After you sign a commercial lease, there are still steps you’ll take before your brick-and-mortar space is ready to welcome the public. But whether you’re undertaking a complete overhaul of a space or simply making decorative changes, careful planning will help you avoid unexpected costs and delays ahead of opening day. Here, we’ll walk you through everything from applying for permits to sourcing your furnishings.
Before you get started
It’s easy to jump headfirst into designing your new space, but a bit of organization now can save you a headache later in the process.
Set up a spreadsheet where you can manage tasks, calculate costs, and keep track of your renovation team. You may find it helpful to break the project into categories, such as permits, construction, electrical work, plumbing, materials, finishings, and decor. Use this spreadsheet to keep an eye on your budget and your timeline as your renovation progresses.
You may want to get a binder or folio to save any hard-copy quotes, contracts, and invoices, as well as paint swatches and catalogs that you collect.
Plan the look, feel, and flow of your shop
This is the fun part—what does your dream store look like? How will it be laid out? Imagine how you’d like your customers to describe your store to their friends. Are you hoping to feel warm and cozy? Cool and sleek? Whimsical and bohemian? Develop a mood and color palette that emphasizes your brand identity to guide your decor and design choices.
Try using Pinterest to collect images of stores, decor, and finishings that inspire you. Make notes about what drew you to something. Was it a color palette? A welcoming layout? Beautiful wall tiles? The use of light? While you explore design strategies you can implement in your store, here are a few questions to ask yourself.
What key areas does your store need?
When you’re planning the layout of your store, start with a list of areas crucial to your store’s functioning. Most stores will need a checkout counter and some type of built-in shelving. Depending on your business, consider what else you’ll need—maybe changing rooms or a commercial espresso machine that requires plumbing.
How do you picture people flowing through the store?
From the moment a customer walks through the door, every step they take should be intuitive and inviting. Using the list you just made above, take a moment to plot the path through your store. You may find it helpful to sketch out your plan on a piece of graph paper or use a web-based tool like Floorplanner or SmartDraw. This process will help you determine where you’ll need large pieces of furniture, shelving, and displays.
What types of displays will best show off your products?
Once you know where you’ll put shelving and displays, consider what you want them to look like—what can both complement your boutique’s style and effectively showcase your merchandise? For example, maybe you’re going after a rustic feel and choose reclaimed wood bookcases, or you’re looking for a clean Scandinavian look so you choose minimalist white floating shelves. You’ll also want to consider if you’ll get custom-built shelving or if you’ll buy premade displays—more on that later.
What lighting options are best suited to your needs?
Lighting is key to setting a mood for both your store and your customers. Choose flattering light where someone is trying on items and directional lighting to literally highlight certain goods or displays. Plus, you’ll want to consider what type of light fixtures will suit your space or if you’ll need to add new electrical wiring for lights.
What work needs to be done in your space?
Is there anything that’s clearly broken? Anything that’s a bit shabby? Is there anything that needs to be removed or added in order to achieve your vision? Create a list of both major and minor work that definitely needs to be done.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a list of common projects that could contribute to your renovation:
- Replacing or refinishing flooring
- Painting interiors and exteriors
- Replacing or adding light fixtures, which may include rewiring electricity
- Adding, removing, or refinishing walls
- Remodeling bathroom spaces
- Adding plumbing in new areas of the store (for example, to add a coffee bar)
- Replacing or adding custom-built shelving and displays
- Refurbishing, replacing, or installing appliances and HVAC
Once you have a list of what type of work will go into achieving your ideal layout and aesthetic, you can get into the weeds of your project.
Set your budget
From contractors to decor, it’s going to cost money to get your space looking how you want.
Before you start down that road, know how much you can afford to spend—and where that money should go. The cost of renovation can vary widely based on your location and the types of materials you wish to use, ranging from $30 per square foot on the low end up to over $300 per square foot.
Based on the size of your store and knowing how much funding you currently have, you should be able to calculate a quick estimate of what you can afford per square foot. This will help you when you start reaching out to contractors for quotes. However, you should remember to set aside a portion of your budget for costs outside of construction, as well as a contingency of about 15%. Use this checklist to help you keep track of all the costs you’ll need to account for in your budget:
- Permits and licensing
- Renovation (labor and materials)
Will your budget get you what you want?
