Small Business Center
Lots of people have dreams about starting their own small businesses. But how do you know when is the right time to take the leap and turn an idea into a business? Erica Hanks now owns Showroom, an omnichannel women’s retailer with brick-and-mortar locations on Kiawah Island in South Carolina and in Austin, Texas. Her path from working at the mall at age 15 to owning her own omnichannel women’s workwear fashion company makes total sense, but only when you look at it step by step. “I’ve done every job in retail from inventory to scraping gum out of the dressing room on the carpet,” she said.
After the mall and college, Hanks wrote editorials for a fashion magazine and then styled photo shoots for the magazine. That led to styling models for brands like Nike and Lowe’s and then NASCAR, NFL, NBA and Olympic athletes. Next, she was styling their handlers and the female executives at those organizations. And yet, in the middle of COVID, Hanks walked away from that thriving career to open her own small business.
Below, Hanks explains to ICSC Small Business Center writer Rebecca Meiser what gave her the confidence to do that. She also talks identifying your target customer, sticking to your niche, leaning on your network, personalizing your offerings, managing inventory conservatively and moving from digital to omnichannel via pop-up, brick-and-mortar and then expanding to a second store.
[By 2020], I had been styling professionally for over 12 years. I am in my 40s. My youngest client at the time was in the NFL, and he was 23. I just saw the writing on the wall. I knew that there was going to be a day soon where these young hot athletes are going to want somebody a lot younger and they’re not going to want “mama” to be styling them anymore. I kept thinking: “What is something that I can do that’s in the industry that I can pivot and use my talents?” And I realized I’ve shopped my whole career, so maybe I can try opening an online retail shop. Everyone during COVID was shopping online. That’s all you could do, and I just knew that it was going to continue after COVID.
The feedback I kept getting from the female executives I interacted with all these years was that: “There’s nothing out there for women my age. There’s nothing workwear appropriate.” Everything [in the stores] was hot and trendy and cool. That works sometimes, but it doesn’t fit everybody. They didn’t feel seen. That’s where the name Showroom came about because I was like: “I’m going to bring my clients their own personal showrooms.” Even though we started out online, I still wanted that online presence to feel like I have literally procured everything on this site just for you and I’ve condensed it all. I’ve gone through every brand, I’ve edited it out and this is everything that you want for this stage in your life.
I was the only one providing capital. This was 2020. I was working two jobs to save up for the digital site. I was still styling [athletes] and I was also head of styling for Fox Sports on the East Coast. I was exhausted, but I had a belief in this vision.
I started telling a few people that I trusted about it. I got a lot of advice. I got a lot of feedback and just really started grassroots from the kitchen table like: “Hey, let me go ahead and figure out how to get a website going.” With me being in the fashion industry, I already had connections with some brands and designers, some reps. From idea to launch, it took about eight months to really get something going. I started with maybe just three designers.
I created a pitch deck of our vision — our woman, who she was, where she’s going — and I just was really transparent in the emails. I would say: “Hey, this is me. This is not a fly-by-night operation. This is not something where I’m going to start a hobby and see how it goes. This is going to be a transition for not only my clients but for me. You know that that there is a gap in the industry for this woman, and I’d love to fill it and I’d love to fill it with your brand and your aesthetic.” A lot of people really just gravitated toward that and understood our vision and who this woman is and that she is sorely underrepresented.
It started with my customer base, who I have styled my whole life. I asked them to share it, to tell their friends. Then we started partnering with ShopBazaar [an e-commerce site run by the editors of Harper’s Bazaar], and we started selling on there, which was great. I have a great group of friends and clients that helped us push to get those things sold, and that led to getting more brands and aligning ourselves with even better partners. It really just started very small.
