Mompreneurs: Mixing Business & Pleasure With Trunk Shows

Many women are happy with three simple pleasures: our friends, a cocktail and some shopping. It's even better when it all supports a small business or local entrepreneur. The combination of these elements can make for a very lucrative business model known as the trunk show. This casual get together is making a comeback with a modern and hip edge. It's not your grandma's Tupperware party. Some Mompreneurs see this style of selling as a perfect fit for their product line.

Danielle Dobin, creator of Apifeni, a lifestyle/activewear brand, has built her company's business model exclusively around trunk shows. Chelsea Kaplan and Jara Shapiro, founders of Chelsea Belle Jewelry, began their business with trunk shows while also selling now in boutiques, festivals and gift marts but they sell the greatest volume at trunk shows.

Danielle explains:

"When Apifeni launched in June 2011, selling through in-home trunk shows wasn't a part of our plan. In fact, we were working with different retailers -- fitness clubs, yoga/pilates studios & speciality stores -- to sell through their traditional brick and mortar stores. We participated in a number of in-store/in-fitness club trunk shows over the course of the summer, all of which were quite successful. Then, some out of town friends asked to host trunk shows in their homes, so that we could introduce Apifeni to their friends... and it was as if a light bulb went off! The in-home shows were simply terrific - fun for everyone and lots of sales. At the same time, a female mentor of mine (a very successful retail entrepreneur in her own right) suggested in very strong terms that we consider the idea of becoming a direct sales company, utilizing a trunk show/party planning platform to sell exclusively direct to consumers. It was as though the stars aligned. However, to truly take our brand nationally, we knew we would have to invest in and build a nationwide network of sales representatives -- we call them Independent Style Directors -- who would each create her own Apifeni business in her own community."

For this line of women's apparel, people need to experience the comfort, fit and feel of the clothing, so Danielle was keen on the idea of women trying on their clothes in the comfortable, casual environment of a friend's home. She says,

The environment we create via our in-home shows is welcoming and friendly and there is never any pressure to buy. Instead, as a result of the intimate feel, women feel comfortable trying on everything and anything. The best trunk shows become a bit of a free for all with everyone swapping outfits and asking friends to pass along a top or capri once they finish trying it on. The energy is just fantastic and as a result - new fans of our brand oftentimes decide they want to host their own trunk show with a completely different group of friends after making their purchases. It's very much about community. Our return rate for purchases speaks for itself -- less than 1% of trunk show purchases are ever returned or exchanged."

Danielle's Challenges With Trunk Show Biz Model:

  • By selling directly to consumers through trunk shows we give up a lot -- namely, the security of large orders from big retailers and the ability to manufacture goods only after we've received a large order. A lot of people don't think about that -- they assume there are larger margins and they ignore the inventory risk and the cost of sales that we assume (in addition to the cost of goods).
  • At the same time we take on the marketing, branding and costs of sale a retailer would typically cover, in addition to the inventory risk.
  • We are constantly striving to provide our Style Directors with the right type of support structure to grow their businesses. It can be challenging to develop the right tools for people who vary in age from their early 20s to 50+ years.

Danielle's Benefits of Trunk Show Biz Model:

  • We are in control of our message. Our Style Directors get to tell our company's compelling story directly to our customers. We would never enjoy that same opportunity in a traditional retail environment.
  • We aren't burdened by the traditional retail/fashion schedule of selling for each season with long lead times.
  • Our Style Directors are empowered to be entrepreneurs in their own right with their own businesses, customers and teams to manage.
  • We are developing strong biz relationships with lots of different women (and of course our one male Style Director!) who work with us.
  • The best benefit of this sales model is that "work" frequently means I spend the evening enjoying cocktails with a brand new group of women at an Apifeni trunk show in a far off city or town.

Danielle's Suggestions If You Are Considering Trunk Show Business Model:

Inventory Investment:
Consider the investment you will need to make in inventory, with regard to both customer orders and samples for your sales representatives. Unlike when you sell to stores, you won't have any orders before you go into production.

