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10 things we learned about opening a vintage storefront
Photo: Volkan Vardar/Pexels

10 things we learned about opening a vintage storefront


The owners of Pink Bubblegum Vintage share their top lessons about running a bricks-and-mortar boutique

Your first clue that you’re in for a lively shopping experience at Pink Bubblegum Vintage is the big pink pair of lips hanging above its storefront door in downtown St. Catherines, Ont.

The Pop Art–style lips, which are blowing a bubble of — you guessed it — pink gum, beckon shoppers inside to browse an array of candy-coloured clothes and trinkets — about 70 per cent vintage clothing and accessories from the 1920s through Y2K, and about 30 per cent home decor.

It’s all part of the pretty-in-pink vision of co-owners Kelly Watson and Rhondi Bruce, who made their pandemic dreams come true when they first opened the doors to their boutique, located about 1.5 hours’ drive southeast from Toronto, in June 2021.

Best friends for over 20 years, Kelly says she and Rhondi became interested in selling because both “have a really good eye for vintage and are always finding unique treasures.

Exterior shot of Pink Bubblegum Boutique sign on white clapboard
Pink Bubblegum Vintage Boutique in St. Catharines, Ont. Photo: Pink Bubblegum Vintage

“We decided in 2019 that we wanted to get into curating and selling vintage, so by late that year we had participated in a couple of vintage pop-ups, and had a great time,” says Kelly. “Of course, 2020 was what it was, so we originally thought online was our best strategy — working together, yet apart.”

They built up an Instagram audience and sold online, but the idea of owning a store was never too far away.

“By fall 2020, bored from being home so much, we started to get the urge for a store,” Kelly says. “I think that we both thought people would be the same as us and want to get out of their house and have the tactile shopping experience.”

But when it came to actually opening a store in a pandemic, things were more challenging than they were expecting. Kelly and Rhondi say they’ve learned a lot about entrepreneurship from the entire experience. Here, they share their top 10 tips on opening a bricks-and-mortar vintage shop.

1. Be passionate — and don’t be afraid to dream big, because you never know where it will lead.

Kelly and Rhondi, who are fashion-history buffs, let their love for the past shine through in everything from their Pop Art touches to their carefully curated inventory featuring such delights as flapper dresses, sweater sets, pencil skirts and ’60s party shoes.

“We get obsessed with what people are wearing in old movies, music videos and magazines,” Kelly says. “Most importantly, we both have always loved to thrift and garage sale. The thrill of finding a great piece is so exciting.”

During the first year of the pandemic, they bonded over their shared passion for selling, which fuelled their dreams of opening a storefront. “We would go for walks in our downtown of St. Catharines and dream of spaces that we thought might work,” Kelly remembers.

Neither of them anticipated they’d soon turn those loosely discussed goals into reality. It still felt “like a pipe dream,” she says. But they’d spread the word around their network that they were considering the possibility. Their inventory mounted up. Then, serendipity.

“In February of 2021 we got a message from a good friend that she was giving up her [retail] space and was wondering if we might want to take it over,” says Kelly. “After a bit of contemplation — and panic attacks — we decided to go for it. What did we have to lose, really?  That’s the point that life became a whirlwind and changed for us dramatically.

“We still pinch ourselves daily.”

Interior shot of Pink Bubblegum Boutique
Pink Bubblegum Vintage owners Kelly Watson and Rhondi Bruce favour timeless shapes, fun colours and kitschy objects for their storefront. Photo: Pink Bubblegum Vintage

2. Take note of what does and doesn’t work in the existing environments you spend time in.

For Kelly and Rhondi, retail environments were second nature. “We both have worked in retail our whole lives, but never in owning ourselves,” says Kelly.

“When you work retail for a long time, you get a feel of what you would do the same or differently. You also get knowledge in customer service, which is key when running your own business.”

If you already sell online or at markets, pay attention to what you do and don’t like about the experiences, and how you can incorporate or modify those things with your in-store shopping experience.

And when you’re shopping or experiencing a customer journey at other establishments or services — even those not related to vintage or antiques — observe how you feel each time.

What was it like selecting products? Where were your pain points? When it came to questions or payment, did you run into problems? How might you replicate or improve upon that with your own store?

