are sure to become a family heirloom for the new homeowner or bride and groom.
Hopefully SoNo Marketplace will be around for a long, long time. There are lots of ideas and plans floating around for future events and expansion. Keep following to hear about children’s events, live music, “family style” dinners, an expanded farmer’s market, and additional restaurants. If you want to keep posted, add your e-mail address to my e-mail list (www.bluestarbazaar.com) or follow SoNo Marketplace on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SoNoMarketPlace). I hope to see you soon at the Market.
Directions & Hours:
Follow signs in South Norwalk towards Metro North Train Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. While on MLK, pass the train station on your left. Travel for about one mile past train station and turn left on Wilson Avenue (first traffic light AFTER SoNo Field House). Continue to 314 Wilson Avenue on your right next to SoNo Ice Box (ice rink). Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday – Shops open 10 to 6; Restaurants open 9 to 8.