These 5 St. Louis Shops Are Surviving -- and Thriving -- in the Age of Amazon

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Maya Harlan attends to the racks at LAUNCH, a two-year-old boutique on the Hill.
Maya Harlan attends to the racks at LAUNCH, a two-year-old boutique on the Hill. TOM HELLAUER

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LARK Skin Co. started online, but found that its custom products and consultations benefited from a physical space. - TOM HELLAUER
LARK Skin Co. started online, but found that its custom products and consultations benefited from a physical space.

The E-tailer That Put Down Roots
LARK Skin Co.

For many small businesses, the idea of a shop — an actual shop! — in a cute neighborhood has become an unimaginable luxury. Who has money for rent when all the customers are on Etsy? The retail game has become less about a lovely storefront and more about being able to ship quickly ... or game Amazon's algorithm.

Lisa Dolan, however, has turned that idea on its head at LARK Skin Co. (8709 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves). And it's working. What started as an online store, (and very popular Instagram account, @larkskinco), is now a cozy Webster Groves storefront within a line of small businesses just off I-44.

"I had no expectations," Dolan says with a laugh. "But I feel like the community really embraces us, and a lot of the other businesses have been great too."

LARK focuses on all-natural beauty and wellness products — something that became especially important to Dolan a few years ago when she was pregnant with her son Liam and thinking through everything she put into, and onto, her body. A cosmetologist by trade, Dolan began mixing up her own chemical-free concoctions in her kitchen and offering samples to her clients. When those took off, she launched Her beauty balm and body scrubs soon garnered kudos from Teen Vogue. Urban Outfitters will begin selling her line this winter.

For that, she credits Lark's social media presence.

"We were approached by Urban Outfitters just because of Instagram," Dolan says. "It's been great to get our name and products out there like that."

But despite the success of her digital shop, Dolan was convinced that a retail storefront was the next logical move. She was finding plenty of customers at craft fairs and private events, where her best-selling products were LARK's custom face masks and personal consultations. Dolan tried to recreate those experiences by offering custom products online but found that the necessary back-and-forth between LARK experts and customers via email or Skype was a bit too cumbersome.

Then it hit her: Why not launch a space where personal interaction and tailored products could take center stage?

"There's nothing else like it in St. Louis. At all of our events, we were doing the custom face masks for people, and that was by far the biggest seller. I just really saw the need to have that in-person experience for people to come in and actually touch the products, smell the products and really get great products that are completely tailored to their skin type," Dolan says. "Just from traveling to the places that I have, I've seen it work in other cities. I thought if we brought this to St. Louis, people would be interested."

Dolan found the perfect location just down the street from her Webster Groves home.

"We actually had been looking for a warehouse space where we can make the products and where I could do hair and skincare," Dolan says. "We were going out of town and saw a sign on the window of this little storefront and were like, 'Well, we'll call if it's still available when we get back.'" It was, and so she quickly committed; the store celebrated its grand opening this summer. "This is exactly what I envisioned," she says.

LARK's "Ritual Bar" has become a major draw for bridal showers and girls' nights. - TOM HELLAUER
LARK's "Ritual Bar" has become a major draw for bridal showers and girls' nights.

The small store is a sunny, inviting space with ornamental black-and-white tile, high ceilings and displays of Dolan's house-made skincare products (body scrubs, purifying toner, lotion bars, essential oils) on open shelving in Instagram-ready groupings. At the front, the best-selling LARK beauty balm has a place of honor, befitting its importance to any makeup bag or medicine cabinet (it's a cleanser, makeup remover, skin moisturizer and hair conditioner all in one!). On the other side of the shop, customers can find a curated assortment of beauty and wellness products from external trusted brands, such as Pure + Native cleansing bars, Plant People CBD capsules, Wooden Spoon Herbs dietary supplements and Clove + Hallow vegan cosmetics.

But LARK's big draw is the Ritual Bar, where knowledgeable staff members help visitors choose and blend customized facial products. A rainbow of all-natural mask bases and facial oil fragrances gleam on shelves that hover above a station full of additional ingredients, take-home vials and pots, brushes and shallow pottery bowls for mixing products, created by Colorado artist Sarah Welch exclusively for LARK. On event days or by appointment, visitors spend most of their time here, learning about their own skin and talking to LARK's experts about items that will help them glow. The Ritual Bar has become a big draw for bridal showers, girls' nights and gift experiences.

"Just this weekend, we had a bachelorette party here, a little Ritual Bar party," Dolan says. "We have a licensed cosmetologist and estheticians who can make recommendations, and people just get really excited about it. I just had this feeling that it would work!"

"We have an expert here who has a holistic oils certification from Europe, and she's incredible. She put together an encyclopedia of our oils — pages and pages of research on every single oil that we carry," Dolan continues. "Some brick-and-mortar stores are going away, but people still really want unique experiences, so we've been having a lot of really cool, different events. I feel like that's what draws people in."

Dolan has no regrets about shifting from digital to in-person sales, saying that meaningful face-to-face interaction with customers has been a joy. But she has some advice for entrepreneurs looking to follow in her footsteps.

"You're going to have to pivot on what your goals were. Be ready to change a lot and just go with the flow."
—Allison Babka

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