Podcast 229: Starting An Herb Shop Business

We continue this week with Katja’s series: Starting Your Herbal Business! Today the focus is on an herb shop or herbal apothecary, with or without a tea bar for tastings and treats.

Running an herb shop involves a fair amount of administrative work: ordering, stocking, inventory, payment processing, taxes, etc. Sharpen up your spreadsheets, folks! That’s not all there is to it, of course – there’s a huge aspect of community-building involved. Talking to people, planning events, and serving as a hub for your herbal community are also part of the gig.

In fact, if we can give only one piece of advice, it’s this: think of your herb shop as a community center, first and foremost. The stronger you can make that community connection, the stronger your business will be. Listen to the episode for more insights and tips as you build your business!

Herbal Business Program

Would you like to know more? We’ve got just the thing! The Herbal Business Program has all the nitty-gritty details about setting up your herbal business – whether that’s products, clinical herbalism, or another variety of herbal pursuit. From GMPs and labeling laws, to marketing, to taxes & insurance, to the technology you’ll need to make it all happen, this course has everything. You can do this!

Like all our offerings, this is a self-paced online video course, which comes with free access to twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, lifetime access to current & future course material, twice-weekly live Q&A sessions with us, open discussion threads integrated in each lesson, an active student community, study guides, quizzes & capstone assignments, and more!

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Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.

Episode Transcript

Ryn (00:14):
Hi, I’m Ryn at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts and on the internet everywhere. This week we’re continuing Katja’s series on herbal businesses. If you missed it, the first one was last week about an herbal products business. This time the focus is on herb shops or herbal apothecary shops with or without a tea tasting bar. What do you do in that job? What do you need to learn to do it? Well, listen onward and hear Katja’s thoughts. We hope you like it. And by the way, if you are dreaming of an herbal business, we can help. We have a whole Herbal Business Program to guide you through start to finish, even if you have no experience running a business at all. And we can teach you all the herbal skills you’ll need as well. You’ll find everything at online.commonwealthherbs.com.

Running an Herb Shop & Administrative Issues

Katja (01:02):
Today let’s talk about running an herb shop. And next to that I also think about a tea bar because a lot of herb shops have tea bars in them. You can of course, run a tea bar without an herb shop, and we’ll talk about that a little bit as we go along. You can run an herb shop with no tea bar, absolutely. But it is also common that people do both or maybe think about both while they’re figuring out exactly what they want to do. So, it seemed reasonable to kind of put these two in the same category together. So, first of all, let’s talk about what you would do every day in this job. And there is just some general administrative stuff, right? You’re going to order stuff. You’re going to order the products that you want to sell, which means you’re going to need to know what your community wants to buy. Okay, well that’s going to need some research. And also part of the ordering stuff is stocking the stuff, inventorying the stuff. Making sure that you know what you have, that you know what you need. Basically we’re talking here about a lot of administrative spreadsheets just to keep yourself organized. There are software programs that will do that for you or a lot of it for you. There’s no software that will display things nicely on a shelf for you or put your little tags on it. And even if you are using an inventory tracking system whether that is a spreadsheet, whether that is through your point-of-sale software or somewhere in the middle. Even if you are using that kind of system, there will still be days – once a quarter, for example, maybe once a month, but probably once a quarter – where you just have to physically take an actual inventory to make sure that your actual physical products match what you have in your system.

Katja (02:58):
Every so often it just is a good idea to do that because sometimes they’re not the same. Now, if your inventory system is in your point-of-sale software. And you only sell things through your point-of-sale system. That is your little square card reader or whatever company you use for that. Square is a very popular one. It’s your little checkout console, right? If that is the only way that you sell things, and you never give a friend a free sample or take something home because you needed it, and you had it on the shelf, then your inventory will go very quickly. But if you tend to sell in your shop and also at a farmers market, or you maybe give away free samples sometimes, or whatever else. Then your inventory, you might want to do it a little bit more regularly simply because you can get the numbers off a little easier. Oh my goodness, we have just launched right into administrative headaches, very first thing in this topic. But listen, that’s probably fair. Because owning an herb shop is a lot of fun. And it’s probably good to just imagine the administrative headache part first, get that out of the way, so that we can just focus on the fun parts. Because all this administrative stuff – the ordering, the stocking, the inventory, the whatever – it is stuff you fit in in the downtime in between the fun parts of the job. So, it’s not the end of the world.

