Husband-and-wife design team Stevenson Aung and Angélique Chmielewski-Aung launched their online storefront, Nalata Nalata, in January 2013.
Nalata Nalata—a portmanteau of the nicknames of Stevenson's three sisters, Na Na, Lang Lang, and Tang Tang—specializes in authentic handcrafted home goods primarily from Japan. Inspired by their travels across the Land of the Rising Sun, the two designers’ passion for Japanese craftsmanship soon blossomed into a consuming devotion and a full-time online business.
“We started Nalata Nalata because of a pure obsession with beautifully crafted products and really well-designed items,” Angélique explains. “We traveled to Japan frequently and got to meet the people behind the products, and really understand their goals. And from that moment on, we just wanted to share their stories, and that's how we started.”
Nalata Nalata's mission is to showcase the remarkable craftsmanship of the products it sells, as well as the stories of the artisans behind those products. But Nalata Nalata's story is just as intentional and considered as the many handmade items that line the shelves of the brand's retail location in New York City's East Village.
Bringing the far East to the East Village
From the outset, Stevenson and Angélique knew that the stories behind the products Nalata Nalata sells are as important as the items themselves. This is particularly evident in the brand’s online presence.
“Our online store has a lot of information on the person behind the product, whether that be the maker, the designer, the manufacturer,” says Stevenson. “Online, there's more of a platform for information, so you can go quite deep in terms of your storytelling and the information that you can actually provide your clients.”
But accurately depicting the time and skill that go into the creation of a unique piece isn’t always easy online, and they started noticing a pattern: customers were abandoning high-value shopping carts. What they discovered was that the tactile and evocative element of their brand was missing.
Nalata Nalata’s beautiful product photography could only convey so much information about the meticulously crafted items that the brand sold online. Over time, Stevenson and Angélique realized that abandoned carts were becoming a serious problem; Nalata Nalata’s products had an indisputable allure, but it seemed that too many customers still weren’t able to justify the cost of the items without seeing them in person.
Looking at their pieces in real life, you can understand how difficult it would be to capture the subtle details and textures, or to describe how the piece’s aesthetic might make the observer feel.
“People can shop all they want online, but when it comes to products that are so nuanced like the ones that we carry, you really want to see what they look like in person,” Angélique says. “As much of an emphasis that we put on our photography online, it's not always the same shopping online as it is in person.”
Stevenson and Angélique knew that if people could hold Nalata Nalata’s handmade goods in their hands and see their unique imperfections with their own eyes, the products would sell themselves. This was the impetus behind the couple’s decision to expand beyond ecommerce by opening a brick-and-mortar store.
Building a community, one piece at a time
Stevenson and Angélique were operating online for a year when they decided to open their doors in the East Village. But they’re quick to point out that the store wasn’t just a sales-play– they wanted to create a vibrant community of people who valued the thoughtful, deliberate qualities of the handmade goods in which Nalata Nalata specializes.
“We wanted to meet our clients and interact with them and understand their needs. That's why we found it necessary at that point to open up a brick-and-mortar store.”
There's a community aspect of having a physical location as opposed to only a digital kind of space. We have events and an exhibition once every quarter. So, it's really nice to be able to congregate our community to celebrate a particular artisan or designer.
“It's really interesting when people see things in a three-dimensional way as opposed to a two-dimensional photograph that's online,” Stevenson says. “It allows people to kind of see proportions, which is incredibly important for how they choose products and how they want to integrate it into their own lives.”
Nalata Nalata’s physical space mirrors the minimalist elegance of the goods it sells. The store rotates its curated collection of goods regularly, showcasing items on wide white oak shelving. This gives the space a light, airy feel reminiscent of a contemporary art gallery. Visitors can examine each individual item carefully—behavior both Stevenson and Angélique actively encourage.
Details make the difference with inventory management
Nalata Nalata’s inventory is split across two primary areas: the brand’s retail location in the East Village and their office in Brooklyn. Their staff is split up, too. They have staff that work out of the Brooklyn office, staff in their retail store, and staff to manage their online store. And all of them directly deal with inventory.
