By now, you’ve heard about the importance of adding retail to your salon. You’ve heard that, done correctly, the profit margins on your retail sales could be many times the profit margins on your salon services. But with your busy schedule of developing those salon services and managing all of the other aspects of the salon itself, you haven’t had much luck in finding those elusive boutique items that could be the start of your thriving retail business. “I applied for and received a resale license for my salon, but now what?” says Sherrie McCarter, co-owner of The Nail Bar in Hermosa Beach, Calif. “It doesn’t come with a catalog.” Though there might not be a “salon retail items” catalog, per se, there are several convenient resources (many of them free), including merchandise marts, gifting shows, and trade magazines, that will let you choose from decorative accessories, stationary, jewelry, collectibles, holiday/seasonal items, gourmet foods, and thousands of other giftware items that will sell well in your salon. To start, you may need to get a resale license (this depends on your state; see the sidebar “What’s a resale license?” for more information) and you’ll need to do the research to be able to answer the following questions:

> What are the demographics and the style of your salon’s client base? (Know their sex, age range, socioeconomic status, and occupations; observe the type of accessories clients are currently wearing to their appointments and ask them what types of items they’d be tempted to purchase.)
> What type of merchandise sells well in your area?
> What are your competitors selling? (You’ll want to sell different product lines to set yourself apart.)
> What image do you want to project?
> What is your budget?

The resources in this article are mainly targeted to full-time gift shop and specialty store retailers, but all of the hosts NAILS spoke to emphasize that nail salon owners are welcome to attend. Michael Stephens, general manager at the Charlotte Gift & Jewelry Show, says, “Many nail salons and spas attend the show. In fact, it is a wonderful way for the salons to pick up extra profit without a lot of time and expense involved.” Just make sure that before you finalize your travel plans to a gift market that you have all of the necessary items to qualify as an authorized wholesale buyer. It varies from location to location but, in general, it will be some mix of these documents: a copy of your business’s resale license, a voided business check, a copy of a corporate credit card, a copy of an active lease or deed showing the use of space, a personalized business card, a business phone book listing, or a storefront picture.

Merchandise Marts: Shop For Products Year-Round

Merchandise marts are like gigantic shopping malls — many encompass several million square feet and are housed in multiple buildings — that are not open to the general public. They are, however, open to you as a wholesale buyer. These marts house a huge variety of goods at wholesale prices, are usually open year round, and most are free to visit. Many marts have comprehensive “new buyers’ information packets” available for download online, which will provide you with useful information like color-coded maps of permanent and temporary showrooms. If you know of certain vendors you definitely want to see, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment ahead of time (though most will take walk-ins). You can also take advantage of the new buyer resources that are available in person. “Dallas Market Center offers a New Buyer Orientation and walking tours each morning during market at 9 a.m.,” says Jill Robinson, vice president of retail development at Dallas Market Center. These will help you get oriented on your visit. Once you’re meeting face-to-face with vendors, there are a few key questions you should ask to find the right products for your salon:

> What are your best sellers?
> What are your most cutting-edge
products? (Only ask this if your ­clientele is young and fashion-forward.)
> How is the merchandise best displayed?
> How easily does the product sell itself?
> How does this product tie in with my salon’s existing products and services?
> Will you give me samples to use as giveaways for my existing clients?
> What’s your minimum order?
> What is your minimum re-order?

Educational classes on retailing are also often available at merchandise marts. “Topics for these seminars range from money management for retailers to discussions on upcoming trends,” Robinson says. Look up a class schedule on the mart’s website. You should also take note of any gifting trade shows the mart hosts throughout the year; these will give you access to even more vendors.

