shop talk | Feb 14, 2024 |
‘It’s not Amazon, it’s not Target’: How this Iowa retailer is finding her footing with upscale goods

In Business of Home’s series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and challenges, big and small. This week, we spoke with Janna McCalley of the full-service design firm and retail store Janna McCalley Interiors in Marion, Iowa.

‘It’s not Amazon, it’s not Target’: How this Iowa retailer is finding her footing with upscale goods
Janna McCalleyMolly Rose Photo

One of the many creatives who went their own way at the beginning of the pandemic, McCalley launched her firm in 2020, then followed it with a brick-and-mortar store in 2022 and e-commerce in 2023. She is based in Marion, a small city in the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area that has recently benefited from an explosion of new residents and private investment in its business district. Ahead, she discusses hiring her sisters-in-law; the importance of keeping her head down; and helping customers choose lampshades via Instagram.

What was your career like before the shop?
I started my own full-service interior design business out of my home office in the spring of 2020, right when Covid happened. I had worked for a different firm before that and decided to go out on my own. I worked out of my home for about two years, until I ran out of space, and then I found my current location and decided to open a retail store alongside it.

Why were you interested in going into retail?
Part of it was to try something new, something out of my comfort zone. I work with so many great vendors and artisans, and I wanted to be able to offer [access to] that outside of my design clients. Someone walking in might not be your design client, but they can have access to these products, and hopefully it inspires them or gives them the opportunity to find pieces that are beautiful for their home.

Who is your typical customer, and how much of the business is to the trade?
Most of my customers have very discerning tastes and styles, so they appreciate well-made goods and unique finds. Some of my current and past clients shop with me, or people they have referred will come in to find an accessory or gift. I’ve also worked a lot this year with other designers—maybe someone looking to do an install who needs to style their bookshelves or one of their rooms will reach out to me, and I’ll help them pull together pieces. That’s been really fun and unexpected.

What about foot traffic?
We’re really close to the area called Uptown Marion, which is growing and developing really quickly. It’s a great community of new shops and restaurants, and we’re a few blocks away. Most people who come here know or have heard about us, and they’re coming for a specific space in their home or type of gift, so there’s not as much foot traffic. But we’re still new—we’ve been here just over a year—and it’s taking time to make people aware of what we offer. I’m also running my design studio, and I’m a mom with three little kids. It’s going to take time and effort for it to grow, and I’m OK with that.

How have you gone about merchandising the store?
The benefit of being a designer is that I’m always looking for new, high-quality vendors who have great customer service and stand behind their goods. Having used them in projects over the years, those were my first go-tos for lighting, lamps, pillows and fabrics. I also go to High Point Market; especially when I opened, the majority of my goods were from going to markets and finding things I liked that I could touch and see in person to know the quality was there.

Then I’m always looking at Instagram. I love supporting other small businesses or artisans, especially other woman-owned businesses. Some that I have purchased from in the past are now on Faire, so once I was set up, it was very convenient for reordering and integrating into our point-of-sale system. I love searching. I love finding unique things.

‘It’s not Amazon, it’s not Target’: How this Iowa retailer is finding her footing with upscale goods
The interior of the Janna McCalley Interiors retail storeMolly Rose Photo

What is your staffing like, and how did you find them, having launched so much so fast?
It is a very small company. I started out with just myself, and then about a year and a half in, I hired my sister-in-law to help with the accounting. We both worked in my home office, which was really tight, but it worked for a while. When I decided to move into this space and launched the shop, she was very helpful on the back end—entering all the items, creating SKUs, setting up a point-of-sale system and inventory—and we both worked hard on getting the space set up for retail. It had been a lawyer’s office from the 1970s: brown paneling, fluorescent lighting, shag carpet. Really disgusting! I hired some family to help with remodeling, painting, carrying all the inventory in, and setting it up. Then this year I hired another sister-in-law as a design assistant. It’s just the three of us.

What’s a favorite vendor of yours?
One of my favorite vendors, which I think we have exclusive [access] to in Iowa, is Fermoie, a European company that makes fabrics, pillows and lampshades. We carry some in the shop, but you can also custom-order from samples. And we have a few candles, like Flamingo Estate or Stick Candles, which is a small company in North Carolina. We’ve had them since we opened, and they’re a customer favorite. Anything small-batch or hand-made, I’m instantly drawn to.

What about customers? Is there an object or category that flies out the door?
Anything vintage. Vintage jars and candlesticks do really well. Cordless LED lamps are also really popular right now; we have fun woven or marble shades that go with them, and those have been really popular. We have a Cereria Mollá grapefruit candle that we can never keep in stock. And our frames do surprisingly well—people want unique, well-made photo frames.