Managing your costs is one of the most important parts of any renovation project. Using your list of what you’d like to accomplish in a renovation, request bids from a variety of qualified tradespeople. Be sure to talk to companies and individuals with commercial building experience.
You’ll also need to talk to various suppliers to get an estimated cost for materials and finishings—light fixtures, flooring, hardware—for your renovation. Don’t forget about delivery fees and taxes.
Be prepared to make adjustments if the estimates you receive exceed your expectations or the cash you have available. You have two options: You can either explore additional funding options or make tweaks to your project. Try to determine what is a crucial cost (like ensuring the space is compliant with building codes and installing shelving for displaying your products) and what could be put off until later (like replacing existing lighting with your preferred fixtures).
Cut costs where you can
When it comes to fixtures and furnishings, while you don’t want to compromise on the quality of materials and craftsmanship, keep an eye out for cost-saving solutions to keep your budget down.
First, don’t hesitate to try to negotiate with suppliers, especially if you’re buying in bulk. Many vendors are willing to offer discounts or better terms to attract new customers and establish long-term partnerships.
Additionally, keep an eye out for sales, promotions, and clearance events to help you save money on essential items and materials. If you’re finding deals online, request samples or swatches to ensure finishings meet your quality standards before making significant purchases.
You may also find success with unconventional ways of sourcing materials. Finds from Facebook Marketplace, thrift stores, flea markets, or even personal connections can be very cost-effective and even add character to your shop.
Fellow store owners—who you can meet through your local Chamber of Commerce or online forums—will often be open to sharing their renovation experiences and recommendations. These conversations can provide valuable insights into sourcing materials and avoiding potential pricing pitfalls.
Pre-construction: Secure the necessary permits
It’s your responsibility to have all the necessary permits to be in place before you get started on your renovation.
Once you know the permits you need, make a checklist that outlines the process of obtaining each one, from the level of government involved to the application link to the list of required documents. This will help ensure you don’t miss any critical steps that could delay your opening.
Acquiring certain permits will require a site visit before you begin renovations, and the permit applications should inform you how to schedule an inspector. These pre-construction inspections are a key part of ensuring that all parts of the project comply with building codes, safety regulations, and other standards.
Take detailed notes during these pre-construction inspections. Be sure to ask when you are expected to schedule another round of inspections and hold onto all documentation you receive. You may even want to send a follow-up email afterward to confirm you understand everything before you start construction.
Types of permits
Check with your local government to see what permits your space requires, how to apply, and what inspections will be necessary. You can typically find this information online, and use this checklist as a guide for what to look out for:
Building and zoning permits
If you’re making significant changes to your store—such as adding or removing walls, installing plumbing, or converting spaces for new purposes—be certain that your plans follow local building codes and zoning regulations.
Do you have a plan to put up an eye-catching sign or a whimsical storefront display? You’ll need permission, and your store’s signs—including size, location, and appearance—must comply with local requirements.
Health department permit
If you intend to sell snacks or drinks—even packaged ones—you’ll need permission from the health department. They may have certain standards for refrigeration and handwashing stations.
Fire safety permit
To get a fire safety permit, you need to prove that your store has fire extinguishers, exit signs, and a clearly posted escape plan for getting out in case of fire. This will require scheduling a visit from your local fire marshal.
Construction: Renovate your space
Once you have your permits in place, it’s time to get your renovation underway. It’s essential to prioritize any safety and building code requirements during the renovation process so that you pass your next inspections.
Assess what tasks you’ll take on
You already have a general list of work you’d like to complete, but there are a couple of additional considerations to take before you hire a contractor.
Determine who is responsible for tasks
It’s worth noting that if you’re a commercial tenant, some repairs should be completed or paid for by your landlord. Here’s a breakdown of who is usually responsible for what:
- Interior build: Any interior updates that change the look of the space—from installing storage to updating the light fixtures to painting the walls—will be up to you as a tenant.
- Signage and window displays: From design to manufacturing to having it hung, you as a tenant are responsible for signage, window displays, and anything else that helps people find your shop and recognize your brand.
- Specialized equipment: If you need things like a display fridge for beverages or a sound system for in-store events, it’s your job to source and install them.