Katja (04:43):
But there’s a little bit more that we should just get out of the way. You will also need to do some technology management. So, that’ll be your point-of-sale system. If you also sell on your website, you’ll need to have your website set up. If you do not sell on your website, but you have a website just to let people know that you exist and share information about the shop, then of course you’ll have to manage that as well. Yeah, there’s sales taxes and there’s the different payment processing stuff that you need to do. And yeah, that’s also a pain. But all of these things are things that you can do in an hour a day or an hour and a half a day if you just chip away at them. And it doesn’t even have to be a whole 90 minutes back-to-back. You could be like I’ll do 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon. If I need a little extra time, I’ll do it after we close, whatever. These are the sorts of things that you’ll do during that lull in the afternoon when no customers come in for example, or early in the morning before the shop is open. However you organize your day.

Building Relations & Creating A Destination People Want to Visit

Katja (05:55):
All right, all that admin stuff is out of the way. Now we can talk about the fun parts of running an herb shop, or a tea bar, or both. And those fun parts are community building. Now, this is going to be really nourishing to you if you’re an extroverted kind of person who really is fed energetically by talking to people, especially about things that you’re passionate about. If you are more on the introverted side, this part might be a little challenging for you. But making friends with all of your customers is really important because this is your market research. This is how you know what you should stock. This is how you know what direction you should be moving in with the stuff that you’re putting for sale in the store. Or how you’re going to know oh, maybe it is time to add a tea bar to my herb shop or whatever else. Some other kind of product that you don’t carry that now you’re starting to hear a lot of chatter about. And you’re thinking oh, maybe I should look into that. Making friends with your customers is how you are going to know all that stuff. Plus, making friends with your customers makes loyal customers, right? So, chatting with them. Plus, they’re going to have questions, and you’re going to answer their questions. And they’re going to want your opinion about things and all that other stuff. All that chit chat, I think probably that takes up the most of your day. And so if you’re a person who really enjoys the administrivia, all of the details. And you find that chatting with people makes you feel like you’re being distracted from the real work. That doesn’t mean that you can’t run an herb shop.

Katja (07:53):
It just means that maybe you need to hire a person who loves to be really chatty, knows a lot about herbs, and can do that community chat kind of work. And you can do the administrative kind of work. On the flip side, if you are the person who loves chatting with your community, then this part of the job is going to be the fun part for you. You might actually want to hire somebody to do that administrative stuff. And in the beginning, you should probably do it yourself just so that you really have your head in all parts of your business. But as you grow, that’s a reasonable thing to hire somebody to do. And also, it’s a little bit easier to hire somebody to do that administrative kind of work because it doesn’t require as much specialized knowledge about herbalism. Lots of people have a lot of knowledge about spreadsheets, and ordering, and inventory, and stuff like that because it’s kind of the same or very similar regardless of what the products are. But the community communication, the relationship building with your customers, that’s not just going to require enjoying talking with people. But it is also going to require herbal knowledge to be able to do that.

Katja (09:10):
Also, some other fun things will be this aspect of interior design and artistic display. If you think about what an herb shop should be in your mind, maybe you are envisioning something… I mean, I can just think of different herb shops I’ve been in. There’s one in Cambridge that has an almost Scandinavian feel in its decor. It’s very light. The wood is all very blonde, pale colored wood. And the whole store is also very bright. None of the shelves are too high, which allows light to really move throughout the store really well. And everything has a very modern feel, even though of course the products being displayed are often very traditional. The building has a very clean, modern kind of look. There was this really great herb shop in central Vermont where I used to live. And it was called Mugwort &… I can’t remember the name. It’s not there anymore. We always just called it Mugworts, but it was Mugwort & something. And in that shop, all the walls were painted really dark forest green. All the wood was dark walnut, deep tones of wood. And in addition to herbal products, there were also a lot of handcrafted kind of witchy things that were really cool, like wreaths and things that had a very natural appearance in their artistic design. Things for your home that are pretty and also kind of on the theme of herbalism or in the metaphysical kind of theme. And the person who designed that shop really had an artistic flair and did a beautiful, beautiful job. And so you can think about what do you want your shop to look like.