To complicate matters, unique products account for much of Nalata Nalata’s inventory, which made tracking product availability challenging. Syncing up their inventory (and their staff communication) was a priority for the founders.
“When our clients purchase a certain kind of product, they're expecting that particular product, not a production of that kind of product,” Stevenson explains. “They're choosing it for different glazes, different textures, maybe a little streak that they really like or a grain on a wooden item, for example. Being able to manage that was really, really important for us.”
Shopify POS allows the Nalata Nalata team to add notes to specific items. The subtle imperfections in a ceramic chawan, the unique indentations in a wrought-iron bowl, the distinctive grain of a white oak confectioner’s box—every beautiful flaw in a handcrafted item can be noted in Shopify, ensuring that Nalata Nalata’s staff sell the right item to the right customer at the right time.
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A unified storefront, endless shopping options
Ensuring that their stores worked in unison also allowed Stevenson and Angélique to offer their customers flexible shopping options, like buy in-store and have the products shipped directly to their home.
“Everything is so walkable that a lot of people don't want to lug a 10-pound cast-iron pan with them around the city when they're shopping and visiting museums, so they'll opt to ship it instead,” says Angélique. “Shopify is really great because what we can do is just calculate the shipping price online and give them their options, and they will select something that suits them.”
Nalata Nalata’s customers can also buy online and pick up their items in person. This is more than a convenience for Stevenson and Angélique’s customers—it’s a vital competitive advantage that provides the kind of flexibility many consumers now expect.
On our website, [customers] have an option of shipping or selecting the in-store pickup option,” Angélique explains. “It allows us to stay competitive in a really competitive shipping e-commerce world where today, with Amazon Prime, for example, it's completely free. It definitely allows us to play in that market.
Scaling Nalata Nalata with Shopify
Inspired by their experiences working with artists from across Japan, the couple recently decided to move beyond curating other artists’ work to create their own line of home goods.
“As designers, we want to start collaborating more with a lot of the artisans we work with,” Stevenson says. “So, there is going to be a lot more growth in that department, in terms of our own internal product line.”
With ambitious plans for a branded line of home goods in the works, Stevenson and Angélique have their hands full. Thanks to Shopify’s easy-to-use system, the two founders can trust their staff to run the day-to-day operations of the retail store with minimal oversight while they focus on their design work.
It's super easy to train staff on the new POS system, and it's really intuitive and user friendly. A lot of it is actually self-explanatory. When we have new staff that come on, as much as we want to train them and guide them, it's super self-explanatory, so they can pick it up in two seconds. It's very easy.
During the rare occasions in which things do go wrong, Stevenson and Angélique found Shopify’s always-available customer support teams to be invaluable.
“Shopify is available 24/7, which we love,” says Angélique. “If there is something that occurs, we're on the phone with them right away, and they're there to help. That's been major for us. That's why we've never had any need to switch platforms.”
As Stevenson and Angélique have grown their business, Shopify’s platform has grown with them every step of the way. Shopify’s flexibility has allowed them to focus on expanding their brand and serving their customers instead of worrying about hardware deployments or mastering complex software.
“When we first started [using] Shopify, we used it only for two main purposes: product releases and order fulfillment,” Stevenson says. “But, as our business evolved, our needs as retailers have changed. It was really nice that Shopify allowed us to fulfill all those needs as we grew. As a platform, to have all that in one place is invaluable.”
Shopify really provides this platform, and the flexibility we need to integrate our ideas and what we want to see aesthetically happen on our digital platform come to life in a really easy way.
In just six years, Nalata Nalata has grown from a specialized online-only store to a thriving, growing part of Stevenson’s and Angélique’s East Village neighborhood. The couple’s discerning eye for the highest-quality artisanal wares has earned Nalata Nalata a fanatically loyal following, and Shopify has been there for Stevenson and Angélique every step of the way. For Stevenson, Nalata Nalata’s journey has been far more than launching a retail brand—it has been a rewarding, empowering growth experience.
“It's really self-fulfilling for me, being able to direct your business in any manner that you choose,” Stevenson explains. “It just feels really powerful and there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. I never really had that control when I was working for somebody else. To have that control is really enriching. And to watch it actually grow from its infancy to something a lot larger, that's really amazing, too.”