Halcyon Fast Forward: The Future of Retail

Marla Beck, who interviewed Mei Xu at Halcyon.

Starting a business is a big decision and involves risk.

With stores opening and closing at a fast clip, the inner workings of a retail business are often shrouded in mystery, thereby creating uncertainty on the future of retail.

One woman, however, has been pretty successful with her candles and other scented products for the home. This woman is Mei Xu, Co-Founder and CEO of Chesapeake Bay Candle. Xu is also the Creator and CEO of Blissliving Home, which sells other home products that a potential customer might need to spruce up the home.

Xu feels a strong sense of rootedness to the United States, but her inclination towards travel is duly noted. Coming to the United States from China and being exposed to a variety of experiences before moving to the United States, including an unusual education experience in China where she was exposed to both other cultures and Chinese education, her approach to the business world is different.

“I have a pretty sensitive nose,” she said, describing the experience at Bloomingdale’s, where she was exposed to all kinds of scents when she entered the department store in New York. Xu, while talking to an audience at Halcyon on Tuesday, said that that specific American retail experience stood in sharp contrast to her retail experiences in China, where salespeople wouldn’t encourage customers to smell before buying any kind of perfume.

One thing that spurred Xu to pursue a fragrance retail business was the insight that home fragrances weren’t being marketed in a way that made sense to modern times. She and her then-husband quit their respective jobs and opened a business together.

Entering the retail business world, however, was not what Xu expected to do when she was younger. She had worked for the World Bank as an interpreter and did missions, but was put in a situation where there was a hiring freeze and couldn’t go further with the World Bank. It also didn’t help that in China, the job market led her to working in minerals and metals, though she fondly describes herself as a “factory girl” at heart. Also, through what was called “re-education,” she was sent to the countryside while she was living in China.

For Xu, however, to make it beyond school’s doors, it is a question of passion more than anything else. She said that school is a good place for people to learn how to study and learn, but the major of choice isn’t as important as some people might think.

Passion is what keeps Xu going in her retail business work. She said that when running a business, it is not just about managing and directing – it is more akin to raising a child, which she has had personal experience with, where it is about going from “soup to nuts,” she said. Xu is also aware that when running a business, it is important to know when control can restrict a business’ potential.

The retail business world in the United States is still filled with brick-and-mortar stores and Xu said that online competition is not a big concern, what with online retail sales being only at 10 percent in the country. What she reminded the audience, however, is the importance of the customer’s sense of fun and the thrill of looking for things.

A plan in the works for Xu is to start a nonprofit for artists, whom she seeks to connect with retailers, collectors and museums. “I’m very customer-focused,” she said.

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