Gift Shows: Many Vendors in a Short Amount of Time

The prep to attend a gift trade show is similar to the prep advised to attend a beauty trade show: wear comfortable shoes, bring lots of business cards, bring a wheeled tote (check size restrictions first), plan which booths you want to visit, attend networking events, and confirm your flight and hotel reservations ahead of time. Unlike beauty trade shows, many gift shows boast free admission. These shows feature aisles of wholesale items that are retail prospects for your salon. They can either be cash and carry (where you take the goods home that day) or order-writing shows (where the order is shipped to you later); a trade show can also have a mix of both of these options. Evonne Eiseman, buyer services manager at the Denver Gift Home Jewelry & Resort Show, offers several pieces of advice to help salon owners get the most of their gift show experience. “If your ‘bill to’ and ‘ship to’ addresses are different, have this printed on your business cards or labels to hand to vendors. Attend a ‘new buyer orientation.’ Obtain a copy of all written orders; make sure it includes the start ship/cancel dates and the terms. Keep track of your purchases to stay within your ‘open to buy’ [your budget]. Allow enough time to work the show by having at least a day to walk the entire show to get an overview of the variety of lines, see the new trends, and discover merchandising ideas.” Charlotte Gift Show’s Stephens adds: “Walk the entire show, make notes, compare quality and pricing, then sit down and make your purchasing decisions before returning to vendors to purchase merchandise. Be sure to keep receipts or make certain the merchandise is priced before you leave. It can be very confusing to get home with bags of unmarked merchandise and try to remember what you paid for each item, so you can price them for resale.” Sometimes show specials will be available that go beyond even the usual wholesale pricing. If you’re on a tight budget, look for signs that say things like, “Buy XX and get one free,” “free shipping,” or “$XX orders get a 5% discount”. There are also classes you can attend. They can cover everything from merchandise display, marketing, and trends to how to make your own beaded necklaces to either sell to your clients or to host jewelry-making parties at your salon. After the show, you can still find more deals from show vendors. “Many of the exhibitors have websites and advertise closeouts and specials during the year. Always ask for a business card so you can check these options after returning home,” Stephens says.

Trade Magazines: Product Info Delivered to Your Mailbox

Another way to find out about the latest wholesale merchandise items and trends is by subscribing to gifting trade magazines. These usually have a subscription cost, but they go well beyond lists of the latest products. They’ll also keep you in-the-know about relevant store operation tips, market dynamics, gift trade show coverage, strategies for effective visual merchandising, and other retail topics. Some of the available gift trade magazines are:

> Country Business (
> Gift Biz Buzz (; this magazine is online only)
> Gift Shop Magazine (
> Gifts & Decorative Accessories (
> Giftware News (

Many of these magazines also offer e-newsletters that can deliver relevant updates to your e-mail inbox.

Where to Find Low Minimum Orders

Salons have the somewhat unique problem of not having enough space (and probably not enough cash flow) for a full-fledged retail area, which can cause frustration when you’re trying to shop at the same places that full-time gift store owners are shopping. Most gift vendors have a “minimum,” which can refer to the minimum dollar quantity per order, the minimum pieces per order, or the minimum units of an item. “The places I have found usually have a minimum of at least $150 if not more, and that is just from one company. We are a small salon and don’t have a lot of retail space as it is, so trying to carry a different line from each company plus coming up with the minimum is challenging,” The Nail Bar’s McCarter says.

There are several ways around this problem. First, shop “cash and carry” sections of merchandise marts and shows/sections of shows. Many cash and carry vendors don’t have minimums; plus, this way you don’t have to pay shipping costs. Be forewarned though that, if the product does well in your salon, you may run into problems re-ordering the product later (including having to deal with a re-order ­minimum and paying shipping costs). For vendors who sell by order only, you’ll have to ask them what their minimum is; sometimes, small vendors will sell to you with a minimum under $100. Also, sometimes merchandise marts will have special events where there is a limited-time no-minimum-buying event, so check the website ­frequently or sign up for the mart’s e-mail updates, if available. Another option is to combine your purchasing power with that of other salon owners or retail businesses. “Retailers can also consider group wholesale buying where their order can be pooled with others (Premier Buying Group is one such organization that helps in this area),” says Poornima Apte, editor-in-chief of Gift Shop Magazine. If you can afford it and have the space though, Apte advises, “To really make an impact and spur sales, the general wisdom is to have many items from just one or two SKUs as opposed to buying just one or two units of many things and risking them all getting lost in the crowd.”

Another option is to rent out retail space in your salon on consignment. This is one strategy that Carolyn Walter at Carolyn’s Salon and Carolyn’s Boutique in Aquebogue, N.Y., has incorporated with success. “The local craftsmen pay a percentage of each sale. Some are clients and others are from a woman’s networking group,” Walter says. Walter augments this selection with purchases she makes with her salon’s resale license — including jewelry, scarves, and bath and beauty products. “I am in an area where the bridal biz is booming, so I am changing my focus, including recently increasing my inventory for bridal hair accessories,” she says. She also takes note of any changes in her clientele or the clientele of surrounding businesses. After noticing that a neighboring dance studio has just opened its doors, she’s already making plans to “add some items that may attract little girls” — evidence that she understands the cardinal rule about finding boutique items for a salon: Think like your potential customers.

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