Katja (11:35):
Part of running an herb shop is making it a destination that people want to go to. You can buy anything online these days. And so if you’re going to have an actual physical shop, then there needs to be a reason for people to go there. And that reason is that it looks cool. Maybe it has a certain scent when you walk in, like the smell of the herbs. Maybe there is a certain kind of music playing. Maybe there is whatever, like there is a vibe, and people like it. And so part of your job, if you run an herb shop, is creating that vibe. Thinking about how it’s going to look and how it’s going to make people feel because of how it looks. And like all the sense stimuli, all the visual aspects. The things that you can hear. The things that you can smell. The things that you can touch. All those aspects of the design. So, if you love artistic display, if you love interior design, if you just are super artsy, this is going to be like a very fun part of the job for you. And none of that really has to cost a ton of money. Paint costs what it costs. But then after that you can thrift your display shelves. You often can get them at auction or secondhand from other shops. You can build them. You can get Ikea shelves to display everything in. There are a million Instagram accounts that show sort of home design and set up. And a lot of that you can use for ideas for your herb shop too.

Katja (13:24):
And they show you all kinds of cool tricks about how to build a cabinet using cheap, easy materials. And even if you don’t know how to use power tools, there are so many resources for interior design to show you how to do that. And doing the build out yourself is going to save you a lot of money if you don’t have to hire people to come do that for you. And also it makes it yours. In general, in business, I always advocate for doing as much yourself as possible. Just because that way… When you run a small business, part of what people are there for is the product, whatever it is. But people are also there for you. They’re there for your spirit, your energy, your heart that infuses every part of your business. And that can’t be replaced by someone else. And so yes, you can hire somebody to do the build out. But it has got to be your vision, and it has got to really reflect your energy in that space. Or you can do it yourself. And then it not only reflects it, but it is it because it was your hands that did it too, right? Either way, a cool design is going to be important to get people coming back.

An Herb Shop is a Community Center

Katja (14:46):
Now let’s talk just for a little bit about this combination idea. So a lot of times people who have herb shops also expand into a tea bar. The idea is now there are two reasons for people to come to the shop. A lot of times they’ll have a library area as well. So, people might be there drinking their cup of tea, doing a little bit of herbal research, and then making their purchase. And maybe the research that they’re doing is going to help them decide what they want to purchase. A lot of herb shops also have custom blend bars. So, they would have a wall of herbs like we have behind us here. And then they will either allow customers to custom blend, or they would have somebody who would do the custom blending for the customer. So that a customer could come in with a formula and say oh, I want to blend up this formula. See what it’s like. Can we blend that up? And then that can also happen at the tea bar too. You could custom blend a formula. And then make it as hot tea right then and serve it to the person as well. So, there’s a lot of different ideas here of ways that you could play with it. If you were coming from the other direction, and you wanted to start a tea bar first. Then again, the idea here is we want to create a space that people want to be in. And we want to have a reason for people to be there. So, yes, your amazing, wonderful tea. But also if you have a big library of herbal books, yes. You could also have a library of other things like just cool fiction, or literature, or poetry, or whatever. Things for people to enjoy while they’re there.

Katja (16:42):
A big shelf full of different games is also a great idea. The longer that people sit and play games, the more tea that they’re going to drink, right? So, there’s just lots of different ways that this can go. And I think that is one part of the appeal. There are so many different options if you have a sort of physical space like this. You can even host community events. And that is going to move me kind of into the big piece of advice I have for people who are going to run an herb shop. And that is recognizing that an herb shop is a community center. You might not think of it that way at first. You might just be thinking I want to provide high quality herbal products to my community. Or you might be thinking I just love the idea of spending all my time in an herb shop. And I have exactly the ideas of what it would look like. And I think it would be cool. And all the people would like it. Whatever all those ideas are. But the central core of the function of an herb shop is community center. And this is true in a way that no other store really has. You can go to a clothing store. You can go to a grocery store. You can go to a – I don’t know – home furnishing store, whatever. They’re not community centers. They are places where people go, they buy a thing, they leave. They probably don’t know the people at the checkout counter. They probably don’t know… It’s just not relevant to them. That’s not true in herbalism. Herbalism inherently is a community activity.

