Shopping for a Living

Skybridge cropped

How do products end up in stores?

For nearly 20 years I created product labels and packaging. One of my clients, John Matthys, was a great mentor and friend. One of the things he championed was real-life market testing.

What is market testing?

The traditional way to test customer response was with focus groups.

Focus group testing enlists qualified participants who meet certain demographic criteria (age, gender, income levels, etc.). They’re assembled to view and respond to visual, conceptual, or theoretical goods or situations. Clients and research analysts often will watch through a two-way mirror, while participants offer feedback that helps companies anticipate how their products or services will perform.

It’s very expensive.

John realized the huge amount of money his company was paying to conduct focus groups exceeded the cost of actually producing products and placing them onto store shelves. What better feedback is there than getting real-life responses from his actual customers? So that’s what he did.

Market research and intuition

At our store, Alki Surf Shop, my husband, David Horsfall, and I have employed John’s strategy with many of our products. In addition, we also pay attention to trends, and stock inventory compatible with our store’s retro-modern brand and encompassing “Seattle, surf culture, beach and fun.”

Recently I spent four days at the Seattle Gift Show (pictured above). Shows like the Seattle Gift Show are for retail stores and businesses that sell merchandise to consumers. They are not open to the general public. There is an eclectic group in attendance. It’s akin to belonging to a special club where the members have something special in common: they’re all kind of crazy. I say that because retail is not for weenies. There are many easier ways to make money, but they’re maybe not as much fun.

Seen at the Seattle Gift Show

Tiny sample of things we saw at the Seattle Gift Show while shopping for Alki Surf Shop

I personally don’t enjoy shopping for sport. So if I find something I like, I’ll buy 2, 3, or even 9 of the same exact thing.

But the gift show isn’t like shopping for yourself. It’s more like you’re shopping to buy something for a friend, but you don’t know who the friend is, and you don’t know what the friend likes.

So you end up choosing things that you like, or imagine THEY would like. It’s a bit like mind reading. David often says I’m prescient. However, when it comes to buying for retail, it’s a semi-informed roll of the dice.

Shopping to buy for a store is hard work. We have ideas of what we might want, then search through myriad vendors and options. We compare sources, prices, quality and terms. Then if we decide to sell an item, we order it, price it, add it to our inventory, merchandise it, and track its sales.

Our real-life business education

As retail storeowners, we meet many nice, friendly people from all over the world. The flip side is, we devote so much time to nurturing this thing we’ve birthed, it leaves us with just a fraction of the free time we once had. That means we are spending much of our time with strangers, rather than family or friends.

That being said, we’re fortunate to have friends who are also fellow store and restaurant owners. They understand the relentless work it takes to make a business like ours succeed. They’ve shared their experiences to help us avoid mistakes, and generously given us great advice and support.

There’s a widely quoted statistic attributed to Bloomberg, that says eight out of 10 entrepreneurs who launch businesses fail within the first 18 months. Having recently passed that milestone, and seeing our sales increasing year-over-year, David and I feel slightly more confident about what we’re doing.

It’s a continual learning experience that’s both challenging and fun.

See how it all comes together

We’re gearing up for spring and summer and hope you’ll stop by if you’re in the area. We’ll have new items from the Seattle Gift Show on our shelves, and you’ll have the opportunity to be part of our real-life market testing.

There won’t be any two-way mirrors or research analysts. But you will be greeted with a friendly “Aloha!”


This blog post went through seven revisions and was written entirely on a Motorola Droid Turbo 2 provided to me by Verizon Wireless.

It was fun writing in a café with only the Droid, a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, while curious onlookers stole glances!

Droid cropped

Working at Teavana in Seattle’s University Village, home to a Verizon Smart Store Plus

You can learn more about the Droid Turbo 2, the smartphone with the unbreakable screen, by visiting Verizon Wireless.

Disclosure: As a member of a great group of Verizon influencers, I’m invited to share my honest thoughts on cool products to use and test. No additional compensation is provided, nor are favorable comments promised. All opinions are my own.

All Photos @ Terri Nakamura 2016

More about Terri:


21 thoughts on “Shopping for a Living

  1. Very thought provoking post, Terri. We don’t stop to think when we walk into a store that someone put a lot of TLC into choosing, pricing and displaying the items
    that we see there. We just happily browse and (hopefully!) buy. But to the shop owner it’s a myriad of details that precede that purchase. It’s obvious how much work you’ve put into Alki Surf Shop. Your taste is spot on and the shop is a lovely addition to Alki. Most importantly, you and David are so warm that customers always enjoy their experience. Wishing you continued growth and success!

    p.s. love that you did this post on your Droid.


