Just over three years ago, following the birth of her twin daughters, aviation architect Claudia Baroni decided it was time to rethink her busy career, which took her to Los Angeles or immersed in the never-ending expansion of Miami International Airport.
She wanted to be able to spend time with her girls, but also stay engaged. So she opened a kids consignment store in Coral Gables.
“I don’t make a lot, but I have time,” she explained. “Tomorrow I’m going to have cookies with my girls in class.”
Located less than a block from an elementary school on busy Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Peek-A-Boo developed a loyal following among consignors almost exclusively by word-of-mouth. Baroni, who sometimes had her girls, now 5, nap in the store, carved out a niche by focusing on high-end goods. She arranged the store like a boutique and also deftly negotiated a deal to sell overstock items from the area’s tonier children’s stores.
Sales climbed as the recession wound down, increasing 20 percent in both 2011 and 2012.
But Baroni wants to do better.
“Everything I have learned, I have learned by reading here and there or trial and error, which I don’t think is a good way,” she said.
So in October she wrote to the Miami Herald asking for a business makeover. The Herald, in turn, contacted SCORE Miami-Dade, the local chapter of the national nonprofit founded in 1964 that partners with the U.S. Small Business Administration to provide free counseling and mentoring to new businesses. Over the years, the local chapter has built up an active stable of volunteers from different industries including web marketing and finance. In 2012, SCORE helped start more than 37,000 businesses nationwide and create over 82,000 jobs. Its counselors also trained 140,000 small business owners.
SCORE asked Internet marketing executive Todd Paton, of Paton Internet Marketing in Miami, and award-winning ad man Stuart Dornfield, who has helped build brands for Office Depot, Men’s Warehouse and PetSmart, to handle the makeover.
Baroni initially wanted to focus on improving both the store and her website, www.peekaboobtq.com, but it quickly became clear that the website had bigger problems. And that by focusing her website, she could tackle the space and organizational issues in the store.
“A lot of companies we counsel, it’s just one or two issues. It’s marketing or finance,” Dornfield explained. “Here, it was a 360-degree solution.”
The group first met at Baroni’s store and sized up the long, narrow space, packed with clothes, toys, shoes, car seats, strollers and the endless gear that children mysteriously require. She had refined her consignment to high-end brands, hoping to lure both consignors willing to part with nice products, and buyers looking for a good deal on quality gear.
In building her website, she had been closely studying sites like thredUP, Liketwice and The RealReal. She wanted to make it easier for her customers to use the website to buy or sign up items to consign. The task seemed daunting, as web designer Guillermo Torres continued to build a site that Paton said showed promise.
But before she got too lost in logistics, Dornfield warned Baroni to be mindful of defining her brand. And then carrying over that brand to all aspects of the business.
“You have to have an elevator speech for Peek-A-Boo, a unique brand story,” he explained. “So if you meet someone in an elevator, the first thing out of your mouth is a quick brand speech.”
Over the years, Dornfield has helped businesses refine and communicate their concept. At Office Depot, he designed the “Taking Care of Business” campaign. He has also worked on campaigns as varied at Polar Beer, JM Lexus and the Miami Dolphins. And branding, he said, can help refine and focus a business.
With the brand settled, Paton tackled marketing, an often daunting and complicated issue for new business owners who don’t necessarily understand the technical aspects of navigating the Internet.
After their first meeting, Paton carefully reviewed Peek-A-Boo’s website and produced a detailed, 12-page report examining 50 factors that influence search engine optimization (SEO) and the site’s usability. A score of 70 on a scale of 100, he wrote, is considered a good mark. Peek-A-Boo earned a 43.
While it did some things very well structurally — it loaded quickly, had user-friendly URLs, included a site map that lets search engines crawl the site more intelligently — it lacked some major components key to marketing. It was not popular on social platforms, had no Twitter account, was not well-suited for mobile browsing and had no blog, which not only attracts visitors but can boost a site’s SEO.
Paton made suggested improving the web design with a unifying look, linking to social media and posting pictures that tag customers. He wanted her to make the site as much a tool for marketing as a gateway for sales.
“This is what I call social solutions,” he said, explaining that using Facebook, Pinterest or Youtube can also position her as an expert in the consignment industry.
Baroni had her work cut out for her.
At the second meeting, she and Torres unveiled their vastly improved website, which launched Dec. 1. The site was clean and cleverly designed. Heeding Dornfield’s advice, Baroni had developed product categories, which allowed her to not only refine the site, but organize her store.
As part of the store reorganization, she added signs to what before was a well-dressed but not clearly marked front window display. She also purchased professional lighting and a camera and set up a studio in the back of the store so items could be properly photographed for the website.
And after much thought, she developed a slogan for her brand: Peek-A-Boo, a surprise always awaits you. She printed up fliers as well that quickly map out Peek-A-Boo’s concept: “Our mission is to obtain the best return for the items placed on consignment and to offer boutique and high-end brands at a fair price. ... And with both our store in Coral Gables, FL and the website, Peek-A-Boo gives your items a better chance to sell for the best price!”
The brochure, which also comes in an online version, gives customers step-by-step instructions on how to consign and track transactions.
Expanding and sprucing up the website also led Baroni to conclude she would need more space. She is looking at a location that can be used as both storage and retail and large enough for her to sublet to another compatible business. Or, as Dornfield explained, one that would “create synergy with a business aligned to the same customer.”
Baroni hopes to have a lease signed this month.
By the final meeting, Baroni was already starting to miss her new friends.
“They concentrate information and it is a great help for any business,” she explained.
She thanked Dornfield and Paton for getting her on track and teaching her how to finally be accountable for her ideas, which meant keeping deadlines.
“Not many people do what you did. You followed directions. You listened well. And you executed,” Paton said. “I’m 100 percent confident as SCORE counselors that if we’re able to work with people with your mindset, who are willing to change, we can have a major impact. But you have to be 100 percent willing to change. You have to be willing to be accountable.”