Katja (18:31):
Now, the community may be spread out. Some people may not see each other very often. But it has always been a community activity. Herbalism is about helping people. It is not just about helping yourself. It’s not just about living all by yourself on your homestead with no one around you. And you’re just going to take care of yourself with all those plants. No way. There are too many plants. You would have so many plants that after the first year you would be like well, I have to start taking care of other people because I’ve got way too many plants here, right? But that is just the reality of herbalism. It is about community. It is about building connections, supporting the health of the community, supporting the wellness of the community, the growth of the community. And that is true in the literal sense, like with a cold, and sniffles, and scraped knees, and all those things. It is true in the sort of larger metaphorical sense when we think about the health, and the strength, and the growth of a community as a large organism. So, when you are thinking about your herb shop, think of it intentionally right from the beginning as a community center. Think about every person who comes into your shop as a member of your community, and that you want to bring them to your community. You want to make space for them in the community. And you want them to feel that there is space for them in the community.

Katja (20:05):
And the cool thing about this is that two things are going to be true here simultaneously. The stronger that you can make that community connection with each of your individual customers, the stronger that your business will be and the stronger that your community will be. If your business as an herb shop owner is strong, your community will be strong. Because they are the same thing. It is the care of community. It is the strength of community. It is the connection of community that you are actually building there. Okay. So, that is the first thing. The stronger you make that connection, the stronger your business will be. But also the people who are your customers, the people who are coming in, they crave that connection actually. Your customers are herbalists at all stages of their educational journey. And it does not take very long down the path of realizing that you’re really into herbs, that you start seeking community. You might get into it by yourself and be like I don’t know. There are no herbalists around me. But really fast people seek out community just because that’s what the plants are. That’s what herbalism is. It is synonymous with community.

Katja (21:29):
Okay. So, you want to build that community connection for the health of your business, for the health of your community. And the people who are coming to you also want you to build that community connection. They’re ready made for it. They’re going to look to you as a guide, as a peer, as a role model, as a counselor, as a friend on the path. They’re going to see in you all of the things that they are trying to achieve, which is pretty cool. Sometimes there’s some weight to that. If you are PMSing, and you are having a really terrible day. And some customer comes in, and they really want you to be a role model in that moment. And you really want to just crawl underneath a blanket and never be seen again. Okay. There are challenges to being a community leader. But most of the time it is exciting that people are going to come in and want to build some relationship with you based on where they are in their herbal journey and where you are in your herbal journey. And every single time that you strengthen those connections, even just a little bit, you are strengthening the whole community. So, it’s cool because you run a business so that you can feed yourself, and pay your mortgage, and all those kinds of things. But it’s pretty amazing to run a business that is literally growing community as you also sustain and support yourself. That’s cool.

Katja (23:15):
Now, maybe this is news to you. Maybe this is the first time that you’re thinking about an herb shop in these terms. Or maybe this is actually what brought you to the work, right? Maybe it is exactly this that made you want to pursue having an herb shop. Either way, the reality of being a community center, a community hub is going to give you a lot of direction in terms of the kind of education that you’ll need. And even in terms of how you literally set up your shop. If you are thinking about your space physically as a community center and not just as a store, then the arrangement of shelves and chairs. And I mean, you will have chairs, right? A lot of stores do not have chairs or a seating area. Whereas you could think of if you’ve ever been to a yarn shop, they often have a couple of couches for people to just sit around and knit. Yarn shops are community centers. And so if you’re thinking in those terms when you’re thinking about how you’re going to lay out your space. Yes, you’re going to need space to display all your products. And you’re going to need some community space as well. Space for people to sit down, look at a book, do a thing, talk to each other, talk to you, you whatever. Okay. So, this concept of a community center is going to guide your education. It’s going to guide your physical setup in space. It’s going to guide the products that you sell. It’s going to guide the events that you plan at your space as well.

