For many small businesses, customers and community are synonymous. The two are often interchangeable—without their local community, the neighborhood where they live and work, they’d be woefully without customers.
As such, more merchants are taking every opportunity to plug into their community, both to get their products in front of more potential buyers and to extend their brands from online to offline.
These retailers understand one basic truth: people buy from people.
So, getting facetime with customers at a summer festival is as valuable as a face-to-face sale in your store or even an order online. Because most consumers (85%, according to one study) say they prefer to shop in stores, the in-person part of the multichannel sales equation is more important than ever.
We met with two San Francisco-based retailers who have taken up the multichannel mantle, and quickly discovered that for these growing merchants, the ability to adapt and sell anywhere to their customers are is a key component to their success.
Meet Libreria Pino: Where Italophiles Can Fill Their Shelves With Classics
All Images Courtesy Will Giovacchini
Joseph Carboni glances through his freshly opened two-level pop-up shop. The white shelves lining the walls are stacked with a variety of books—all in Italian. Tables toward the front of the shop display customer favorites, including Italian versions of the Harry Potter series and several Dr. Seuss classics. “Those are some of our best sellers,” Carboni notes, looking over copies of Green Eggs and Ham and Harry Potter e la Pietra Filosofale.
Carboni’s niche storefront had just opened its doors only three days before in the heart of San Francisco’s Little Italy neighborhood—only 10 days after signing the lease for the space.
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“I’ve always wanted a store, since I started selling Italian books,” he explained.
The glistening new pop-up shop was always part of Carboni’s business plan. He opened Libreria Pino five years ago online after struggling to find Italian books to teach his own children the language. Much to his dismay, he discovered that no bookstores in North America specialized in Italian translations of children’s books. After spending significant effort and cash ordering books straight from Italy, he decided to open his own ecommerce shop for Italian books.
“When my son was born, I wanted to teach him Italian. We needed to supplement his learning at home, so I was shopping for books and music myself and it was very challenging to find anybody in the U.S. who had products available.”
Since then, he’s steadily grown his book-selling business, expanding from his warehouse (also known as his home garage) to the newly leased storefront in Little Italy.
Building a Customer Community Through Fairs and Festivals
The timing for his store opening centered around one of his major sales strategies — selling at local fairs and festivals. Carboni opened his doors just in time for one of the city’s largest annual street fairs, the North Beach Festival.
“Saturday was our first day, and we had far more customers than I had expected,” he said. “We’ve heard everything from [customers] about loving the layout of the store [and that] they love seeing a bookstore to the neighborhood, let alone an Italian bookstore.”
Prior to opening his pop-up, Carboni says he regularly rented booths and tables at other local fairs and festivals. It was there that he grew brand awareness, plugged into the community, and, of course, get a deeper understanding of what his fellow Italophiles needed from a bookseller.
Libreria Pino is self-financed, so Carboni has bootstrapped his book-selling ventures from the beginning. But this slow evolution has allowed him the time to develop each of his sales channels well, and one at a time.
“I just needed to raise the funds to be somewhat self-sufficient. If I can sell enough inventory and have enough business nationwide, I should have enough to pay the rent.”
While he bootstrapped and grew his community of customers, he also worked to build a name for his brand around the Bay Area via other fairs and festivals. And these experiences honed his in-person sales skills to help him meet his latest business goal: opening his pop-up store.
“I’ve worked quite a lot of fairs and Italian-American festivals around San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, and even farther. So, I’ve had a lot of experience setting up a pop-up store for the weekend via a booth [at those festivals]. So, I’ve had experience with visual merchandising and in-person customer sales. And that’s been wonderful and a great experience that’s been building toward a traditional bookstore.”
And because he carefully chose a location near the traditional Italian neighborhood of San Fran, Carboni says the community has risen up to support him. Even just three days after his opening, foot traffic streams into his store and comment on how good it is to see him open.
Introducing The Cheese School of San Francisco: Connecting a Community of Cheese Connoisseurs
Connecting to a deeper community is also part of the success story of another well-known San Francisco merchant: The Cheese School of San Francisco.
