small retail business tips

12 terrific low or no-cost tools for small shop owners

When I opened my business a few years back, I had about $300 to get started. If you have a dream to open a boutique, it can be done with a tiny budget and baby steps. Here are 12 terrific low or no-cost tools for small shop owners that I used and would still recommend.

  1. I began my business by setting up an eCommerce site using WooCommerce for WordPress (self-hosted) and then filled it with drop-ship items. That allowed for selling a lot of product without having to keep it on hand. You handle all the marketing and selling while your vendors fulfill your orders. Go to wholesale markets and inquire with each vendor if they offer drop shipping. You’ll be surprised how many do. WordPress and WooCommerce are free and really robust tools for small shop owners. You just need hosting and a basic sense about interactive workings to set it up. I’ll write about how robust WordPress can be in another post. It really is another entire conversation. If your dream is to open a boutique, setting up an eCommerce site with drop ship items is a perfect place to start. You can build on that. It worked for me! Just make sure you deal with top-notch vendors who care about the fact that your reputation is on the line. If they fail, you fail.
  2. An iPad. Oh good heavens just get one. This thing is one of the very best tools for small shop owners and you can get a great price if you shop the refurbished section on Apple’s website. There is truly an app for any task you can think up. Here are my favorite apps:
    1. Square Register: For all the pro/con arguments out there, I loved using Square Register. It’s a free app, but charges a small fee per swipe. Being able to take credit cards anywhere, at markets, fairs, etc. in addition to taking payments at the store is a no-brainer. Plus it makes your iPad a Point of Service terminal for common items you keep in stock, tracking consignment items/consignors, and it outputs robust reports for your accountant, consignors, monthly books. Walk around your shop with your iPad, take pics of the products you are selling, enter them into the register, and with a simple click, it’ll make every product or service you’ve entered available for sale online. For the low fee, it’s absolutely worth it and I’d make the same choice again. Keep an extra swiper on hand for when you’re off-site. You never know when a transaction opportunity will present itself.
    2. TimeTracker: Free app for time clock use.
    3. Krrb: For listing furniture right from your phone or iPad. Snap some pics, enter your description, and post it. Krrb has a great standalone classified service, but it’s also the engine for Apartment Therapy’s classifieds section as well as Chicago Magazine.
    4. WordPress: Update your site, post to your blog, all from your iPad.
    5. Magicjack: I got far more inquiries via email and social media than phone calls, so I got this for infrequent phone use. I liked that I could answer the phone at the shop when I was at home. For the very low yearly fee, it’s much cheaper than a monthly landline and will substantially cut your overhead.
    6. Netgear VueZone: For on and off-site security monitoring. With this app I could peek in at live footage of what was going on in the shop 24 hours a day.
    7. All those social media apps AND HootSuite. Get the social media rocking. It’s non-negotiable.
  3. Security Cameras: Speaking of Netgear VueZone, this was the system which worked best for me. Everything is wireless and taps into your wifi system. Stick cameras wherever you need them (no wires) and easily keep an eye on your business from your phone.
  4. Targeted ads on Facebook: Even with a modest budget, you can grow a tiny startup with targeted ads. Sit back and think about who your audience really is. If you were to write a story about your typical customer, what magazines do they read? What do they like to do in their spare time? What websites would they visit or celebrities they might follow? Gather those interests up and include them in your ad under “targeted interests”. If you’re a brick-and-mortar shop, limit your target audience to a 25 mile radius of your zip code or town. This will keep shil clicks down and really qualify your “likes” as people who would genuinely be interested in shopping with you.
  5. Signage: Don’t forget about the web or even Etsy when it comes to getting vinyl decals made for your shop windows. I found the quotes I received to be about 1/5th what I got from commercial outlets. It’s the same vinyl, so why not support another small business owner? Always good karma to do business that way when you can, right? I paid $40 for the window sign at my first shop.
  6. Displays: I used very little in the way of commercial display pieces. Think creatively about what will work hard and bring aesthetic value to your shop, not just plain old slatwall. I used old wooden ladders for shelving, folding vintage towels over each rung. Old wire gates were great for hanging jewelry, as were stripped down lampshades. China cabinets are easy to find on Craigslist and are pretty cheap to procure since they’re a bit out of style these days, but they make fabulous display pieces. Paint them, fill them with your wares, and keep overstock in the cabinet beneath. If you have hanging wares, mount an old baby bedspring or painter’s ladder from the ceiling and use that as a display area for them. For only a couple hundred dollars, you can have display areas which add character to your shop.
  7. Press releases: Think of all the different stories going on in your business. Just opening your doors is newsworthy for local papers. What new services do you offer? What special expertise do you bring to the community? Did you just partner with an exciting new line? Have you done volunteer work in the community? Write a press release about it, post it to your blog, and send it to your media list. Your media list should be a compiled list of email addresses for local and regional news outlets. Email your release along with a hi-res copy of your logo and appropriate photo. If you make it easy for news outlets to write about you, your efforts will be rewarded.
  8. Krrb & Craigslist: One of the best ways to boost your small shop sales is to list what you’re selling on Craigslist and Krrb. If you’re selling furniture or home decor items, Krrb is great. If you sell those items and/or others, then for sure list them on Craigslist. Take lots of photos from various angles and be sure to include measurements. It helps if you offer delivery services, especially if you’re near an urban area where people really value being able to get a cute vintage dresser to their downtown condo without worrying about renting a truck.
  9. Wholesale vendors with no minimum opening order: One of the biggest challenges in opening a shop is how to get a wide enough assortment of goods when so many wholesale vendors require a $500 or $1000 minimum opening order. I was so thankful for those vendors who allowed me to order $50 or even $100 worth of goods when I first started. Now I look back and smile at how small those orders were and I’m sure the reps rolled their eyes at me, though they were kind enough not to show it. Again, just walk around your nearest wholesale market. Here in Chicago, we’re lucky to have access to the Merchandise Mart. Look at their website and see what markets fit your shop’s needs and go, even if it’s just to gather up arms of catalogs. It’s fun and also a great way to get your feet wet with how that part of the business works.
  10. USPS is still the most affordable way to ship a package, plus they’ll pick up for no additional fee. allows you to enter your shipment info, weigh it, print postage for any type of package, add tracking info, automatically send that info to the customer, and pick up the whole lot of packages to go out. You can even order free boxes through their app or site. It’s super affordable and makes shipping your eCommerce packages as easy as they can be.
  11. Etsy: I saved tons of money by ordering a custom-made rubber stamp of my shop’s logo (with the url and phone number included). It was about 4×5 inches and was perfect for stamping shopping bags. It ran about $40. Lots of Etsy shops offer that service. It’s also a great place to look for special jewelry stands or fixtures that aren’t the run-of-the-mill variety.
  12. Vistaprint: You’ll run through them, so don’t spend tons of money on business cards. Have a graphic designer set up a file with your logo and signature color instead of ordering one of the template designs. -That’ll look so much more professional. Matte print cards are great to have out on your counter, tuck in shopping bags, or use as hang tags on your merchandise. Punch a hole, tie with some cute bakers twine, and you’re good to go.

When you’re a small shop owner, tools that work hard for you and make life easier are worth their weight in gold. These tips are all about adding to your passion, drive, and sweat equity that you put in. I know you work hard. I totally get it. And these little additions will help streamline your efforts so you can put the best of what you have into where it’s needed most. If you have tips or tools which worked for you, or if you think any of these ideas will be helpful, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments below! Best wishes.


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