Innovation

3 Lessons from Real-Estate Limbo

It took ClearlyContacts.ca six months to find the perfect space for its Vancouver store. Here's what the process taught CEO Roger Hardy

Written by Roger Hardy

This spring, Vancouver-based online eyewear retailer ClearlyContacts.ca is opening its first bricks-and-mortar store in North America. CEO Roger Hardy is documenting the ins and outs of the process—from why he’s diversifying an established business, to what he’s learning about successful retail launches—in a weekly series for PROFITguide.com.

The maxim in physical retail has always been location, location, location. And boy, do we know it now.

We’d accessed commercial space before with our store launches in Sweden. However, in our search for the right space to open the first ClearlyContacts.ca store, we ran into challenges we hadn’t experienced in the European market. We’ve got a great spot now and are all set to open—but it’s been an eye-opening experience to get here. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Leasing is great—but it can limit your options

From the start, we knew we didn’t want to buy a property. We’re treating the Vancouver store as an experiment of sorts, and didn’t want to be stuck owning a storefront if it doesn’t work out.

So, we opted to go the leasing route. Easier said than done! Many commercial leases carry multi-year terms—too long for our liking. We wanted a short-term lease that would give us the freedom to reevaluate as we go.

We’d leased retail properties in Europe, and that experience taught us that a seven-month window is ideal—long enough to give it a fair try, but not so long that we’d be locked into a situation that isn’t working out. That choice limited our choices—especially since they were limited to begin with.

2. Square footage doesn’t matter

At some point, every would-be retailer must make a decision about size. The size of your store matters, as does its layout. And there are so many options to choose from.

In Sweden, we’d tried several types of store configuration. There, we’d tried everything from tiny mall kiosks to large retail spaces. That experience taught us that you can pack a lot in a small space without compromising customer experience.

That’s why we made the decision to keep our first Vancouver store small. With our lab close by, we didn’t need tons of space for inventory. What we did need was adequate room for people to browse merchandise and access our computer kiosks (which connect to our site) and for our optometrists to do eye exam. Nothing more, nothing less.

3. Good locations are really hard to get

Our strategy online has always revolved around increasing traffic to the site, so it made sense to take the same approach with our brick and mortar location. Of course we’d want to open our doors in a place where lots of people pass by.

In Vancouver, that’s Robson St. It’s a retail strip that boasts the most foot traffic in the entire Lower Mainland area. Scores of people walk up and down Robson St. every day; 65% of them wear some kind of corrective eyewear. To us, it seemed a no-brainer, so we started scouring the market for promising properties.

We looked at a lot of different locations and there was always something that just didn’t fit. Often the location wasn’t ideal, or the square footage was off, or the space required too many renovations to stay within our budget, or the lease was too high.

The thing about really good retail locations is that everyone else wants them, too. We quickly realized just how tough it can be to lock down a storefront in such an in-demand area. Whenever we’d find a promising space, we’d find out someone else had snatched it up—usually before we’d even had a chance to look.

We finally began making some headway by calling in some professional help. That meant meeting with a few local realtors and asking them to keep an eye out for us. Though this approach was more expensive than going it alone, the realtors had the connections required to find locations that had not yet hit the market.

We kept in constant contact with these realtors, and it eventually paid off: it was a tip from one of them that brought us to the space that eventually became ours.

All told, the search took about six months—much longer than we’d expected (and much longer than I’d like). Next time—if there is a next time—we’ll start earlier and bring in the pros at the outset.

Roger Hardy is the founder and CEO of ClearlyContacts.ca, Canada’s largest online retailer of contact lenses and eyeglasses.

Read more from Roger Hardy’s Expansion Diary:

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com