Will your website replicate for each of your sales representatives? Will it determine commissions for your company?
If you have an MLM (multilevel marketing component) to your business, will your software track team commissions? Otherwise, how do you plan to calculate team commissions as various teams grow?
What sort of tools will be available for your reps to use online?

Building Sales Force:
Consider that you can't always control when and how quickly your sales force will grow and you certainly can't control how little or how much time or energy any Style Director will dedicate to her/his business. Particularly when you start out, it's difficult if not impossible forecast your growth.

Jill Kantowski is a Style Director with Apifeni in Boca Raton, Florida. She got involved through a mutual acquaintance. Previously Jill had worked in corporate medical sales for over 13 years and then taken almost six years off after the birth of her third child. Corporate demands were just too challenging to balance with her family life at the time. With her corporate sales experience, Jill says,

Initially when introduced to Apifeni's sales model, I wasn't certain I wanted to be involved with this style of selling. However, I became very interested after meeting Danielle and seeing her passion, enthusiasm and vision for Apifeni. Knowing Danielle was running the show made me want to get involved. It's very important to keep an open mind as you never know where your best and most fitting opportunities will come from.

This type of job allows her and others in similar situations the flexibility to work as much or as little as they like, based on their family's needs at any given time. Jill appreciates that "Apifeni values their Style Directors for whichever role we choose; a team leader/builder or style director simply selling." Jill hosted two Apifeni trunk shows in one day last week and earned over $1,000. She has three more shows booked in the next two weeks.

Chelsea Kaplan and Jara Shapiro created Chelsea Belle Jewelry about two years ago. Chelsea had always enjoyed reworking vintage jewelry into more modern pieces. She says,

When I wore my designs, they always earned compliments wherever I went. My friend Jara kept encouraging me to begin selling my pieces. I told her I'd only start a business if she did it with me, as I had two kids at the time (I have since had one more -- my boys are 6, 4 and 7 mos. and Jara has two kids, ages 4 and 7) and didn't feel I could devote the time on my own to really doing it well. Plus, her keen eye for fashion and color is the only other one I think is as good as mine! Thankfully, she agreed, and we've been at it ever since.

Chelsea explains:

"We decided to begin selling through trunk shows as a way to start small and test out our market, see what people liked best, etc. For our first show, we set up a fun, casual cocktail party environment with yummy nibbles, margaritas and, of course, our baubles. As it turned out, the sales model was ideal for Chelsea Belle Jewelry; we loved the intimate, fun, girlfriend-y feel of it, which was a perfect match for our product. Each of our pieces are one-of-a-kind statement pieces so they are particularly fun to try on when surrounded by a big group of women friends, almost as if you're all involved in a big grown-up version of playing dress-up! Everyone offers their opinions, encourages each other to pass or (more often) buy when another is on the fence. The trunk show model works for us because we can schedule them when we want, and as often as we'd like."

Chelsea and Jara's big challenge has been finding new customers. They enjoy a high level of repeat customers, but they want to grow the business so they've begun asking their best customers if they'd consider hosting a trunk show at their home. Chelsea says "We also offer to donate a portion of the proceeds to a charity of the hostess's choice. We've found that this is a great way to meet new customers."

Chelsea's Trunk Show Tips:

  • Hold a two-day show if possible. Doing it one weekday evening and then the following morning/early afternoon so as to accommodate all schedules will ensure you get more attendees.
  • Keep the food fairly minimal -- people generally eat very little at trunk shows.
  • Offering drinks, however, is always something most enjoy... and it never hurts the vibe -- or sales!

So, whether you have a basic trunk show model like Chelsea Belle Jewelry or a more intricate and complicated system to build and grow a national sales force like Apifeni, trunk shows can offer a fun and effective way to generate revenue and get nationwide exposure without working through the sometimes very convoluted channels of large retailers. Now, please pass the wine... and ring me up.