Small Niche Business Owners Share How They Manage To Keep The Lights On
Owning your own business is really the dream for quite a few people. The thing is, nobody really thinks about opening a small Wal-Mart or something. The mom & pop shops we imagine are almost always something special that we love to do. Love beekeeping? Want to sell local honey? Cool. But how are you going to afford a shop and compete with the honey that exists at every grocery store ever? One Reddit user really wanted to know:
Redditors who own niche hobby shops like model shops, how the hell do you make enough money to stay afloat?
The responses gave us some great ideas on ways we can make our own business better, honestly. So thanks Reddit!
Forget Walk-By Traffic
I run a small model shop. Mostly planes. I stay afloat because I cut way back on rent by renting out a small and less desirable shop location. Model shops attract customers who have considered what they want and don't typically rely on walk-by traffic.
No Money, Just Geeks
There's an absolutely decrepit-looking model train shop in town. It's in the middle of nowhere and has faded signage that looks like it's from the '70s. Open like 2 days a week for a couple of hours.
Drove by it one day with a townie who seems to know everything about everyone in the city and I commented about how I didn't understand that place. He told me it was ran by a retiree who just does it as a hobby. Probably doesn't make a dime, just has a fancy clubhouse that pulls in fellow enthusiasts/geeks to talk with.
It kind of sort of makes sense if you've retired with a little money to burn.
Broke Kids And Cheap Snacks
There's a place where I live that I think started out as a boardgame shop but branched out into being a place where people could actually gather with their friends and play those games. They also started serving food and got a liquor license. They're absolutely killing it - place is packed every night. Esp. popular with the student crowd as the food and drinks are cheap and the "cover charge" for unlimited stay and play is like $5 or something. Floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with games of all sorts, not-too-complex yet tasty food that's easy to handle and munch on while playing, good amount of tables, nice vibe/employees & owners, etc. Pretty neat place.
Could be an idea for people reading this thread who are thinking about starting/expanding on their own small business.
Wait Out The Competition
I work in a model shop (kits, trains, RC cars and aircraft). Due to other model shops in the UK shutting down we're quite few and far between, so we get customers from all over our county coming to buy things. In general business is quite good, enough to stay open at least
My Dad used to own a shop that sold model trains and mostly he made money selling on eBay. He'd paint them and build landscape and stuff and sell on eBay. There was little profit from the brick & mortar store itself.
On The Road
I lived in a small, very rural town in Texas that had an amazing BBQ restaurant that struggled for years because the local crowd just wasn't large enough to really keep it afloat. The locals were loyal, just not enough of them, and the off-the-beaten-path tourist trade was a hit-or-miss proposition at best, not to mention very seasonal.
The owners were locals who were invested in the community, owned the building, employed other locals and really wanted to stay in business but really didn't want to move at the same time they couldn't eke out much of an existence without moving. Quite the conundrum.
Until they figured out the far flung oilfield workers didn't have time to come into town to get meals. They started running multiple trucks out to the oilfields every day packed with BBQ, and sold out as much as they could keep up with. They were so busy making so much money taking their product to the customers they shut down the dining room of the restaurant--the part that wasn't all that profitable anyway--and they're still going great guns because they found a way to keep doing a good thing for a customer base that is willing to pay to have it brought to them. Win-win.
Break It, Buy It, Break It Again
RC Car hobby shop by me, has an indoor race track. The race track keeps them alive. You come and race, break your car, buy parts, race some more.
Game shops, that sell board games and tabletop RPGs and the like, stay afloat almost entirely through the cardboard crack that is Magic: the Gathering.
It's A Display
So I know someone who runs a multimedia shop, his sales are primarily in trading card game sales and board games.
In his case, he owns the building and is self-employed, so the regular expenses aren't too bad. His main earnings come from attending various conventions big and small, and selling them online through our version of eBay.
The physical shop is more of a display that people browse through for things they might be interested in.
In a suburb where my friend lives there is a fruit and vegetable shop that only has a handful of items and often sells out of things and closes at 11am. It is run by old people who own the building and live upstairs. They just run it for something to do.
