The D.I.Y. dilemma

Knowing when to get some help
Stacy Innerst The D.I.Y. dilemma
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I am intrigued by my customers and their behavior. I watch as they choose between the red velvet and the tiramisu, their faces betraying them as they try to resist temptation. Their eyes scan the cases, and I wonder how much the display itself influences their decisions.

One of my favorite things about being a small-​business owner is that I can take that tiny sliver of extra time and satisfy my curiosity while imagining that eventually it will benefit the business. So I contacted Sivan Earnest of TLC (Team Laminates Company), who had created the displays for Eyetique, and she kindly allowed me to pick her brain while poking around their workshop on the North Side. Here’s what I learned:

1. Appearance: Don’t fall into the trap of looking for something that reflects your personal sense of style. This is a chance to reinforce your business’s brand or move it in a certain direction. Are you trying to update your look? Reinforce nostalgia for a certain era? Is your message that you’re stylish and trendy… super competent technically… yummy? I saw an almost infinite number of styles, materials, shapes, trims and colors for displays at the workshop. They could quickly overwhelm the best of us, so I would seek professional advice to lead you efficiently to a combination that strongly supports your branding.

2. Functionality: If I could purchase new display cases for Prantl’s (and believe me, after what I saw, I want to!) I’d want something that showed off our product, was easy to keep neat and clean, had great storage, and could take a beating from hundreds of customers a day. In contrast, my sister runs a lab, and their biggest concerns are using materials that won’t react with hazardous chemicals and don’t catch fire while providing their expensive equipment a safe home in an ergonomically friendly environment. I saw everything from lab benches to retail displays to restaurant vanities when I was touring TLC, and in every case the form reflected the uniqueness of the function.

3. Process: As with almost any big purchase, collaboration is key. If you’re just replacing your old reception desk, you might go straight to a vendor like TLC and have them design something for you. If you’re looking at a whole store or workplace remodeling, odds are you have an architect and/​or contractor who is part of the process. I found, not for the first time, that custom-​made doesn’t have to cost more than stock. But don’t be afraid to speak up and really advocate for the look and functionality you want. Are your vendors going to understand the implications of having to clean the counter after each of 500 customers if they’ve never done it themselves?

While chatting with Sivan, I remembered meeting another small-​business owner for coffee a few years back. He proudly pointed to his lovely display area and told me he’d made it himself with bits and pieces he’d found here and there and a few trips to IKEA. And the next thing you know he’s divulging that his business is failing financially, there just isn’t enough time in the day, and the love of his life might leave him. Small-​business owners become accustomed to solving an endless stream of problems using our wits and perseverance, and we want to save every last dime we can. So, it can be hard for us to see the return on investment in seeking an expert for help, or we assume we can’t afford it. But surely my friend would have been better off focusing on his own business and leaving his display to someone else.

Lara Bruhn

Lara Bruhn is the owner of Prantl’s Bakery in Pittsburgh and contributes to Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine with Op-​Ed articles of varying subject matters.

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