One Wilton Business Owner: Here’s What It’s Like for the Little Guy

Owning a small business in Wilton has its challenges. We spoke with Megan LaBant Abrahamsen, the owner of Blue Star Bazaar, an adorable gift/accessory/childrenswear/womenswear boutique located at 148 Danbury Rd. at Lambert Corner. We wanted to get her perspective on what it’s like to operate a small business in town. She’s got a unique vantage point–she grew up here, and she has grown her business from an online enterprise to now a brick-and-mortar.

The following is an “as told to” interview; the text below quotes Abrahamsen except where questions are reflected in bold type.

Signage

Talk to many small business owners in Wilton and you’ll hear lots of gripes about restrictive zoning regulations overseeing signage in town, whether how small signs need to be, how strict the town is about putting up sandwich boards to attract passersby, or how limited the visibility is. Abrahamsen talked about that.

There are a lot of unusual zoning pockets in Wilton. My spot in particular, Lambert Corner, I’m in an historic area, which is technically considered residential, but these historic buildings are zoned for adaptive use. My building signage can be a total of two-and-a-half sq. ft.; it has to be an oval that can be 18-inches high and 2-feet wide; it has to fit into that exact shape, and there’s pretty much zero visibility for a sign like that from the road.

We’re supposed to get some street signage. My landlord, Wilton Historical Society, is also a non-profit, they have to raise funds for the signage. Getting the street signage is a slow process, going through a non-profit and the fundraising process. They’re not deliberately dragging their feet, but it’s not like someone has the budget, snaps their fingers and it’s done.

When people come in I ask them, ‘How did you know I was here?’ Other than Wilton customers, I draw a little from New Canaan, a little from Weston and a little from Norwalk. People who come in from Norwalk, who were at Outdoor Sports or Walmart, who come down this way, they tell me the sandwich board signs are what bring them in. People say, ‘You need better signage.’ or I have people who call and say, ‘I can’t find you, where are you?’ At least Orem’s Diner [nearby] is a great landmark.

Q: Are you worried about the effect that Planning & Zoning restrictions on signage will have when your sign will eventually get done?

I imagine that the signage, when it’s done, will be very small. I’m not looking at a neon sign, I’m not looking for the giant debate of the lights at Middlebrook. I’m just looking for a sign that you can read from the road so people know we’re here. Honestly, I think that attractive, permanent signage would be a lot more attractive than the sandwich boards that you see all over town. I understand they impede visibility, but people don’t know we’re there otherwise.

Rents in Wilton

I feel like my landlord–the Wilton Historical Society–has a vested interest in Wilton and seeing the town flourish and survive. That’s one really good thing about this space. Not that it’s their responsibility, but a lot of Wilton landlords, whether they reside in Wilton or somewhere else, whether they are an individual or a corporation, don’t necessarily have a vested interest in the town and finding cohesive businesses.

If you want a visible storefront in Wilton center it’s over $40 a sq. ft, and it’s almost impossible to find a space that’s less than 1,500 sq. ft. So that is a minimum of $5,000 a month. That’s not looking at utilities, maintenance, insurance–your basic administrative expenses–which is probably 20 percent of your rent. That’s not even paying yourself or any staff. A typical retail business, for $5,000 a month, you have to be doing $10,000 a month in business. Let’s say your average purchase is $50, you’ve got to have 200 transactions a month, you’ve got to have 50 purchases a week, just to cover your rent and not anything else. If you do no business in January, you’re $5,000 more in the hole. 

It’s so expensive in Wilton Center, and that’s where you have good visibility. People have moved out of Wilton Center to find spots that are more affordable. If you want something on Rt. 7 that has moderate visibility from Rt. 7, it’s around $30 a sq. ft.  If you’re willing to move to the back side of the building, where you have no visibility, but somehow your customers will find you, it’s around $24 a sq. ft. It seems that there are smaller spaces outside of Wilton Center. My space is 270 sq. ft. so I came in small, knowing that if I have to close for two weeks in August, or if we had snow days I’m not going to lose my entire savings on one month’s rent.

Rents are driving people out of Wilton Center. But once you’re out the center, it’s hard to let people know where you are. So you really have to strategize around the signage, the visibility and the marketing.

