What I Learned From Over 20 Years in the Industry
First, let me say: This is not how I thought my life would go. I never expected to start a head shop. And I really never expected to get raided by the cops.
After more than two decades of running a shop, owning a classic acrylic bong company, and producing dugouts, I’ve seen nearly every bit of this sector, for good and bad. And while I wouldn’t want my life to have been any different, I want to spare you some from making the some of the mistakes I made.
Get the Right People
If I could impart any wisdom to the next generation, it would be this: Be careful who you hire.
Of all the businesses I’ve had, my head shop was the hardest to staff. You have to find people you can trust implicitly. Why? Because they can literally sink your business with one wrong word.
Before the cops raided my store and took $50,000 worth of merchandise, they sent in an undercover officer to nose around. On that particular day, I was away from the shop and my lone employee was handling a mob of customers.
Everybody was asking questions at once, and in the middle of the chaos, the undercover cop, who was fumbling with a Shhmokewear Wrist Hookah (remember those?), said the magic words:
“So, if I pack my weed in here, the ‘po po’ won’t even know, right?”
I always asked people to leave when they mentioned marijuana—but it didn’t happen often.
When the cop said the words, my employee did not ask him to leave. Instead, he rolled his eyes and brushed him off by saying, “There you go.” That’s all it took.
The thing is, he knew better. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. He was ultimately more interested in saving face with a stranger than protecting my livelihood. Luckily, the cop didn’t have a body camera, but it didn’t matter much. The police used that response to justify their raid. Fourteen officers from three departments (local PD, state PD and ICE) burst into my store with canines, claiming they were looking for drugs.
When it was over, they had taken $50,000 worth of merchandise. After two and a half years, the case was finally dropped, and I got my stuff back. But I was out $25,000 in legal fees. The whole ordeal was mentally exhausting. It nearly got the best of me.
So be careful who you hire, and what they say.
Invest in a Vibe
I always built my store around a hippy feeling. It was called “Tammy’s Cool Things,” after all, and that’s exactly what we sold. But I also wanted the store to reflect my values.
I used to run a deal, where customers could get 1% off the price of an item by bringing in a canned good. It was great because they could save a little money and get rid of that can of asparagus they were never going to eat. But it also went to a good cause.
At my first trade show, there was a glassblower yelling, “F— Chines glass!” at the top of his lungs. People were avoiding him, but I wanted to find out why he was yelling. I went and talked to him. He was pissed off about imported glass, and he gave me a lesson about it. I never bought another piece of import glass again.
I could have increased my profits by using Chinese glass, but I chose to support American artists. I figured that the gas station across the street sold cheap crap, so why compete?
Create an identity and compete on value rather than price and you’ll never have to worry about being priced out of the game.
Be good to your customers and they will always support you.
People Won’t Like You
Even though our industry is becoming more accepted, it still carries a stigma. Some people are going to have a problem with it, and they’re going to voice it, whether it’s to you or about you.
When I was dealing with the fallout from the police raid, I even had friends coming up to me saying, “I heard you were selling drugs.” It was ridiculous, but it shows what the rumor mill can do.
Another time, I ran into a guy at a party who said he heard I sell glass pipes. He wanted to send his son down to buy some stuff. I asked him why he didn’t just come himself, and he told me he couldn’t be seen in a head shop.
If you’re going to work in this industry, you have to accept that it may stir up controversy in town.
Don’t Go it Alone
I have a track record of buying companies I don’t know anything about and helping them grow. The secret is that just about everybody can use a fresh set of eyes.
A lot of times, the best decisions I’ve made have just been common sense things the previous owners didn’t catch because they were so used to doing things their way.
If you really want to start a store or a business, I say just try it. But if you want to save yourself a lot of headaches, make sure you have a good accountant and a good lawyer, but most importantly a partner or team with the creative vision to help you see the forest through the tress. That’s my most important piece of advice I can give you.
Build a Community
There is much more to this than smoking pot and buying trendy items. What got my store through the whole police debacle were my regular customers, who kept coming back.
I always made it a point to listen to my customers. You don’t have to follow every suggestion they make (and they will make a lot of really bad suggestions), but every so often they say something good.
Originally, I didn’t even sell smoking accessories. It was all funky clothes and quirky jewelry. But about a year after a opened my store, an elderly gentleman came in and asked if we sold something for cancer patients who don’t want to smoke. I reached out to AFG, bought a vaporizer and sold it to him the next week. After that, I researched the legalities in my state and stocked half the store with ages 18+ merchandise.
I have met some of my best friends in this industry, some that I consider to be family. I had customers bring their newborn baby to see me before going to the grandparents.
Be good to your customers and they will always support you.
Just the Tips
Tammy’s Top 5 Tips for Success
Before you put your life savings into opening a shop, check out this advice from industry veteran, Tammy Saunders.
1. Hire a lawyer before you need one.
“Memorize a great attorney’s phone number,” Tammy says. “You’ll need it. A lot.”
2. Don’t let the numbers fool you.
“Hire an excellent accountant. It saves you money you in the long run and just might keep you out of legal trouble. (See Tip #1)”
3. Go places you don’t know.
“People think CHAMPS is the be-all, end-all of markets, and it’s really not. Attend other glass markets. Attend all kinds of other markets. If you want to be a unique shop, you need to look in different places. My best friend and I had a blast going to all kinds of different markets. We went to places like the Atlanta gift market and the Dallas gift market, where I met a man from Nepal who was selling the most beautiful clothes I’d ever seen.”
4. Consider all customers.
“Make sure you store is well lit, and that is feels safe for female customers,” Tammy says. “Before I opened my shop, I popped by a nearby store for some screens for my pipe. It was dark and poorly lit, and as soon as I walked in, one guy said, ‘Are you here to see the sex toys?’ After that, my mom would go to a big shop near her house and mail me things I wanted. I never felt comfortable enough to go back to that creepy shop.”
5. Remember: There is no perfect store.
“Every market is different, and I don’t believe there is a good cookie-cutter plan to succeed in this business. I always had good luck by sticking with what I liked. I personally don’t like seeing that a store has a zillion items for sale. You can keep a great inventory, but don’t make the store your storage room.”