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Customers Come First at Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery

Creative people create their own opportunities. That’s certainly true for Cindy and Charlie Thigpen, a couple in Birmingham, AL, who opened Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery, a combination nursery and art gallery, in 2009.

Prior to opening the gallery, the Thigpens worked at a publishing company, where he was garden editor for Southern Living magazine and director of landscape for the 27-acre campus (recognized by the White House as one of the top landscapes in the country), and she was creative services director on the marketing side of the business. Clearly, they know a little something about making outdoor spaces look great, and that is why opening their own garden gallery was a natural next step after they left their previous jobs.

“Charlie has an artsy side, so it was his idea to make the shop a garden gallery, where we could combine beautiful plants and works of art,” says Cindy.

Here, Cindy also shares how her and Charlie’s experiences have helped them make more happen for customers at Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery.

What gave you the idea to start your own business?

Charlie and I both worked at the same publishing firm, for 29 and 20 years respectively. That world came crashing down in 2007 when the company's executives were laid off and major changes and personnel cuts were made across the board. When faced with “the next step,” we felt our combined experiences would serve us well as business owners, specifically garden shop owners. Charlie would handle the plant side of the business and I would handle the day-to-day operations and marketing functions.

When we opened our doors in December 2009, it was the coldest, wettest winter on record in Birmingham — or so it felt! But we were not in this to fail. We reached out to the community with events and classes, which brought people through our doors. We learned that we couldn't just open our doors and expect people to show up.

What is your secret for making more customer service happen?

Customer service doesn't happen on its own. It’s our number one priority! Without our customers, we are nothing. We have a loyalty program that rewards customers for their purchases. It's automatic, and we track everything for them. We make an effort to learn names and use them with our customers. We'll teach them about our plants and our products and expect nothing in return. Customers really appreciate the one-on-one attention that we give them.

What about the gallery gives you the most pride?

Having an idea come to fruition. It's still amazing that we had this big idea of what we wanted the shop to be, and here it is. Also, getting to know so many wonderful people in the community that we otherwise would not have crossed paths with. The support that we get from our customers is so encouraging and keeps us going. So many of them feel like family!

What has been your greatest achievement so far?

Honestly, just keeping our doors open. Operating a retail shop, while keeping inventory fresh and beautifully displayed, takes more time and money than we ever planned for. But as we persevere, we see that we have filled a niche in downtown Birmingham, and customers have responded so positively. We are within a couple miles of two large hospitals, and many people stop by, or bring a friend or parent, either before or after their doctor visits. They consider us a peaceful getaway from whatever is going on in their lives. We love that we’ve made a positive impact this way.

You mentioned the cost of owning a business. How do you manage your expenses?

For three years, we tried to put together a professional budget, and one agency after another kept handing us pages and pages of Excel spreadsheets to fill out from scratch. We knew there had to be a better way, since we already had all of that information in QuickBooks. Eventually we lucked out and found a QuickBooks expert to come and help. In three or four short hours, she took our existing information and put a budget forecast together for us. It was like the light went on for the first time.

Sounds like you’re on the right track now. But keeping costs low must be a constant challenge.

It is. As a small business, we strive to keep our expenses low, and even small things can make a big difference. For example, with the Staples Rewards® card we earn rewards on all of our purchases that we can use to buy other things. Staples also has convenient hours, and when we're crunched for time, they deliver free of charge.

Do you have any advice for others looking to start their own businesses?

Our number one piece of advice is to get a handle on the financials, both in the planning stages and from day one when the doors open. Get a software program that generates reports and budget projections. Then, unless you’re a financial professional, we would strongly recommend that entrepreneurs hire someone to come in to help analyze the reports and set up a budget. Like small business expert Steve Strauss told us, “Running a business without a solid working budget is like driving a car with a bag over your head.”

How does your business make more happen? We want to know! Share your story with us in the Comments section below, and we might contact you for a future article.

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