‘Quirky’ Zoning and Empty Storefronts

It was really hard to find something out here on Rt. 7 or somewhere else. There’s this “Design Enterprise” zone in Wilton, the stretch between Lambert Corner [southward] to Dunkin Donuts. It can be any type of business except retail. Outdoor Sports has been grandfathered in, but if you wanted to open a store next to Outdoor Sports, you couldn’t. You could build something, you could design something, you could manufacture something, you can have a wholesale showroom, you can be an interior designer, you can sell direct to the trade, you can have an office–but you cannot have a retail storefront. I don’t know if it’s because of traffic, I don’t know if it’s about parking.

I know somebody that was trying to open a craft workshop for kids, she had even signed a lease in that stretch. It fell apart because the business was considered [by Planning & Zoning] to be too retail.

There are other spaces in Wilton, I don’t understand the economic incentive of certain landlords with certain spaces in Wilton that they actually seem to prefer having their spaces empty. Anecdotally, I know people who have investigated doing pop-up shops. It’s hard for a small business, so you say, ‘I don’t want to commit to a 2-year lease, because I don’t know how it’s going to go. Let me come in and do month-to-month or three months, because I know your space is just sitting empty.’ For whatever reason, they prefer to have the space empty then to have somebody in there for potentially short term, or at a reduced rate.

Then there are some spaces in Wilton where I think the landlords need to take a step back and think about the collection of businesses that together would drive the most traffic. For example, while there’s no vacancy in Lambert Corner right now but I would love to see a coffee shop in here. I would benefit from their traffic.

Look at Stop & Shop Plaza, where Swizzles closed, the athletic shoe store closed, Une Minette and krik-it, the former bank. I know people who have approached that landlord but it’s just so expensive and there’s not flexibility for a new small business.

When you’re operating in a town like Wilton, where street parking in front of storefronts is almost non-existent, and people don’t really walk along sidewalks; where stores are tucked away in the backs of buildings; where the cards are sometimes stacked against survivability, I would imagine that business owners would be grateful for more flexibility and creativity.

I have a vision for Lambert Corner. This could be a great historic destination. You hear about the Yellow Monkey, which is this great historic shopping district in Westchester. Here, you’ve already got four retailers, you have a salon. If we had someplace to get food or snacks, it would be a great destination. Put some picnic tables out, even if people brought food to eat outside. But…signage is an issue. A lot of people still don’t know where I am.

Navigating the Business Community and Politics

My landlord, the Wilton Historical Society, has been great. Leslie Nolan, the director, is really doing such great things. Great promotions to bring people in. I have to say, the staff at Planning & Zoning and the Dept. of Health have been nothing but friendly and helpful to me.

The Chamber of Commerce is not strictly about retailers, it’s about all the businesses in Wilton. I would love to see more of a cohesive effort for all the retailers in Wilton. When you go to the Berkshires–we were just there–you get a tourist map that shows all of the shops in the town, where you can find things. All the hotels on Rt. 7 on the Norwalk/Wilton line, it would be nice if with all their brochures, like for the Maritime Aquarium, and Stepping Stones, they had one for “Shopping in Wilton.” It would be nice to have a retail website for Wilton:  here are all the florists; here are the jewelers, kids clothing, shoes, accessories, etc.  Have everyone listed with links to their sites.

I don’t think of my fellow retailers as competitors. In fact I think among the retailers there’s a very collaborative spirit. But how can we get more people to shop in Wilton, how can we get people to find us, how can we cost-effectively reach customers. For example, my neighbors–the Christmas Barn–before I opened we sat down and talked about my category focus and their category focus, and we tried to minimize the overlap. As a result they send people over here and I can comfortably talk up their store.

I think the Chamber has done some great promotional things, but something more specific for retailers would be great.

The Wilton Customer Base

I do think that people in Wilton like to shop locally. People either have a very specific list and they know what they need ahead of time and they buy it online, or they want to be able to shop close by, conveniently and find something that’s offbeat and have good service. I don’t think people go to the mall the way they use to. People either shop online or they want something close by, local and convenient.

I do a lot of social media marketing–people come in and specifically ask about things they saw me post on Facebook. A lot of people have found me through articles in the Wilton Bulletin, or The Hour, or your website. a lot of people come in and say, ‘Your things are so unique, I’d rather shop with a local retailer rather than someone who is so big.’ But those who don’t:  They’re either shopping online or they don’t know we’re here.

Blue Star Bazaar is located at Lambert Corner, 148 Danbury Rd., or find them online.