Caroline Morris: I didn't grow up going, 'Ooh, I want to own a gift shop.'
Just because your mother makes the best fudge, and everyone in your church wants it, that doesn't mean she should go into business selling it.
That's the advice sometimes given to people by veteran downtown York business owner Caroline Morris, whose gift shop Kimman's Co. has been open for nearly 13 years and has become a staple of the White Rose City’s shopping scene.
"It's having a plan – a lot of people don't have a plan, they have a product," Morris said, adding that having a business plan, the financing and the willingness to put in the time are what most likely will make a retail shop succeed.
And Morris wants to see fellow merchants in her city succeed.
She has been an advice-giver – often, very honestly – and a shoulder to cry on for fellow store owners over the past decade-plus.
Morris, whose shop is part of a string of specialty stores on the first block of York's North Beaver Street, has learned that "my strength is in York City, and that's where I want to stay. I'm not looking to go to Carlisle or Lemoyne or Lititz – I'm happy here. This is a tremendous place to be."
Morris, 58, is a former banker, company financial manager and corporate CEO – a quarter-century ago she pulled a nearly bankrupt hazardous chemical company into solid fiscal health and sold it at a profit to investors – and also has been a consultant to other businesses.
She has guided Kimman's, an 1,800-square-foot store that sells a wide range of gift items, to double-digit sales growth every year.
So when she cautions would-be business owners that running a shop is more than opening your doors and hoping people come in, they would do well to listen.
Internet cannot match strong customer service
1. Don't count on friends and family to help you stay in business: "If you're depending on your friends to come in and support your business, you will not stay open. I have gained a lot of acquaintances and business friends over the years who have supported me, but I never knew them before I opened this store."
2. Being a store owner requires money: "If you don't have the resources to open a business, a bank is not your resource – they're not equity people, they're lenders."
3. Bankers will be more of a resource later on: "Sometimes bankers get a bad rap, when people think, 'Oh, I have this great business idea'" and they think a bank won't help.
"I say, 'That’s great, but it's not proven.' Later on, when you get a bit stronger, that's when the bank will step in and help with your growth. But they're not going to help you with your start. It would be very unusual if they did."
4. In retail, your first year will probably be your easiest year: "After five years, you better be looking real hard at things, asking, do you have longevity, where's your next way to grow? After 10 years, that can be your hardest time frame."
5. Don’t fret about the internet: "Yes, we compete with the internet, but not really. Does it hurt me? Honestly, no. Once a customer gets in the store, they realize that a lot of what we have is not on the internet.
"And I'm not competing with my vendors – many of my vendors are on Amazon, but they're at a much higher price. If you walk in, you can see that you often can do better walking into a store than if you sat down at Amazon Prime."
And she emphasizes strong customer service, which the internet can’t match, she said.
'"I didn't grow up going, 'Ooh, I want to own a gift shop'"
The Kimman's owner has been married for 30 years to Fred Morris, and they have two grown daughters, Annie and Carrie. Annie went to the University of Mary Washington and is in graduate school part-time at Virginia Commonwealth University while working full-time, while Carrie went to the University of Alabama.
Before becoming a shop owner, Morris grew up as "an Army brat" in Germany, then lived in the Washington, D.C. area before getting her undergraduate degree from Mary Washington University, which is in Fredericksburg, Va., and an MBA from Drexel University in Philadelphia.
She has lived in York County since 1993, and is a Spring Garden Township resident.
"I didn’t grow up going, 'Ooh, I want to own a gift shop,'" she recalled. She was looking for a position with flexible hours, her daughters were in their middle school (York Country Day School) and high school (York Suburban) years and busy in sports and school activities, so Morris opened Kimman's in 2004.
Today, she said, "I'm very blessed with a staff of employees who are phenomenal. I call them 'grown-ups.' There's no gossip among them, they do their jobs, everybody has a different talent, and that’s one of the reasons we're successful – identifying who has which talent.
"It's supposed to be fun and enjoyable, but there's a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that when a customer comes in, everything looks 'nice' and pretty and clean."
Not that she hasn't made mistakes along the way. "There is always going to be the customer where you personally were having a bad day, you weren't perky enough, and they went away feeling like they were not treated well. Those are painful things," she said.
"Mistakes are really hard, and I own every one I've ever made," she said.
But they have been few and far between. And she will keep doing all she can to offer people "the perfect anniversary card, the perfect necklace," she said. "It's always a great feeling when either the recipient of the gift or the giver makes it a point to come back and tell us how wonderful the gift choice turned out to be for them."