Retailers Do Big Things With Small Spaces

By Alexander Deedy Independent Record, Helena, Mont.

In 2011, Gail Beckner decided her kitchen table didn't cut it anymore; there just wasn't enough room.

She found a space no more than nine feet wide and about 30 feet deep tucked next to the Vanilla Bean Bakery & Cafe on Rodney Street.

At first it was just a space for her to work, but in 2012 she decided to pursue Hand Made Design full time and open up the front for retail.

"It's turned out to be a real nice space," she said.

There are several retail spaces in Helena just as small, and some possibly even smaller. Beckner said that operating in a small space certainly has its challenges, but there are also upsides.

Beckner makes jewelry by hand and recycles material for skirts and T-shirts and an eclectic stock of other handmade items. The walls and shelves in the business are choked with exclusively her work, and that's one of the downsides, she said.

Other local craftspeople sometimes come in and some have requested to feature their work in the shop, but Beckner just doesn't have room to diversify. Plus if more than a couple of customers are browsing it gets easy to bump shoulders.

On the other hand, she said she loves to see people come in and be surprised by the space. One lady came in and exclaimed that it reminded her of a shop in France, Beckner said.

The small storefront is easy to walk past, but Beckner said she's built a loyal group of customers from operating for years before opening her store.

For Martin Richard, who owns Martin's Wines with his business partner Steven Aagenes, having eight years of networking in Helena before opening his shop this April was crucial.

Richard's store has about 512 square feet of shopping space with close to that amount in storage.

That size is perfect for Richard because, as he put it, "When we sell wine, we don't sell just wine, we sell information." "It keeps us in touch with our stock," he added.

Plus, too many choices tend to overwhelm people, he said, and he would rather have fewer choices. That means the store probably don't carry a customer's favorite wine, but Richard said trying something new is the exciting part about wine.

When he sells out of a wine, he simply orders a new type to replace it.

"If it's gone, it's gone," he said.

That keeps customers coming back to ask what's new.

Mandy Hayes, the owner of the women's clothing store Poppyseed Boutique, has a similar strategy.

Hayes started her boutique store in a space not much larger than a walk-in closet this spring, and has since expanded to a store in the Lion Building on Last Chance Gulch and one in Lewistown.

"It has just blown up," she said.

The flagship store in the Lion Building is still relatively small, so to keep a good variety of clothes Hayes doesn't carry more than one or two of any item. Then she buys something new once those sell. Plus, nobody wants to run across someone else who is wearing the same outfit in a small city like Helena, Hayes said.

So in her eyes the small space isn't really a problem. The challenge comes in balancing her life as a business owner with her life as a mom of five boys.

Being tucked inside the Lion Building doesn't give Hayes prominence for people walking through downtown, but she said her neighboring businesses will send customers over for a browse.

"Everyone who owns a small business is really a community," she said.

The hospitality has been practically overwhelming. During her first week open fellow business owners stopped by to offer greetings.

Also tucked into a small space downtown is The Herb and Garden, a garden store recently opened by Cindy Hanson. Hanson estimated the store on Last Chance Gulch is between 400 and 450 square feet in size.

"I love having a small space because I wanted something that was small and manageable," Hanson said.

She said she wasn't even really looking for a store, but after seeing the space open she decided to try opening a shop.

So far, after being open about one month, Hanson said she hasn't discovered any downsides to the small space.

"Everybody who comes in says how cute it is," she said.

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