Even more bizarre (to most people not from here,) they'll have an unmanned stand at the end of their driveway with a price list and a money jar. Take what you want and put the money in the jar, honor system.
I used to work at a pottery painting studio. While working there we saw tons of other pottery places go in and out of businesses, the owner told me in the fifteen years she'd had it open she'd seen 15 go up and down.
She told me she was able to keep it open because she's a real estate agent and refers to it as a "non profit" because she makes no money from it. She loves it though.
Three Things In Common
The yarn and knitting/ crochet shops near me tend to have three things in common:
- They leverage social interaction. They provide big group tables where people can sit and craft and chat and make new friends, and they offer drop-in classes or coffee hours.
- They carry some high-end products that chain hobby shops don't. If people come in for #1 often enough, eventually that hand-painted silk/alpaca blend might crack them.
- They are run by retirees who don't rely on the shop as their sole source of income.
I know someone with a geocaching shop. He makes money selling lemonade to people passing buy. And his wife has a proper job. His core business is next to nothing.
My parents owned a card store. Baseball, basketball, magic, yugioh and all of that.
It basically broke even, but youth needed something to do so they'd come in and play magic or warhammer or something for a few hours.
It was either barely broke a profit or had a small loss for a decade, but was something they did to help out the community. I got a lot of experience running register or playing card games I suppose.
Then one day someone broke the back door down and stole a bunch of stuff, and my parents decided that if that was what their reward was for trying to help out people in the community then they weren't going to bother so they just closed up shop.
Responses were split 50/50 between people being understanding and people complaining they didn't have any place to throw their kids at now and that we should have stayed open anyway ignoring that they'd have to go into debt to re-buy stock that was stolen and that if they did it would probably just get broken into over and over again.
Partnerships And Design
I know someone who owns a small train modelling shop, he makes money through partnership with model manufacturers, hiring booths in modelling shows as well as designing his own models and selling them. Niche markets such as railway modelling relies more on reputation and how established they are, so he saves money by operating out of less desirable locations as well as modelling at home.
Cheaper Than A Locker
Dad used to run a model train store in a dying mall. He used it mainly as a storage space since it was cheaper than a locker and has always primarily sold on eBay
A buddy of mine has parents that own a hobby shop. They do 3 things.
- They sell games and CCG stuff, which takes up less than a quarter of their shop.
- They cultivate clients through conventions, Meetup groups, host events, and they really work on developing relationships.
- They get real creative with the taxes. The husband owns the business and the wife instead the property, so the husband makes virtually zero money but his business pays his wife (the landlord) almost every dime in rent. There is more but that's all I can remember.
Keep It Clean
I work at a board game store, one of the top teir levels with Asmodee (most modern board games, we are a top 100 Asmodee store) and Wizards of th Coast (Magic, advanced premium store).
We have been told our service and cleanliness and variety of stock keep them coming back despite not going below MSRP. Probably toss in my "i have played way to many games and read too much gaming history" to get reviews of how we were able to quickly give info on specific games. We get lots of non saavy gamers, which is a big demographic.
A Point of Sale system with SQL has been a fantastic plus, as i can get many metrics to analyze and save craptons of time with stock.
Corner The Student Market
My model shop sells supplies to the architecture students. It's the only place I can get basswood I-beam, scale figures, and tiny mesh. The other students and I spend $100+ when we go.
Only Used For Events
Yeah I used to live near a store front that said it was a high end crafts and hobby retailer. I never saw it open. The one day at like 8pm I walked by and it was open. I stepped inside and there was a lady setting displays and tables. She said hello and asked if I wanted help with anything. I said that I just wanted to ask how she stays in business because this is the first time I have ever seen the shop open. And she says "oh! The internet honey! This place is only used for events for the local hobby community."
It made so much more sense to me after that. She said he husband owned the building and ran a hardware store for decades but home depot arrived one day. So they looked into selling and it wasn't as profitable as they would have liked so they rented it out for a few years and then she moved her business into it. After the internet became ubiquitous she was losing business and then found out running a small store online was way easier than she had imagined. And now it is what it is.