A True Appreciation For Shrimp & Grits and the Great Pumpkin Debacle

This is the 3rd installment of a run down of the past 18-months or so of the building of our brand, rusted fence. If you missed Part 2- you can find it here. Sign up to receive notification of new postings and let me know what you think…the good, the bad, and the ugly.

IT’S NOT THE HEAT, IT’S THE HUMIDITY– The end of Summer 2018 brought on a sobering lull in festivals and shows, as we came out of July Mart and straight into a new school year.  As it relates to the return to the classroom, Rhonda and I grew up in very different business environments- hers being a hellish 6-weeks of denim needing, dress code stressing, overbearing parents that all seemed to wait until the last minute for back-to-school shopping.  If your business didn’t sell binders, BIRKENSTOCKS, or backpacks, you may as well have just shut down for 2-weeks.  It was too early and too hot for anything held outside, and who could argue? August in the South was meant for air conditioning and swimming pools.  What we did, though, was find other outlets to go after sales.  We were uber-focused on gross dollars, metrics, customer counts and conversion…you name the KPI and we chased it.  Enter LAKEWOOD 400 ANTIQUES MARKET and its behemoth array of garage space, dedicated to anything and everything you could possibly need for your home or garden, and maybe even an actual antique or two.  For somewhere around the low, low sum of $140, one could “rent” a space and set up shop to sell your wares the 3rdweekend of every month.  Not exactly the storefront we were looking for, but this would prove to be the jump-off we needed to truly understand everything we didn’t know…

IT’S REALLY JUST SELLING TOMATOES– Up to this point, our journey hadn’t been anything special.  A lot of daily conversation between us about what we should do and how we should do it.  Most decisions were broken down ad-nauseum and even when we thought we knew the direction we wanted to go, we analyzed some more.  We were definitely leaning into trying to sell things instead of understanding the “why” behind what we were doing.  If you’ve ever watched Kevin Costner in FIELD OF DREAMS, you’re familiar with the line “If you build it, they will come…” Great movie, but I’ve always thought that line was bullshit.  You have to give people a connection to your brand- stacking tomatoes 6-feet high won’t sell more tomatoes.  What sells tomatoes is having a reputation for selling quality and then getting them priced right.  We could stack dough-bowls to the ceiling and sell them cheaper than anyone, there would always be someone else that could stack higher and sell even cheaper still. What changed for us at the end of that Summer was our realization that until people knew who we were, we would have a tough time selling tomatoes OR dough bowls.  I had no idea at this point who GARY VAYNERCHUK was, but had already begun to understand that we were running sprints every week chasing dollars instead of pacing our growth to win the marathon…but more on that later.

ODE TO MOTHER NATURE– Quick flashback to June of 2018, as I left out what would turn out to be one of our riskiest, yet best decisions we’ve made, even as I look back on it almost a year later.  As we were researching festivals and pop-up shows for Fall, I noticed that SOUTHERN LIVING MAGAZINE sponsored a SHRIMP & GRITS FESTIVAL on Jekyll Island, GA.- 45,000 people over 3- days in September.  THIS would be our big break- I was convinced we were ready for the big-time…I mean after all, we had done a handful of pop-up-shops locally in Atlanta and we wanted to build our brand, right?  The only problem was that the show was a “artist/maker only” event.  That means it has to be handmade, by our company, in order for us to represent it at the show.  We clearly didn’t qualify to head down to the coast of Georgia and jump into the deep end of the festival pool.  This would have been a great opportunity to build our brand for $150 investment, garnering a small slice of real estate to share rusted fencewith a significant piece of the Southeast.  The only option to make this happen was to spend several thousand dollars to become one of the sponsors for the festival, allowing us display and sell any of our products, handmade or otherwise.  At this point we had quite literally done less than 5-shows (not even sure if we really made a profit at any of them) and here I was trying to convince my level-headed, overly analytical, business partner/wife that this was what we needed to do.  Credit to Rhonda for her trust in my “gut” on this.  September at the SHRIMP & GRITS FESTIVAL turned out to be a huge pivot-point for us that not only validated our belief in the direction for our company, but gave us the opportunity to showcase Rhonda’s skill set and our commitment to the brand.   (A big shout-out to MOTHER NATURE for her cooperation on our investment.  Hurricane Florence had the festival on shaky ground up until just a few days before, but the storm headed up the East Coast and made land fall in North Carolina, not only avoiding Georgia all together, but driving an additional 20-30,000 people south to the area seeking to avoid her wrath.)

TRICKY OR TREAT– Fresh off of our SHRIMP & GRITS success, the Fall festival season was in full-swing.  For all of the good vibes still resonating, hind sighting our Jekyll Island trip found some major misses with our pre-show purchasing as we ran out of key items very early in the show.  We definitely left a lot of sales dollars “on the table” so-to-speak.  Buying product, especially for a new business is tricky. Inventory dollars are scarce, so each buy needs to be spot-on with very little room for error.  We clearly did not buy enough pumpkins for S & G and could have sold at least 10 more sets.  We talked through it and immediately ordered a bajillion (or so it seemed) as soon as we returned to Atlanta the week after the show.  They would arrive before September ended and this guaranteed that we would NOT run out of pumpkins again!  That last sentence haunts us to this day and is a running joke and reminder to order strategically.  I can’t tell you how many sets of pumpkins we sold in October last year, but what I can tell you is ¾ of that last order sits in our garage, or more specifically, take up an entire corner of the garage- even as I write this blog.  They are still there…laughing at me with hallow eyes and their crooked, toothy grin.  There’s a pile of them atop our storage freezer, a not-so-subtle reminder that every season has a limited time-frame and running out is okay. 

GIVE HER THE BALL, SIT BACK, WATCH HER RUN– Understanding the 4thquarter of a retail company is Rhonda’s wheelhouse.  Rhonda’s inventory mix was as good as it had been all year and we ran out of the right holiday SKU’S at the right time.  Inventory of seasonal items was contained in 3 boxes and the dollars equated to that backstock was minimal.  We were reinvesting profits from a strong 3rdquarter back into the business, shows were scheduled almost every weekend and our Lakewood booth location was trending up with month-over-month double digit sales increases.  We were able to be more selective with what festivals we participated in locally and even had some follow-up invites to other shows in states all over the South, all based on our solid showing at Shrimp & Grits.  We returned to H & H for their Christmas show to wrap up our year and based on numbers, was a tremendous success.  We had moved from a 1-tent setup to now taking up a double space, allowing us to add fixtures and Rhonda the room she needed to ramp up our merchandising “wow” factor.  On the back-end of the business, we were operating better, but still had work to do. The website was due for a revamp and while Black Friday visitors to our shopping pages was the strongest it had ever been, the traffic was still not converting to sales.  Heading into the New Year, our primary focus would be dissecting the ecommerce piece of our business and developing a plan to not only drive more people to our site, but to actual get them to spend some money.   

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