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  • Something Old, Something New
    by Susan Heeger


    A renovation reflects the priority given to weddings at Lary's Florist.

    Seven years ago, Lynn Lary McLean, AIFD, AAF, PFCI, TMF, took a hard look at her busy Texas flower shop and wondered, "How can I do better here?"

    It wasn't that Lary's Florist, a business founded by her mother, was unsuccessful. Far from it. Since 1963, it had been a veritable local institution, first in Houston and then in nearby Friendswood, a bedroom community of 28,000. There, in 1980, she and her parents had built a homey, Victorian-flavored building with a broad front porch and plenty of room to show off the floral designs and extensive gift selection that were Lary's trademarks.

    "I had wanted to position myself as a specialty retailer, offering things you couldn't find elsewhere," recalls McLean, who joined Lary's in 1977 and became its sole owner in 1983. "When you start a business, you think only of how to make the shop pretty — not so much what it needs to run smoothly."

    Space Where It's Needed

    The result was that, by the early '90s, certain aspects of the shop had begun to bother her. Despite the store's roomy 2,500-square-foot quarters, there was little space for the sales associates, who had to handle orders in a cramped corner of the showroom. The bookkeeper's desk was squeezed into the flower processing area.

    But most striking of all to McLean was how much shop floor was devoted to gifts, which were important to Lary's Florist, but not more so than two other fast-growing specialties: weddings and, more recently, interior design consultation.

    "I had a tremendous amount of space tied up," she says, "and yet only a tiny place for wedding consultations. My wedding business was booming, the interior design work was getting underway, and I needed to make these customers feel special." Not to mention, she adds, all the money she had invested in gifts, which didn't turn over fast enough.

    At the time, she was already considering a renovation. The shop, with its rough-hewn cedar walls, had fit right in with '80s-vintage country style — but in the '90s, it looked dated. And along with giving it a facelift, McLean wanted her operation computerized, which meant creating an office for her salespeople. "In my mother's time," she says, "they just wrote out orders on a counter in the front of the store. She did it that way, so I did it that way. After a while, though, it just wasn't making sense."

    What did make sense was to eliminate some of her gift lines, reduce showroom space by almost half (from 791 to 455 square feet), add offices and enlarge quarters for wedding and design consultation. Eventually, she decreased her gift inventory by more than 50 percent, keeping the lines that sold well or that had a floral tie-in (containers, for example) or seasonal theme.

    The surprise outcome, McLean reports, was that total gift sales remained constant. The reason? "We were maxed out in what we could sell in a community this size. Over the years, a lot of my women customers had gone back to work. Instead of coming in to shop, they ordered flowers by phone. Which shows why, from time to time, as a business, you need to reevaluate what you offer."

    From Floor to Ceiling

    The renovation itself was an exercise in carefully considered change. Only one wall was removed — to enlarge the tiny wedding room — and two others installed — to create office and sales space.

    A major challenge, says McLean, was how to revamp the existing cedar walls to achieve a more stylish look. At first, she considered sheet-rocking and painting them, but then she discovered that for the same price, she could cover the wood with much more elegant upholstery. With a friend helping, she did the work herself, putting up hunter-green damask in the showroom, a floral print in the wedding consultation space and a damask stripe in her own office.

    With an eye always toward making rooms appear larger, she added mirrors and even murals: An atmospheric blue sky and a stone wall appear to rise behind the sales counter, while more faux stone, twining plants and urns decorate the counter's facade, creating the look and feel of a cool courtyard.

    All of it is done in muted tones, exemplifying McLean's approach to commercial decorating: "Keep it simple," she advises. "Too much loud color and pattern make people jumpy. On the other hand, if they're relaxed enough to browse and make decisions, they'll spend money."

    When picking colors, she continues, consider how they'll look as the seasons — and shop decor — change. Will your chosen shade shine at Christmastime? Can it stand up as a backdrop to both the pastels of spring and the russet tones of fall?

    Plan for the Unexpected

    Among McLean's other renovation tips is her emphasis on planning. "Anticipate hidden expenses," she counsels "—and pad your budget, because you will always spend more than you plan to." Just as important is to consider how the renovation will affect the functioning of your business. "Focus on your shop's traffic flow," says McLean. "Think about how the space works, not just every day but on holidays." When people come in, where do displays direct them to go? Is there room for customers to move around and see the merchandise? To wait comfortably at the sales counter?

    Finally she adds, take a close look at your furnishings. Are they adequate in the spruced-up space? In her own case, once she'd raised the profile of her consulting room — and made it 50 percent larger — her desk, which she had planned to keep, looked old and tired. "You can't present yourself as a good designer and have shabby furniture," she points out.

    If such finishing touches take time, the renovation itself needn't. McLean's lasted only three months, and she scheduled it during the summer to reduce disruption of her business. "My customers were wonderfully patient," she recalls. "They were excited about the project." So, of course, was McLean, who has enjoyed a more efficient — and profitable — business ever since.


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