Herbal (& Other) Knowledge to Set Up Shop

Katja (24:56):
But so for now, let’s talk about what are you going to need to know. What education are you going to need to know to do this job? Obviously, you’re going to need to know some herbs, and you’re going to need to know some product making. Now, some people who run an herb shop do make their own product line that they sell in the shop. That’s fantastic. Some people don’t do that. Some people build the shop, and they carry other people’s products. Both are completely valid models. Some people move back and forth between the two models. Some people do a little bit of both. They carry other people’s products, and they make a few of their own products as well. So, there’s no one right way to do that. You just pick what feels good and comfortable to you. But okay. You’ll need to know the herbs. You’ll need to know the products. Even if you aren’t making the products, you still need to know what all the products are, and how they are made, and what the benefits are of one over another. Because that will help you choose what you want to stock in your store. That’s not going to be enough though. You’re also going to need to know really solidly the community level of herbalism. So, you’ll have to be very solid at that sort of intermediate work.

Katja (26:14):
And that’s because as a community leader, people are going to come in, and they’re going to ask you questions. They’re going to tell you things. And they’re going to kind of expect you to know how to do things with the products that you have. Now, there’s a little bit of GMP and FTC trickiness there. What you can say in person to a person who is asking you a question in your shop has a little wiggle room. But what you can say on a website, or in print, or in an advertisement. That has to be compliant with GMP and FTC regulations. Because in the end you are a product seller. Even if you didn’t make the products, even if you are wholesaling, like reselling products that you have wholesaled. You still are required in those regulations to be totally compliant. Wow, I really don’t like the word compliant. But it is the right word here. So, okay. So, in all of your online presence and any printed presence, you are going to meet those regulations 100%. But people are just going to ask you do you like this one or that one? I tend to run dry. Should I choose this one or that one? I don’t like ginger, but I have a lot of nausea. Is there something else I could get instead? All these kinds of questions that are just going to help people know what they want to purchase, you’re going to need to know answers for that. So, really, being solid with community level herbalism is going to be really important.

Katja (28:11):
Also it will be important for you to be very solid on herb-drug interactions and herb safety, because people will have questions about this. Most people today are taking at least one medication, and they don’t necessarily know if it’s safe to try this herb, or that herb, or whatever. And so they will ask. So, it’s really important for you to, to feel very comfortable, very solid in answering those kinds of questions. Now, I talked about the GMP and the FTC guidelines in terms of your online presence and in terms of your printed materials. That is going to include your labels. So, if you create any of the products that you sell, then the labels that you make also have to be GMP and FTC compliant. If you have a tea bar in addition, there will be a few extra things through the FDA that you will also need to be solid on. You’ll need to have a food serving certification. You will need to have some extra inspections because you will be serving prepared foods, even if it’s just tea. You know the story If you give a mouse a cookie, right? The story, it’s a children’s book. And then mouse keeps wanting more things to go along with the cookie, right? Okay, well if you have a tea bar, you’re going to want some snacks to go with it, right? And then that kind of goes down the line. So, there will be a few extra things if you do that that you will need to also know about with regard to food service. That’s fine. It’s not super challenging, you’ve just got do the steps. That’s true of the GMP and the FTC stuff too. People feel intimidated by it. It’s actually not challenging. You just have to do all the steps. So okay, we do all the steps. That’s fine. And then regardless of exactly how your particular shop is going to look, you are going to need all of the marketing, all of the newsletter, word-of-mouth kind of stuff. Also the networking and the community building skills to run a community center, right, a shop that is so much more than a shop.