It was the personalization. I was styling Showroom customers digitally. They would email me about their lifestyles and upcoming events and I would say: “This is what you need, and I’m sending you a box and this is how to wear it.” Getting that styling component message through in the early days was really important. It still is. We have a stylist at every store. People have really latched on to that component of having your own stylist. It’s a complimentary service. We send you everything that fits you, that works with your lifestyle. We talk you through every look, and then you just return what doesn’t work. I always knew that I wanted to do that. I knew because I made a living out of helping people and I knew that if somebody was willing to pay for it, they were going to be willing to have a complimentary service and pay for the product.
Oh, my gosh. The first setup was in a one-bedroom apartment. The second setup was in a 1,000-square-foot loft space because that’s all I could afford, and we crammed everything in it and then we signed a year lease. And then six months into it, the guy was like: “Well, I’m selling this.” I’m like: “OK, great. I don’t know where we’re going.” Then, luckily for me, I found a listing for an office. That’s where we still are, so it’s an old 100-year-old knitting mill in Charlotte, North Carolina. We house everything there. We shoot our e-com there. We pack and ship out of there. We eat there. We cram everything in it. There’s no conglomerate. This is very grassroots. We may look really cool and chic, but we truly are a really small operation. When I started Showroom, I was the photographer [of all the clothes on the site], I was the stylist, I did our emails. I still do the payroll. I’m the insurance girl.
The model in fashion is: You have to pay for the clothes upfront. Then you have a 90-day sell-through window to get it at full price so you can make your money back. That’s why we never overbought: because we only wanted to sell what we had and get as much money as we could. Thankfully, we never got stuck with a lot of inventory like a lot of our retail friends did.
I had always vacationed on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and there’s nothing on the island. When my kids were little, the only retail store there was Lilly Pulitzer. Not to knock Lilly Pulitzer, but it just wasn’t my jam. About a year-and-a-half ago, we found out that the PGA tour was coming to Kiawah, and I thought: “OK, this is a great opportunity for us to test the water and just maybe do a popup. Let’s just do like a three-month popup. Let’s see how it goes.” We worked with Northwood Retail. They owned Freshfields Village, [a shopping center in Charleston County, South Carolina], at the time, and I was just like :‘“Hey, I’m from Charlotte. We don’t have a store, but we would like to just see if we could do a pop-up here for the PGA tour and offer this, and here are our brands.” We were really taking a risk on: Is this woman really going to gravitate to what we have? We opened the day of the PGA tour with a pop-up, and in three days, we made six figures. I knew that we had something there.
Showroom’s second brick-and-mortar store, in Austin, Texas.
Coming off a pandemic, I was taking a gamble on not only opening a retail site when the world was shut down, but I’m also going in not knowing how shoppers will come back to fashion and workwear after the pandemic. I started with just a handful of brands and bought very conservatively and expanded our assortment slowly, along with the change in customer needs, and thankfully it paid off.
When we got featured in Vogue for our one-year anniversary, I was like: “OK, we have arrived.”
Northwood Retail had some leasing reps come into the store. I happened to be working there that day, and I helped this group of girls. They loved everything. They’re like: “I’ve never heard of these brands before.” Two days later, I got an email from one of the women, and she told me: “We’ve got this great place in Austin, and we don’t have any of your brands here. Would you be interested in coming out and just taking a look?” That’s how it started. We started noticing we do have a strong customer base in Texas, and they loved our brand assortment. We just started taking a look more into the demographics of Austin — who this Austin woman is — and decided to pull the trigger. We just had our grand opening the first week of November, and it went really well.
Keep your overhead low. Figure out what your niche is. Then really stick to that niche. One of the worst things in retail you can do is just open a wide net, and think: “I’m just going to have a store and hopefully somebody comes in.” You’ve really got to know who your target audience is and then manifest that.
Hear from Other Founder Businesses
Shopping centers serve as great incubators for small businesses. As featured in Commerce + Communities Today, Northwood Retail has prioritized recruitment of founder businesses, including Showroom, to the 3 million square feet of retail it manages and advises on. To learn more about some of the small businesses Northwood Retail has helped foster, listen to Northwood Retail’s Backstory Beginnings podcast.
By Rebecca Meiser
Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today