Chatting with curious shoppers at her Santa Ana eco-boutique, Delilah Snell finds herself spending hours answering questions about the uncommon goods she carries: $47-a-gallon soy-based wall paints, biodegradable cutlery and native California seeds, among other items.
Most first-time visitors to the Road Less Traveled don't buy a thing.
"But they come back," said Snell, 32, who opened her North Main Street shop three years ago with $12,000 saved from a waitress job.
"It's more work than a usual store, but 95% of customers are regulars -- they believe they belong here," she said.
Sharing her knowledge and passion for sustainable living is a major part of her work at the shop, which posted flat sales of about $150,000 last year as the recession ate into her business.
Her store calendar is packed with workshops on topics such as green interiors, vegan baking and beekeeping. Each Sunday she hosts Conscious Cinema, featuring free screenings of social documentaries. And because she wants to show the importance of eating locally produced food, her store is a pickup spot for members of a community-supported agriculture program.
Snell has a history of community building. Six years ago, she set up a nonprofit organization that brought three farmers markets to the area. Previously, at her community college, she was involved with a lawsuit that changed the rules for student demonstrations in the local district.
"From that I realized that if you want to make a difference in the world, you've got to start with where you live," said Snell, a former president of the Downtown Santa Ana Business Council. Snell has spoken to community groups and schools about green living and recently launched a twice-a-year crafts show to support local artisans. The event attracted 2,000 visitors in November.
Her efforts feed her love of teaching, attract people to her store and uncover potential new suppliers.
Snell, who believes she is tapping into the do-it-yourself and sustainable-living trends, has more ideas for workshops and products than she has time to develop. At the same time, the prospect of stagnant or slowing sales over a prolonged recession has her worried, despite a 10% bump in revenue last month compared with year-earlier levels.
The Santa Ana native has put tentative plans to open a second store on hold. She said she was ready to consider bringing on a partner or investors to provide funds and collaboration to supercharge growth.
Although her sole proprietorship still breaks even each month, there is little left for the marketing she wants to do to reach more potential customers. She particularly wants to target people outside her regular niche, including the 4,000 names on her e-mail newsletter distribution list.
"So many times customers come in and they are, like, 'Wow! I never knew you were here,' and I know there are more people who would like to know something like this was available," Snell said. "I just don't know how to get it out there."
Tapping into her strengths -- her passion, knowledge and outgoing personality -- is the key to Snell's success, said consultant Hilary Kaye, president of HKA Inc., a public relations agency in Tustin.
"She's an excellent communicator. She's an educator at heart, and this is a vehicle for her to do that," said Kaye, who started her firm 25 years ago.
Mindful of Snell's limited resources, the public relations specialist suggested a series of steps the owner could take that would apply to other small businesses, recession or no.
* Broaden audience. Kaye believes Snell would be a dynamic speaker for broader audiences, including business groups whose members are interested in green topics but unsure what they mean for them, personally or professionally.
* Apply for awards. This is a great way to keep her small business in the media's eye, Kaye said. Given her accomplishments so far, Snell is a natural in this area.
"I can think of six or so awards right now," she said, including the upcoming 40 under 40 in Orange County, which is handed out by OC Metro Business magazine. She suggested that Snell, who has balked at tooting her own horn, assign one of her interns to research awards, including those in the green world, and fill out and submit applications.
* Create a Green Hero award. Kay would also like to see the Road Less Traveled create its own annual award for a local person, business or group. It's an authentic step for Snell, given her involvement in the community, and could bring additional awareness through media attention, blog posts, in-store promotions and other avenues.
* Boost online presence. Kaye approves of the overall feel of the store's website -- it conveys the warmth and coziness of Snell's shop. But she wants to see more evidence of Snell's "striking" personality on the site. She'd also like to see Snell create an online press kit, with a photo of herself, so those who want to know can see her background and accomplishments at a glance.