Where to Get Educated

Katja (30:33):
All right, so then if you are studying with us, let’s talk about the courses that you’re going to need to get all of that education. The first thing is the Herbal Business program. That is going to give you all of the marketing, all of the GMP, the FTC, all of the newsletters, all of the basically everything that you’re going to need to get this shop up and running and to be successful in the community building. So, that’ll get all of your business knowledge taken care of, but you’re also going to need the herbal knowledge. So, for an herb shop, or a tea bar, or a combined herb shop-tea bar, that’s going to be the Family Herbalist program, the Community herbalist program. Together, those are going to give you all the herbs, all the products and how to make them, all of the community-level sort of intermediate, moving towards advanced even work that will help you support your community and answer all of the questions that come in the door. You are never going to have to worry about like hmm, I hope they don’t ask me anything too hard. Because you’ll know it all already. You are also going to want the Herb-Drug Interactions & Herb Safety course. That’s really going to get you very, very comfortable with all of the drug interactions that you’re going to need to worry about. Including it’s going to help you learn how to research into the future. So that when new drugs come out that haven’t been invented yet, you are going to feel very comfortable knowing how to figure out is this going to cause an interaction with this herb or not.

Katja (32:10):
And then of course, all of our courses are updated regularly. So, as new drugs are invented, don’t worry. There’ll be new material in the Herb-Drug Interaction Course. And in all of our courses, whenever we add updates, you get all the updates for free automatically in your account. So, you don’t even have to think about it. It’s just going to be there for you magically. Cool. And then a few other things that you’re going to want to know that we won’t teach you because they’re personal for you. Going back to that artistic side of things. Now, believe it or not, this is one of those places where social media really can help you. And I would say if you don’t have a shop yet, and you’re just dreaming. Or if you do have a shop but you want to redecorate. It could be either one of those. This is the only time I think I will ever say this. You will probably never hear me say this again, but just this one time. Schedule yourself a little time every week to scroll through Instagram. Not Facebook, not the other ones, Instagram specifically. Maybe Pinterest also, those two. And specifically be looking for pictures of interior design that really speak to you. And you can put in search terms like cottagecore, or herb cottage, or herb witch, or whatever your style is. Just put in some words that are relevant to that and then just scroll. And every time that you find something that you like, take a screenshot of it or save it so that you can get back to it. Or pin it to your own Pinterest board or whatever.

Katja (33:53):
And in the beginning, you’re just going to look at all those pictures. Just save the stuff you like. But then later come back, and look at the stuff that you have saved, and see if there are themes developing. If you always tend to have a really modern, light, airy picture saved, right? All the pictures just sort of have that trend in them. Okay, that’s telling you something about your design style and how you want to bring this shop into the world, right? Whereas if you are always taking pictures, saving pictures of dark wood, and lots of plants with vines hanging down, and that kind of aesthetic. Then great, that’s telling you about how you want to show up in the world. And the cool thing about this is that there’s no class you have to take. You don’t have to pay anybody to help you develop your aesthetic. This one, this one and only thing, you can really just get the feel for it by scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest. And then once you’ve really fully saturated yourself in inspiration, then you can start designing and thinking about okay, well I tend to like these things. But now let’s talk specifically about which color it should be and all that kind of stuff. And so this is really the one and only time that I will say schedule some time to scroll because it is going to help you when it comes to the actual tangible part of setting up your shop.

Katja (35:27):
So, there you go. That is everything you need to get started thinking through your herb shop, maybe also a tea bar. If you have questions. If you aren’t really sure where to go. You’re like oh great, Katja, that was fantastic. But I’m not really sure what to do next. Just drop us an email. You can find us at commonwealthherbs.com. You can email me directly at info@commonwealthherbs.com. We’re always happy to answer questions and help you figure out what your next step is.

Ryn (35:58):
That’s it for this episode of the Holistic Herbalism Podcast. This show is produced and edited by us, Ryn and Katja. If you like what you hear, check out our online herbalism school. Our courses are taught primarily by video lessons you can watch at your own pace. Each has an accompanying MP3, so you can take your learning on the go. There are PDF files of quick guides and key information. Every lesson has integrated discussion threads where you can ask your questions and get a faculty response within a day. Courses come with access to a lively community space, kind of like social media, but herbal and therefore better. Plus access to twice weekly live Q&A sessions. And all of this is yours for lifetime access. There’s no ticking time limit for you to take in the material. So, take your time. You’ll find everything we have at online.commonwealthherbs.com.


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