Small business success requires constant evolution

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Cary Kelly opened her food retail business when her insatiable passion for cooking collided with a trend in olive oil stores. Kelly’s store enjoyed early success as one of the first specialty food stores in the Washington, D.C., area; as competitors emerged, though, she quickly realized that the company had to innovate and change with consumer preferences to stay on top of the wave. “If a business owner can only learn how to do one thing, it is to evolve constantly,” she says. The original business, Ah Love Oil and Vinegar, was rebranded as The Cookery, a culinary marketplace that sources products from small-scale specialty producers both locally and internationally.

On this week’s episode of Retail Gets Real, Kelly joins co-hosts Sarah Rand and Bill Thorne to share her story and what she’s learned along the way.

“If a business owner can only learn how to do one thing, it is to evolve constantly.”

Cary Kelly

“What I love the most is interfacing with customers and interfacing with the vendors,” says Kelly, who defines success as the happiness of her staff and the number of delighted customers who return to the store. As a former business coach, Kelly finds satisfaction in helping employees grow and giving them a reason to stay with the company longer: “I care deeply about the people that work for me,” she says. The same coaching experience helps her take care of customer happiness: Are they looking to solve a problem like finding a birthday present? Or maybe they’re trying to change their diet and need some guidance. Kelly says stopping to ask questions and listen is what keeps customers coming back.

Kelly’s recipe for success is based on a real sense of community, adapting to the neighborhood and catering to the lifestyles of the people who live there. But, she says, “Expansion isn’t about replication.” When she chose D.C.’s Cathedral Commons neighborhood for her second store’s location, Kelly didn’t want to simply duplicate her first store. “Figure out what your brand is and think about how it might look in a new context,” she advises other retailers looking to expand operations.

Listen to the episode to hear more of Kelly’s tips for small business owners and how she plans to continue adapting to changes in retail trends and consumer behavior.

Sarah Rand is one of NRF’s co-hosts on Retail Gets Real. Meet all the co-hosts and learn more about the show.