When Faiz Saif got his electrical engineering degree from Sacramento State in 2010, he never dreamt his business card would say “Owner, Clothes For Bros” just a few short years later. But thanks to a downturned economy and a unique store in south Sacramento, Saif isn’t looking for an electrical engineering job anymore. Instead, he’s looking to expand his growing business into a retail empire, one square foot at a time.
ShopSmart, the outlet store from which Saif leases space for his men’s apparel shop, is a vibrant sprawl of storefronts, akin to a mercado or an indoor bazaar. Large white walls divide stores from one another, and shop owners play music and hang their best wares in the makeshift aisles that evoke the feel of hidden yet bustling alleyways.
When they opened in an old Sam’s Club off Mack Road in 2010 during the height of the recession, ShopSmart co-owner Matt Mertens says he and his business partner John Worden were looking to move away from the “traditional brick-and-mortar” type of business they saw becoming increasingly unpopular with shoppers.
“It’s an atmosphere and an experience,” Mertens says of the indoor discount mall. “It’s more about the environment, not just about getting a great deal.”
Mertens said he believes ShopSmart has thrived because of the opportunities they offer to small business owners like Saif. They can open their store with a flat rent based on the size of their shop, and, “All their costs are lumped into that,” says Mertens. A store owner like Saif doesn’t have to worry about advertising or marketing costs, security or attracting new customers on a regular basis. It’s already built into his rent.
In fact, most of what Saif focuses on as a shop owner is managing his small staff and traveling to stock the store, with frequent trips to Los Angeles and Las Vegas for wholesale goods. It’s a far cry from the time he spent unsuccessfully looking for an engineering job after college. He credits the management team at ShopSmart with giving him the help he needed to start small with what, originally, was supposed to be a cell phone repair shop.
At the time though, ShopSmart already had a cell phone repair booth, so Mertens and Worden asked Saif to come back with a different proposal; that’s how the electrical engineering grad came up with “Clothes For Bros.” Saif says that initial rejection was indicative of something he now appreciates: “They try not to bring in vendors who are selling the same thing,” he says. “We all share customers here, and even if we sell the same things, we’re all friendly here.”
That idea of community is really what ShopSmart is all about: Vendors who wouldn’t be able to keep a traditional business going by themselves lean on one another for support. Not only is the space they occupy shared, but so are their customers, ideas, successes and failures.
Mertens tries to keep the situation ideal for the diverse group of entrepreneurs he and Worden have carefully cultivated. The store keeps costs down both for shoppers and business owners, and a simple 10-by-12-foot store costs only $21 per day to rent. They don’t require a lot of paperwork or background checks to begin, and it’s appealing to immigrants like Saif — who moved here from Egypt about a decade ago — and his fellow business owners who, according to Mertens, “Don’t have to sign away their house or car to start with us.”
Mertens said he believes ShopSmart is an “incubator” for those who already have good business sense and skills, and that those few business owners who have already left the open market to start their own traditional stores did so because they had a good product and good service. “We helped people grow as much as they could,” he says.
It’s a business plan Saif hopes to eventually emulate by opening his own store. In the meantime, his clothing shop has grown into an expansive 7000-square-foot space branched into women’s clothing as well. He says he wouldn’t have had as much success starting up if he’d tried to start a business with more traditional methods, “The way it’s set up at ShopSmart is different than if I had my own shop,” he admits.
Sitting on a bench inside his store, one of the largest rented spaces in the already massive warehouse, Saif says he was fortunate to get his retail empire started at ShopSmart.
For more on the growth of Sacramento’s independent markets, check out Andy Galloway’s October edition of Taste, “Global Flavors Next Door.”