Woman modeling pink jacket with black sports bra for Pink Bubblegum Boutique
Playing with modern styling and vintage pieces at Pink Bubblegum Vintage. Photo: Pink Bubblegum Vintage

3. Keep a mission statement in mind.

A mission statement isn’t necessary to doing business, but it will help to guide your decision-making on everything from brand to merchandising to customer experience.

“Our mission is to provide a fun experience with vintage shopping in order to draw more away from the fast-fashion shopping model that has made retail boring,” Kelly says. “Not to mention the environmental disaster that it has and continues to create.”

From there, Kelly and Rhondi have a framework that informs their brand. They make fashion fun with fanciful styling, pops of colour and playful accents (a recent example was jewellery that looks like a candy necklace).

Black and white striped tank and pink skirt at Pink Bubblegum Vintage
Both women love fashion history, which they say informs the style on display at their store. Photo: Pink Bubblegum Vintage

4. Team work makes the dream work — consider running your storefront with a partner.

Sole proprietorship is difficult. With one person wearing all the proverbial hats for the business, growth is incremental and burnout is a big risk.

Kelly and Rhondi have found that partnership works for them. They share the duties while focusing on their individual areas of strength, leaning on each other for support.

“We have learned that in a business partner you need someone who listens, who picks you up when you are down, who enjoys doing the things that the other doesn’t enjoy doing, who shares tasks, and who can be in-store when the other is not able to be,” says Kelly.

“Rhondi is more of a phone person, so [she] makes all of our appointments and phone calls, and I am more tech savvy so handle that a bit more,” she explains. “We have discovered that neither of us are very organized, but we make it work — organized chaos!”

Start off any partnership with a fundamental understanding of how you want the relationship to work. “We promised each other from the beginning that we would voice our concerns with each other immediately, always continue to laugh and enjoy what we do, and never let this business get between our friendship,” says Kelly.

Kelly Watson (left) and Rhondi Brown (right), owners of Pink Bubblegum Vintage
Kelly Watson (left) and Rhondi Bruce, co-owners of Pink Bubblegum Vintage, say they’ve been friends since 2000. “It wasn’t until we were pregnant together in 2004 that we became really close,” Kelly remembers. '“We’d go to weddings and be the only ones dancing. The two ladies with bellies on the dance floor having a great time. We have been inseparable since.” Photo: Pink Bubblegum Vintage

5. Learn to go with the flow, because it’s all a part of the journey.

Visualize opening your storefront — it’s what will help move you toward your goal — but try not to lose sight of the details it takes to get there. Those details are crucial to your learning process. As each new step takes shape, it may deviate from your original plan — and that’s okay. With each decision, you’re learning and informing the next decision.

When Kelly and Rhondi began to build their brand, “we knew we wanted something whimsical, colourful and fun, but it took some time to think of the theme,” Kelly says.

“After many nights of sitting on the patio with a few drinks, the name Pink Bubblegum came to us and it just stuck. Now we knew the colours, theme and even the scent that we wanted in the store. It was only forward from there.”

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Being flexible means you can better adapt to factors beyond your control. Once they had their space, Kelly and Rhondi signed the lease within a month and started gathering more products to fill the store. They were eager to get out and source in person, but another wave of the pandemic had alternate plans.

“After one huge estate purchase of vintage clothing, we went into lockdown and had to source through auctions and [Facebook] Marketplace,” Kelly remembers. With the 2021 lockdown lasting through most of the spring, the pair sourced fixtures, mannequins and POS systems while cooped up at home.

They picked up the keys to their retail space in May and were able to spruce it up and merchandise while waiting until mid-June for lockdown to end. It wasn’t what they’d had in mind — but it all still got done.

“We made some mistakes and changed our plan over and over, but got to where we are now with success,” says Kelly.

Vintage clothing hanging on a rack at Pink Bubblegum boutique
Selling together on a part-time basis allows Kelly and Rhondi to bond over one of their favourite pastimes — sourcing clothing and decor from garage sales and thrift stores. Photo: Pink Bubblegum Vintage

6. Find mentors and resources you can turn to.

“We definitely built the plane as we flew it,” says Kelly of developing the business. “We really had no idea [about what’s involved in starting up], except for the retail experience we had. So we took both solicited and unsolicited advice, used our common sense and took everything one day or step at a time.”