Your landlord’s responsibilities:
- Basic building requirements: Your landlord is responsible for the building’s structure, roof, and service lines (electrical, plumbing, and HVAC).
- Common areas: If an area is shared between tenants—like hallways, staircases, elevators, or lobbies—it’s up to your landlord to keep these sections of the building clean and in working order.
- Building code compliance: It’s up to your landlord to ensure that the space is up to code when it comes to things like fire detection and wheelchair ramps. But, if you are making updates to the space, it’s your responsibility to keep things up to code. More on that next.
All of the updates you make to your space must meet building codes, safety regulations, and accessibility requirements. Failure to comply with these standards could result in fines, costly corrections, and delays in opening your store, so you must ensure your renovation plans align with local regulations before proceeding.
You may also need to schedule inspections at different stages of your construction process to prove you’re in compliance. Check with your local government to find out what the requirements are and how to schedule inspections.
Assemble a reliable team
Now that you’re clear on the scope of your project, you’re going to need a talented crew of people—from contractors and designers to plumbers and electricians—to get your renovation done. Knowing who you need and choosing the right people will get your project completed efficiently, within budget, and to your satisfaction. Some contractors and designers have a preferred team of additional tradespeople, which can help you save time finding and managing multiple individuals.
We recommend starting with a general contractor. Here are some steps to help you find and vet contractors for your store renovation:
A great way to find great people is to ask for recommendations from friends, family, colleagues, and other business owners. Personal recommendations will give you insight into a potential contractor’s reliability, workmanship, and professionalism.
If you’re having trouble getting a list of names, try online directories like Yelp, Angi (formerly called Angie’s List), HomeStars, and Thumbtack. Focus on customer reviews to help you determine if someone’s a good fit for your project. You can also post in local forums on Facebook and Nextdoor.
Check credentials, references, and portfolios
How else can you feel confident in who you’re hiring? First, only work with tradespeople who are properly licensed and insured. This will both give you assurance that they’ve met the necessary training requirements to perform the work you need doing and protect you from potential liabilities if accidents (resulting in injury or damage) occur during the project.
Next, ask potential contractors to provide references. You can ask past clients about their experience working with the contractor, the quality of the work done, and their overall satisfaction with the project.
Finally, you can ask for photos of previous commercial renovation projects. This will give you a sense of a contractor’s style, craftsmanship, and ability to handle projects like yours.
Don’t stop at one quote
Try to get detailed quotes from at least three different contractors. Compare the scope of work, timelines, and cost estimates. Avoid choosing solely based on the lowest bid, as quality and expertise matter more in the long run.
Have a conversation
Arrange face-to-face or virtual meetings with the contractors you’re seriously considering hiring. Use these chats to discuss your project’s specific requirements, timelines, and any concerns you may have. You’re going to need to work closely with this person—and trust them completely—so get a sense of how they communicate, listen, and understand your vision.
Sign a contract
Once you’ve chosen the tradespeople you want to work with, make sure to have a detailed contract in place for each of them. It should clearly outline the scope of work, timelines, payment schedule, and any warranties or guarantees. An online template like this one can be a great place to start.
At all stages of your renovation project you’re going to need to ensure you have the materials on hand to bring your vision to life. Here are some places to look to help make that happen—and don’t forget the cost-saving tips we shared in the budgeting section.
Your contractor’s trade network
Your contractor or designer may have a list of preferred suppliers they work with, and often they can purchase materials with a trade discount. Of course, it’s always worth doing your own research on these suppliers for due diligence.
Local suppliers and specialty stores
Sourcing materials in your area can reduce shipping costs, support your community, and provide a more personalized touch to your boutique’s design. Visit local hardware stores, furniture makers, and decor shops to explore options.
There are also stores dedicated to a particular commercial specialty such as flooring or lighting. A quick online search will help you find ones in your area, and reviews should let you know which ones to check out first.
There are some items that can only be custom-made. You may need a woodworker to create the perfect inlay shelving or someone who specializes in signage to build you a branded sandwich board.
From Facebook Marketplace to Craigslist, you can often find people looking to sell or give away great materials—even store furnishings. Look for retirement sales, or add “commercial” into your search to narrow down your findings for things sturdy enough to be in a store setting.
