Barbara Wiggins, owner of the Mustard Seed (opened 1982) in Napa, California (1227 First St.), has been in business for 46 years. Having had four stores in as many cities during this time, it’s stating the obvious to say that she loves retail – her love for retail has its roots in her childhood when she preferred to play with a cash register over dolls. It was a treat to speak with Barbara about the retail industry because she carries the same fun-loving spirit from her childhood to her work today. And with the breadth of her experience and willingness to share, I thought we might all learn a thing or two from her.
It’s easy to look at a store as successful as the Mustard Seed – with it’s 29% increase in growth in 2018 over 2017 and loyal customer base – and assume that life in fashion retail is a snap. Barbara would be the first to tell you that even with a flair for fashion and a head for business,
“Don’t expect to jump in and make money right away.”
This world is hard and you have to be proactive in getting your customers through the door. You also need patience, flexibility, and the secret ingredient of all secret ingredients: love. Love for her family (which she always places first), love for her store (which she considers part of her family), and love for her community. It’s this focus on community that I thought I’d focus on for this article.
“I’m really keen on supporting my community that supports me.”
This is a bit of an understatement, though. In the beginning, she reached out to every group she could reach out to.
“…Law wives, medical wives. I would go to their meetings and show them how to tie scarves and do informal fashion shows for them.”
In fact, she has put on endless fashion shows, issued numerous gift certificates for raffles, and given to charitable events each time she was asked. It turns out that the ROI on sincere altruism is pretty high!
She quickly figured out that giving someone a reason to come in the store always paid off – whether they were coming in to redeem a gift certificate or relive the fun she created at a fashion show or even to return an item. In fact, she accepts all returns because the customers usually walk out with more than they returned. Barbara firmly believes that
“Anybody who has a small store that thinks that they can’t afford to donate and get involved with the community is missing out on a lot because that’s how you create loyalty within the community.”
It’s her version of living the advice she gives to new retailers to “Go get ‘em [customers]”. Don’t wait for people to walk into your store. Go where your ideal customers are and engage with them to build relationships. It does help that Barbara grew up in the Napa area and knows her demographic. But then again, any marketer will tell you to “know your market/customer”. It’s just that Barbara does it so well. She takes the time to make people comfortable – from her non-sales-y style of promotion to her husband couches in the store to letting locals take items home “on approval”. I don’t know of many stores that can create such a close relationship with its customers that they come from far away as part of an annual family trip to spend several thousand dollars for fun and fashion! That’s devotion! Barbara then makes it an extra special event by “reserving” a dressing room with a pretty sign with their names on it and a bottle of champagne, chilled and at the ready.
It’s important to note that all this success isn’t luck. The Mustard Seed opened in the midst of the 1980s recession. Business was tough, but with her creativity and gusto, Barbara’s business grew. She also doesn’t shy away from social media. That’s where the importance of flexibility comes in. Barbara was quick to realize how important websites (www.mustardseedclothing.com) and social media (visit @napamustardseed on Facebook and Instagram) are and she does her best to inject the platforms with her fun personality – putting her best customers in the photos, wearing her clothes, and having fun.
That, my friends, is one of the most (if not THE most) important ways to differentiate the brick and mortar experience from the online one. Barbara knows her customers in ways that large online retailers can’t hope to know. She knows that her target market is older and loves the experience of finding something unique in her store and having the satisfaction of taking it home that day. She knows that her customers don’t want to shop in stores that only offer clothes up to size 6. She knows that her customers happen to be at a point in their lives where they can spend their money on themselves and enjoy doing so. She knows because she has invested time and effort into her customers and community. Her “go get ‘em” business philosophy manifests itself not only in regards to customer acquisition, but also in developing relationships with her customers. This is where social media and email came into play – even when she was brand spankin’ new to it.
“I remember going to LA Market with my little laptop and emailing all 20 of my people [sic] who had computers: ‘Look what I saw at market! I’m having a great time’ and making that connection with my customer so that she’s on that buying trip with me.”
She also never hesitated to ask people directly about what they wanted instead of guessing at it.
“When I knew I was going to market, I would ask them: ‘Do you have any favorite lines? What do I not have here that you need me to look at?’ I would write it all down and when I got home, I would make sure that I answered them whether I got it or not. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t find that at this market, but I’ll keep an eye out.’ Or I would tell them: ‘I got that on order. Thank you so very much.’ It made them feel a part of the whole process.”
Not that she’s all business in her communication!
“My emails. I try to keep them as least professional as I can and I’ll tell you why. If you don’t do something weird in there somewhere, they won’t open them anymore. So I try to make jokes. I want people laughing at them.”
These days, social media responsibilities are being transitioned to her granddaughter, Hailey, and even this transition was as thoughtful as her approach in customer growth. Many people think that social media is the realm of the young, but time and again, articles appear (like this Entrepreneur piece) to explain why social media should not be left to a random intern or young employee just because they’re young. Hailey comes to Mustard Seed with a business degree, experience working at Nordstrom, and, as Barbara says, “more experience than I ever had.” She also grew up in Napa so customers know her. Although she’s only been there a little less than a year, Hailey already understands the difference between having a boutique and a chain store and the mantra that will forever keep boutiques in favor: You have to give your customers an experience when they walk through the door. It seems Barbara has taught her granddaughter well because customers have sent Hailey thank you notes saying how much fun they had in the store and how it was the highlight of their trip.
Remember those husband couches and the “on approval” system I mentioned earlier? That wasn’t even the half of the experience she creates. If it’s someone’s birthday, she has a bracelet ready to give as a gift and the staff sings for them. She hand delivers birthday gift certificates or Christmas gift cards to locals. She leaves customers to wander around the store without following them. This all builds trust with the store and everything that she invests in time, product, or effort comes back in spades. Not only does business continue to grow, but she gets more out of it than with paid advertising. In 2015, Barbara’s community involvement was recognized by the city of Napa with the Citizen of the Year award. She admitted this very humbly, but it goes to show how sincere she is in her belief that having a local business means you should participate in the community.
“It’s my job. I’m not just here to sell stuff.”
And to think – this all started one youthful drunken night with a girlfriend! That’s a funny story for another time though. What did you think of these stories here and the advice Barbara shared? Comment below and let us know!