You could say The Cheese School runs on two passions: community and cheese. Housed in a co-working space, The Cheese School surrounds itself with a bevy of other community businesses—from an Italian café to a floral designer.
Upon entering the gate at their Fulsom Street space, you’ll find these cheese educators tucked neatly into a garden oasis. Cheese enthusiasts leave behind the bustling Mission District and navigate through a lush courtyard where The Cheese School often hosts their events and classes. It’s here that dozens of eager learners are regularly educated in the art of tasting and pairing, get a hands-on class in creating their own tangy Chevre or creamy mascarpone, or purchase some cheese-related gifts and accessories.
Eli Joyce, The Cheese School’s Beer and Cheese Buyer, explains that the mission of this burgeoning (and tasty) business is to educate and connect members of the cheese-loving community.
“The business was founded on the idea that cheese is a thing that so many people love and connect to, but is an up-and-coming market,” she noted. “Wine and learning about wine, or even beer, has been more prevalent in the food scene than cheese for a long time. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a boom in cheese-friendly business.”
A Nomadic Business: Sharing a Love of Cheese With the Community
Since opening about six years ago, The Cheese School has gone from simply sharing their love of the stinky stuff through classes and workshops to offering a broad range of cheese-related events and merchandise. Now, the school caters events, hosts a three-day intensive program for food pros interested in buying and caring for cheese, and even sets up on-site demos at the likes of Google and Facebook.
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Joyce believes one of the business’s strengths is its strong community ties. The on-site demos, their presence at fairs and festivals around town, and their great relationships with vendors and suppliers have served the business well.
“We have the ability to travel around with our wares, or we’re here in our space, which is our home base,” Joyce explains.
She also said that the school has seen exponential growth just in the last year, thanks to their expanding presence in and around the community (and some great word-of-mouth referrals from happy customers).
Adding Retail to a Service-Based Business
But The Cheese School wasn’t satisfied with simply sitting pretty on their service-based business model. Their continued success comes from diversifying their offerings. While Joyce says the majority of The Cheese School’s revenues are still from events (both private and their classes), they’ve recently expanded their offering for cheese connoisseurs with a line of retail items.
Whether a cheese lover is looking for a treat for themselves, or a gift for a friend or loved one, The Cheese School has them covered. Joyce curates a delightful collection of tasty pairing items (think jams, jellies, and confits), accessories like serving utensils and artisan cheese boards, as well as DIY cheesemaking kits.
“There [are] the classes people pay money for, and they’re physically here and present [in our space], where they’re taught about cheese by an instructor. And then they get to take home cool, little things with them afterward,” she says. “The class is the heart of our company. And then we expanded with our retail offering.”
Leveling Up: Using Shopify’s Chip & Swipe Reader to Sell Anywhere
Because of the mobility of their businesses, Libreria Pino and The Cheese School need a point of sale and payment system that can go everywhere they do. And that’s where Shopify POS (the best POS for small business) and the Chip & Swipe Reader come in.
In Carboni’s case, he has packed up his card reader and iPad, along with his books, to sell in around the community at fairs and festivals. He chose this system because he can easily take payments on site, and all his in-person sales sync up automatically with his online inventory.
With Shopify, I can not only do customer checkouts, but it’s integrated with all the back-end services that a retailer needs and my online and offline shop. I don’t need to go back in and re-enter any data or sales.
“The card reader has been wonderful. It just works,” Carboni says. “It’s exactly what a retailer wants in their hardware—for it to just work.”
As the in-house ecommerce expert, Joyce also chose Shopify when creating The Cheese School’s retail component. After each class, she sets up the iPad and card reader to take wireless sales around their teaching space. And it’s also simple to use on-to-go at events and demos.
“We take our iPad and our card reader with us when we go places so we can ring people up through Shopify. So, we’ll do an event at Google and collect payments on site rather than having them go through our office staff the next day,” she said. “As long as there’s Internet, we’re good to go.”