Way on the other side of the country in Winston Salem, North Carolina, is a shop called Gaia. Although running strong for 21 years, Gaia is actually the 6th store by serial shop owner/entrepreneur Robbie Hoyme – a woman so connected to her shop that people assume her name is Gaia. You might expect that she’s chock full of stories and lessons to share… and you’d be right! Between all her stores and moving from state to state with her family, what strikes me most about Robbie is not only that she is simultaneously a visionary, flexible, creative, and determined, but it seems that these qualities were bursting from her from the moment she went into her first business venture, which involved a few kurtas, a co-op store, and a will to make her own way.
Since then, Robbie has run a pop-up structure, a store at a mini mall, had a trunk show business that she turned into a franchise business, a backyard shop, remodeled an old gas station and turned it into a store, and shared a shop space with an antiques owner before settling in Winston-Salem. She counts them all as valuable lessons on her way to making Gaia her biggest success. Robbie is unafraid to reinvent herself. It was obvious to me and it’s obvious to her customers. One of them even told her that Gaia was a “theater of becoming” and it stuck with Robbie because she’s a theater person, an artist. So Robbie now calls her business a “theater of becoming”.
“I’m always becoming. This is not me selling and teaching. I’m here on the path with you. I’ll hold your hand for a little while,” she said about the transformation that happens when people shop in her store.
Trying new things, of course, doesn’t always result in success. She’s had her share of lines that didn’t work in her store, but it doesn’t stop her from trying. And if it doesn’t work out, she’ll put it on sale and Let. It. Go. The bad energy of hanging on to it isn’t worth it.
“I’m very open to change, so if something’s not right, I’ll change it and I’m not afraid to lose while I’m doing it,” she said very confidently. “Failure is only the other side of success. You really never fail. It’s a circle.”
This attitude is in line with one of the top 3 things she believes contributed to her success. She believes the best thing you can tell yourself as an entrepreneur is that tomorrow is another day. Every day is a new day. Slow days are for catching up, setting up new displays, cleaning, and prepping for busy days, which always come when you’ve set up the right energy in your store. That right energy for Gaia is her #2 item: making sure her store is never cluttered. She believes it makes for a more welcoming environment, which she’s curated to appeal to the senses of intellectuals and higher demographics. She utilizes her understanding of home decor and feng shui to merchandise her store and she has no doubt that this is why she sells so many things—because it’s so pleasing you just gotta have it. The artist in her is able to combine her own sensibilities in the store along with those of her customers, which leads us to the third item on her list: understanding her clientele.
The importance of understanding customers is a recurring theme in these articles because it’s imperative to success.
“If you don’t understand your customer,” says Robbie, “you’re not going to make it.”
Gaia, for example, is welcoming to everyone, but Robbie knows she has a strong contingent of 50-year-olds who are shopping because they want to be a cool 50, not matronly. But what does it mean to understand your customer?
“I am very conversational with them,” she said. “I read a lot, I follow their lives, I’m just very in tune with my market.”
You have to take the time to invest in this type of research. You have to be willing to give up doing other things you’d like to be doing. For Robbie, though, it’s often an easy choice to make because her business is family to her—not just the staff and physical store, but also the customers. Working with people is an integral part of Robbie’s personality and lifestyle.
“I’m 100% behind the customer, about customer service. You have to be an on-site owner.”
Being on-site allows Robbie the face-to-face time she needs to create successful customer relationships. She also invites them to participate in the fun of having a shop. Do you ever see those YouTube videos of people’s reactions when they receive their orders in the mail? If you’re in Gaia when a shipment arrives , you’re part of the experience! Robbie lets customers open boxes and check items for fit all in the name of fun (and customer research). She also makes their shopping bags nice whether they ask for it or not because not only is it a treat for them, it’s Robbie’s personal brand. Each experience between the customer and Gaia is special.
That’s a lot of action going on in a store, right? Robbie loves it. She documents her day with customers and her merchandise, which helps her with her social media marketing. At 71 years young, Robbie is a social media superstar IMHO. She admits that she wasn’t an instant pro at using social media so she invested in a few local lessons to understand the mechanics and then let her inner artist take over. She does all her own Facebook and Instagram posts from photos to hashtags. She says she doesn’t have a specific strategy, but in a way, she does. She has a habit of taking pictures and videos throughout the day. After work, she’ll go through all of them and categorize them. That way she has a library to go to when she’s posting. After consistent effort and some trial and error, it’s paid off big time. She has a very active and engaged following that results in sales every week.
“Posts should be lively and fun!” says Robbie. “They should resonate [with your customers]. They should be engaging.”
She tries to post at least every other day and understands the power of hashtags on Instagram. In fact, she’s seen a huge difference in engagement since she started using the hashtags “#shoplocalbusiness” and “#shopfamilybusiness”, each of which has a million followers. She knows this because she checks the hashtags before using them. After all, you don’t want to use one if it turns out that most of the posts associated to a particular hashtag are vulgar, dead, or inappropriate in any other way! She’s happy to do the research and cultivate the right mix for her customers.
As an artist, Robbie likes to make sure that even her posts have the right mix of video and photos—or as she says, “are merchandised”. She believes that a sense of movement, quality of display, and artistic ambiance are all important to a great post. Knowing her customers pays off big time in the social media world. Her gorgeous posts prompt customers to contact her directly in messenger to save or request the items they’ve seen. THAT’s the power of the DM (direct message). Another perk of knowing your customers is they feel comfortable contacting you directly and you know when they’re serious about a purchase.
However, Robbie also knows that not all her customers necessarily like or use Facebook or other social media. So she also sends emails for variety and to keep in contact with them – sometimes up to three times a week because of in-store events. It creates excitement, which is the type of good energy that Robbie loves…
“If you put out good energy, that’s what you’re gonna get back. You put out low energy, that’s what you’re gonna get.”
Robbie emphasizes that it’s a lot of work so her advice to young people starting off in retail is to check their work ethic. Are you willing to work 70-80 hours a week? Are you willing to start small so that you can get to know your customers as you grow? Are you willing to continually cultivate relationships?
Robbie is. In fact, one of her new projects is to put her staff in the social media limelight. She’s looking to do a series of photos that show her staff with their favorite items in the store. She figures that it’s just another way to let her customers get to know her staff’s sensibilities as well as they know hers. I think that’s a fabulous idea! Don’t you? Let us know what you think of Robbie’s ideas—or share any of your own!—in the comments below.
How to find Gaia:
45 Miller St., Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Facebook: @shopgaiaclothing https://www.facebook.com/shopgaiaclothing/
Instagram: @gaia_ws https://www.instagram.com/gaia__ws/