It’s different every month. You might think something’s never going to move, and then someone will come in and order a lot of it and clean you out. Or there’s things you think everyone’s going to be excited about, and they don’t do as well.

What’s your e-commerce strategy?
We just launched it around Thanksgiving. Before that, we had been doing quite a few online orders through Instagram. People would DM us and say, “Hey, do you ship that?” That was the push that [made us say], OK, let’s make it more convenient. Again, that’s a whole learning curve that takes time: how to market and grow. It’s something that we’ll probably focus on this year. We’re just in the beginning phases.

How much have you used social media with your businesses so far?
I think it’s an easy way to show your aesthetic and what you offer, and the people it resonates with are going to be the people who reach out or come in. It’s been a place to connect, especially with other designers, to ask, “Here’s a situation. What would you do here?” There’s a lot of support, and then you build relationships with other designers. In turn, some of them have become really great customers, which I wasn’t expecting.

‘It’s not Amazon, it’s not Target’: How this Iowa retailer is finding her footing with upscale goods
McCalley counts Fermoie lampshades as one of her favorite products to stockMolly Rose Photo

I love connecting with people. I actually kind of hesitated even opening my shop online because I wanted people to come in—I wanted to meet them and talk to them, and I thought if I was online, I would miss out on that. But that has not been the case. Through social media, people send me pictures of [our] items in their space. Or they might send a picture of the space they’re working on and say, “I’m looking for a piece here on my bookshelf,” or “I need a lampshade for this lamp. Do you have anything you suggest?” So you’re still getting that fulfilling part of connecting with people, even online.

Do you ever worry that people are going to shop in your store and then look up the brands and see if they can get it online cheaper? Is there an educational element there at all?
I think we all know that it happens, but it’s not something I can control, so I try not to focus on it too much. I don’t know that everyone understands that vendors set prices that we have to agree to sell things at. But most of our customers understand that the price reflects the quality, and that we’re a small business and we have to be profitable. We’re trying to focus on the customer experience and service and build loyalty that way.

What is the design scene like in Cedar Rapids?
We’re in the Midwest, so I think trends might take a while to get here. I’m in a niche market, higher-end, working with custom to-the-trade goods, so it’s not going to be a fit for everyone, and that’s OK. You might not have as big of a customer base as in a large city where that’s the norm. I just try to focus on doing a good job for my clients and offering what my customers are looking for. Even if we aren’t in the big booming cities, the right people will find us.

It’s not Amazon; it’s not Target. It’s OK to keep my eyes down on what I’m doing. It’s hard sometimes not to compare yourself to everyone else, especially on social media. You look around and it feels like everyone is an overnight success story, and you only see the highs. You don’t see the lows or the learning curves that it actually takes. Taking the risk of starting my own business and expanding it is not easy, and there’s lots of growing to do, and that’s OK.

That’s the right attitude!
I have to tell myself that a lot. There are disappointing days when you look around and you’re like, Wow, everyone else is doing so great. Part of it is maybe they did better at marketing or planning, or their PR was good. You can really get down on yourself if you just constantly compare what everyone else is doing and take it personally. That’s another thing I’ve had to learn to do: If there is a bad day, or you ship something out and it arrives broken, don’t take it personally. Give yourself grace.

‘It’s not Amazon, it’s not Target’: How this Iowa retailer is finding her footing with upscale goods
Tableware and cordless lamps are popular items, McCalley saysMolly Rose Photo

You launched these businesses in rapid succession. What do you think spurred this on? Was it the pandemic?
I think starting out from my home office allowed me to say, Let’s see where this goes. It was time for a change; I wanted to start and run a business that reflected my own personal values and allowed me to take my career where I wanted it to go. Growing really small, where I invested profits back into the business, allowed me to scale as I was comfortable doing it. I had some great projects that allowed me to build customer loyalty. I would say 99 percent of my client base is referrals.

Having a debt-free company allowed me the freedom to say, Hey, here’s another opportunity. I want to pursue that. I grew out of my space at home; I literally had project samples all over our bedroom and the dining table, and then [I’d be] trying to put it all away when the kids came home. I wanted to challenge myself to take the risk [of opening a studio space], even though it was scary. That fear of rejection is always there. But if you don’t do it, you never know. My reasoning was: Just try, and see what happens. It felt like a door was opening.

What’s your favorite day at the shop?
We’re always excited when we get new product in, especially if it’s a new vendor. Then, obviously, the customer service part: I love when a client comes in with photos they’ve printed, and we help them pick the perfect frame, or you get to help them select something that pulls a room together. It’s fulfilling to help them find something they couldn’t find somewhere else or that brings them a little bit of joy.

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