    • Dear Jennifer,

      Thanks for reading this post and especially for your thoughtful comments. You’re the best!

      Prior to owning a store, I gave almost no thought to how things end up in stores. I’ve noticed there are buyers for certain stores whose taste I really admire. It’s not that their goods would fit into Alki Surf Shop, but I appreciate how they’ve curated their products, and it inspires me to refine how we buy things.

      We like how we’ve become part of the neighborhood and feel flattered when customers stop by just to “chew the fat!” I think it speaks to the efforts we make to forge genuine connections.

      As for the Droid, at first I didn’t think I could do it. There isn’t a lot of viewing “real estate” on a phone. But by using Microsoft Word, and enlarging the document view, it was really easy and also fun!

      Thank you again, Jennifer!

      ((HUGS)) Terri


  2. I love the line,”retail is not for weenies”. You and David continue to amaze me with what you have done with the store. There is always something new! So many great items and each one something thoughtfully chosen. And Alki is beautiful at this time of year…


    • Dear Melissa,

      Thanks for the comment here, and for reading this post on your Amazon Kindle Fire 7!

      David and I realize more and more that there is an element of “chance” in retail. The stars can be in alignment; you can have the perfect location and merchandise. You can provide exceptional customer service, and great values to your customers. But there is also the unknown things beyond our control (weather, external events, psychological barriers to driving to W. Seattle, etc.). So we always try to do the best we can!

      We are very grateful for your help and support over the past 2 years! Thank you! I don’t know how we could have done it without you!

      Love, Tink


  3. Back in the early 80’s I worked at a music store. My area sold sheet music, and often I was the guy who had to select what we would carry. I usually started with the items selling the best and what was being requested, then I had to read Billboard to know what new music was coming out that I thought might be requested and hope someone came in to buy it. It was fascinating and a little touchy because of something didn’t sell I always worried that someone would think I had no clue. I have to say I got pretty lucky. 🙂


    • Dear Mitch,
      Sincere thanks for reading and commenting here!
      Why does it not surprise me to learn you have experience as a buyer? You have varied interests and experiences, and I get the feeling you are great at everything you choose to do!
      I can understand what you mean about being worried about what you ordered, but you did your research, you listened to your customers, and you paid attention to which titles were selling — so altogether, you were armed with the knowledge to make some great decisions.
      Your comment makes me wonder what it would be like to attend a trade show for music?! Very fun, and educational, too, I’ll bet!
      Mitch, I’ve sure enjoyed getting to know you through our love of blogging and through Twitter. Thank you for your friendship and support! You ROCK!
      Warm regards, Terri


    • Dear Bill,

      Many thanks for taking the time for reading and leaving a comment! I’m glad you liked the 360 video. It’s really very cool, technologically, to be able to create it!
      What did you think of the fact that the blog was written entirely on a phone? I’m sure other people do it, but it was a first for me!
      Thanks for always supporting me. I really appreciate your friendship!

      ((HUGS)) Terri


      • I can’t imagine writing anything on my phone pad, let alone a post like this!!
        My finger are so fat that I get 3 letters all at once = impossible to type anything at all!!
        Again GREAT job, enjoyed immensely!!
        {{{{{HUGZ}}}}} Bill


    • Hi, Kev, and thanks for the feedback!

      The starfish come in six or eight different colors and are made by a glass-blowing studio here in Seattle, so they’re definitely on our order list, slated for a summer debut!

      C’mon to Seattle! If the timing works, I can take you as a guest to the Seattle wholesale showroom where lots of companies have goods on display. It’s a lot smaller than a gift show, but my first time there I was like, WHOA!

      Thanks for reading!



  4. Definitely agree, Terri, that retail is not for weenies. I’ve had many friends (and clients) who’ve done the retail thing at different levels. Buying is definitely one of the difficulties. For my manufacturing clients it was an added level of imagination because you’re trying to think what people will want to buy 2 years down the road. I think you’ve done a great job of being aware of what your customers would like. I love that your store has a detailed focus so you’re not buying things that won’t tell the story of Alki Surf Shop. I’m sure it’s easy to get distracted by all the beautiful and unique things at these shows.

    And for creating your post on your phone? How awesome is that! It’s nice not to always have to carry around a computer. Those Droid Turbo 2 devices are really great!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s