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Not The Mall

Posted on March 26, 2000

Case Study: Should small St. Paul shop start a website?

By Jim McCartney, Pioneer Press

St Paul, Minnesota — The Soulflower shop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul sells hemp clothing, tie-dyed shirts and incense. It’s not a head shop, but it is unabashedly a hippie shop.

The smell of incense permeates the Soulflower. The small Grand Avenue shop sells funky candles, tie-dye T-shirts, unusual jewelry and hemp products, and even trades bootlegged music with customers.

But, no, Soulflower is not a head shop, according to co-owner Mike Shoafstall.

“It would change the entire feeling of the store—we want to be perceived as a funky clothing store, not a head shop,” he said. “I want to prove that we can do without that.”

Last fall, when the shop opened at 1665 Grand Ave. across from the Hungry Mind (now called Ruminator Books), Shoafstall would be asked four times a day if he sold cigarette papers, pipes or other drug paraphernalia. Now the “Are you a head shop?” question is down to once a week.

While Soulflower’s owners have nothing against head shops, they fear that becoming one would send the wrong message, appeal to the wrong crowd and possibly scare off some patrons. Friends of the couple who own a similar shop called the Peaceful Fool in Iowa City, Iowa, took the head shop route for a while, but disbanded it despite the fact it was a profitable business.

“It seemed to draw an unsavory lot of people—shoplifting went up,” he said. “It’s just not worth the money if it’s going to cast a negative aura over the store.”

So why sell hemp products if you’re trying to dispel the head shop image? Shoafstall said his customers know that hemp is a distant, non-narcotic cousin of marijuana. But an advantage of hemp as a raw material, as compared to cotton, is that it does not require pesticides that leach into the soil.

Hemp products are an example of the type of inventory that fits Soulflower’s progressive attitudes. Its owners buy clothing made of recycled materials, such as silk, and they try to ensure the products they buy aren’t made in overseas sweat shops. Soulflower also makes an effort to buy from local artisans, such as tie-dyed shirts from Twisted Groove and candles from Something Kind Designs.

Shoafstall and his wife, Peggy Rossi, created the store to embody their lifestyle and their progressive social, environmental and political attitudes. It’s a “hippie shop,” if you will, he said.

“It’s a store for people who like to travel off the beaten path,” he said. “You can’t find our stuff at the mall.”

A desire to link his personal and professional lives prompted Shoafstall to leave a successful career as an information technology consultant with Ameritech to be full-time shopkeeper.

“It was exciting, but not fulfilling,” he said. “I cashed in after 11 years. My last two years were very good. But I wanted to link.”

So far, it’s worked out nicely for him. He hopes the shop will grow enough to eventually allow his wife and co-owner, Peggy Rossi, a Web analyst with Lancet Software Development, to join the enterprise full-time.

“We feel love for what we are doing,” Shoafstall said.

Shoafstall’s business background has been valuable in keeping Soulflower afloat. For instance, the shop fell victim to the unseasonably mild winter, and has put its winter clothing stock, such as sweaters, on clearance.

“I learned from being in business that you have to manage your cash flow,” Shoafstall said. “You may not make much money off it selling it at 50 percent off, but at least you’ll have the cash to buy more inventory.”

Soulflower is surrounded by a built-in market: college and high school students. Macalester College is right next door, and St. Catherine’s College and the University of St. Thomas are just blocks away. But it’s the high school students that have been the most pleasant surprise.

“High school students are an overlooked market,” he said. “Kids love coming into the shop.”

So far, the shop’s low-budget marketing plan has been effective, Shoafstall said. The store advertises in student newspapers, e-mails newsletters to its regulars, and distributes flyers at concerts. For instance, on a Monday night last week, Rossi was off to hand out coupons and sticks of incense outside First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, a club that features bands such as G. Love and Special Sauce.

For a small shop, Soulfower has an unusual number of vendors—about 65 to 70, many of them small operators. That has proved to be one of its biggest challenges so far, Shoafstall said.

“Especially with clothing, we never would get what we ordered or when we asked for it,” he said.

Fortunately, Shoafstall and Rossi are friends with the owners of Peaceful Fool in Iowa City, a similar shop that has grown from a 300-square-foot space into a two-story, 8,500-square-foot store.

“They gave us a roadmap—who to work with and who to stay away from,” he said.

Now the biggest challenge for the shop owners is how and when to expand, Shoafstall said. They hope to add a second shop, as well as establish an e-commerce site.

“Demand is starting to build—people ask us if we have a catalog,” he said. “Our question about e-commerce is—do we want to do it, or do we have to do it?”

The couple’s ultimate goal has as much to do with making friends as much as it is making money.

“People come in to talk, not just buy,” he said. “I’ve doubled my circle of personal friends; that’s the true litmus of success. And even in the worst months, I’ve made more than enough to pay my bills.”

“We’re in the business to make money, but if I just wanted to make money, I would have stayed where I was.”

Copyright © 2000, Pioneer Press. All rights reserved.