They turned to physical inspiration, such as the vintage shops in Toronto’s Kensington Market, and online resources to learn more about the business of vintage. Kelly says watching YouTube videos by Alex Archbold of Edmonton-based Curiosity Inc. and vintage collector Doris Raymond’s series The Way We Wore helped with their research.

“Watching [Alex’s] YouTube channel taught us about sourcing and running a store. One thing that he said is that when you have a storefront, people will come to you with items that they want to get rid of — and that is totally true,” Kelly says. “[Doris] owns a vintage store in LA. She knows so much about fashion history and is so informative.”

In turn, Kelly and Rhondi now impart their knowledge to clients in store, on Instagram and on a blog on their website.

7. Don’t be afraid to get creative with your solutions.

Whether you decide to use unconventional or recycled materials for your racks or you turn to lesser-used but effective methods for marketing, you don’t have to do everything “by the book,” so to speak, when it comes to opening a store.

Forgoing the rules and being open to new experiences can be freeing — and allow you to try things you may not have done otherwise.

“Our biggest challenge was definitely opening our space during the heart of a pandemic,” says Kelly. “Almost immediately after signing, we went into a lockdown. So we had to get creative when it came to sourcing. We scoured Marketplace, Kijiji and online auctions.”

It was different than what they were used to with garage sales, estate sales and thrift shops, but hunting in new places led to them changing how they approach sourcing for good.

Mannequin at Pink Bubblegum Boutique with candy-coloured sweater
Candy colours are frequently on the retail menu at Pink Bubblegum Vintage. Photo: Pink Bubblegum Vintage

8. Expect hard work and long hours.

Running a vintage shop, or any retail shop, sounds like a dream come true. And it is, but it requires a lot of dedication and ambition, say Kelly and Rhondi. Online shops are hard work too, but the added stress of higher overhead costs with a physical storefront is a key consideration.

“What surprised us the most when getting set up was how much work it was really going to be,” says Kelly. “Painting, moving stock in, merchandising. We were ‘lucky’ to be able to set up while we were in lockdown since we couldn’t be open anyways.”

Time management and a solid business partnership help Kelly and Rhondi maximize their day so they can maintain their family lives, full-time jobs, and the part-time store. “We discovered that we really both have endurance,” says Kelly. “We are able to work 6 or 7 days a week and still have time for other things.”

9. Strive to give your customers a memorable visit.

Kelly and Rhondi love to engage with their clients and, as a result, regularly welcome repeat customers back to Pink Bubblegum Vintage. “We have had so many positive customer service experiences in the past year,” notes Kelly.

“One experience that stands out is from a regular customer. A young girl that has a new passion for fashion history comes in regularly to talk about fashion and try on some of our older items,” she says.

“It’s so lovely that we can provide joy to people with our store, and give people an experience.”

Think about what feelings you want your customers to leave your store with. Joy? Satisfaction? Like they’ve just had a chat with their best friend? Then find ways to give it to them with unexpected touches. Maybe it’s a batch of handwritten notes and you tuck one into their shopping bag, or it’s a comfy set of chairs where they can pause.

Exterior of Pink Bubblegum Vintage Boutique storefront
The best part of running their own vintage shop? “Consistent positive feedback from customers, making it through the pandemic with our heads above water and loving what we do every day,” says Kelly. “Having fun.” Photo: Pink Bubblegum Vintage

10. Be ready for a constant way of life, but know it’s worth it.

“The biggest thing that we discovered about running a vintage business is that it is constant!” Kelly says. “Whether we are sourcing, cleaning, repairing, merchandising, taking pictures or listing, it is a 24/7 job.”

There’s always something that could and should be done, but Kelly and Rhondi say it’s important to remember you’re in it for the long game. Prioritize what must be done versus what would be nice to have.

And because it’s easy to get bogged down in day-to-day operations, carve out time on an ongoing basis for professional development, and to plan and keep growing your business.

Their advice to other sellers? “Trust your gut. Everything takes time. You can’t build a successful business overnight,” Kelly advises.

Pink Bubblegum Vintage

148 St. Paul St., St. Catharines, Ont.



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