Post-construction: Pass final inspections
Once your renovation project is complete, it will be time for the final inspections required to greenlight your opening.
You should have an idea of what you’ll need to schedule and how to do so based on the pre-construction inspections earlier in your project. That said, it’s important to check with your local government early and often during your renovation to make sure you’re in compliance. You may also need to schedule inspections in advance if your city’s inspectors are busy. Start by visiting your local government’s website to find out more.
After you’ve confirmed when and how to schedule inspections, follow these steps carefully for a smooth approval process.
Prepare for inspections
- Look back at your notes and email exchanges from your pre-construction inspections. Make sure all identified required repairs and upgrades have been completed to the expected standard. (Remember, some of these may have been your landlord’s responsibility.)
- Confirm that all safety measures are in place, like proper signage, emergency exits, fire extinguishers, and smoke detectors.
- Verify that utilities—including electricity, water, and HVAC systems—are operational and functioning correctly.
- Gather and organize all relevant documentation, including building permits, and any relevant identification to have on hand if needed.
- Inform your staff and any contractors involved in the renovation about the upcoming final inspection so they can be available if needed.
- Tidy your space to present a neat and organized environment to the inspector. Remove any construction debris or clutter that could obstruct inspection access.
- Be available to the inspector to answer any questions the inspector may have and provide any necessary documentation or explanations. Have receipts on hand to prove that the materials you used meet the required standards and comply with applicable fire and safety regulations.
What if I fail an inspection?
While we hope this won’t be the case, it’s possible your space won’t pass one of your final inspections. This may feel like a setback, but don’t feel discouraged. Here’s what you should do next:
- Work with the inspectors to ensure you understand why you failed. You’ll want to have a good grasp on the areas of non-compliance so you can appropriately address those issues. Get detailed information and confirm everything in writing. Maintain open communication with the inspectors and the local governing bodies. They may be willing to provide guidance and support in bringing your boutique up to code.
- Partner with your renovation team to identify the problems and make the necessary corrections as quickly as possible. This might involve everything from major structural modifications like updating wiring to the most minor adjustments like moving signage by a few inches.
- After making corrections, schedule another inspection. Ensure that you’ve addressed all concerns before requesting a new inspection—don’t try to push back on any of the inspectors’ requirements.
- Be patient and persistent in your efforts to meet the necessary standards. Continue working diligently until you achieve compliance and pass the inspections.
Furnish your new shop
Now that renovations and inspections are complete, it’s time for the final touches! You may want to begin sourcing furnishings for your shop during earlier stages of your project or you may prefer to wait to see the completed interior. Regardless of when you take these steps, here are a few things to keep in mind.
The right furniture will help you arrange your store in a way that works for you and your customers. Referring back to your store’s layout, look at where you mapped out locations for furniture that will display or store products and where it might be natural to have seating (for example, an armchair outside a changing room). Here’s a list of furniture you may want to consider:
- Display cabinets
Remember also that you may want to move things around in the future, so consider modular furnishings in order to facilitate easy reconfiguration and reorganization. You can explore flea markets, second-hand stores, and discount furniture stores to find what you need at an affordable price. If you’re working with a designer, be sure to take advantage of their trade discount.
In addition to your functional pieces of furniture, your store should also feature less-functional but no less crucial decorative items. Thoughtful decor makes your shop feel more personal and invites customers to come inside. Here are examples of decorative items that will capture the imagination of shoppers:
- Paintings and sculptures
Odds are you already have well-suited options in your own home. This might be the perfect time to proudly show off your grandmother’s typewriter on a table of used books or to hang an oil painting you bought from a friend.
You don’t want to overdo it here. It can be easy for things to start to feel a bit busy—and priority should always be given to the items you’re actually selling in your store. But a few key decorative pieces can really help tell the story of your store and draw in your customers by activating their curiosity and imagination.
Take a moment to celebrate
Completing your store’s renovation and passing inspection is one of the biggest and most challenging steps in the journey to opening day. Once this stage is complete, take a moment to celebrate with your team and recognize all of the hard work that’s gone into getting to this point!
Are you opening a new retail store? Read more about Open with Faire and learn how to apply for up to $20,000, with 60-day payment terms, to stock your new shop.