SOUTH TAMPA — The idea, like so many business plans, evolved over dinner.
Amy Hightower, the owner of an online consignment shop for higher-end clothes, talked retail with friend Katie Gagnon, the longtime owner of resale and vintage furniture store the Blue Moon Trading Co.
Hightower wanted to open a store of her own but worried about overhead. Running her Fresh Threads business online cost her just $30 a month.
"Why not just move in with me?" Gagnon asked, envisioning an inexpensive version of the popular clothing and home store Anthropologie.
Six months ago, Hightower began scattering pieces of her clothing among Blue Moon's cottage style furnishings, displaying them in whatever armoires happened to be for sale that month.
Gagnon figured a bit of help with the rent — and some extra help in the shop — couldn't hurt. Small-scale retailing, they both say, can be a tough, lonely business.
Pairing up is suddenly a trend in South Tampa, where boutique owners who have survived the recession still struggle to bring in customers. Some are soliciting "roommates" to cut costs. They split rent and utility bills and often handle each other's customers.
Just last month, Jennifer Dutkowsky of Why Not Boutique opened up her eco-friendly shop to friend Monica Stewart, owner of the 2-year-old Sweet Emotion clothing store.
The economy is "definitely picking up, but people have tightened their belts as much as they can," Dutkowsky said. "You read things about how retail sales are up again. They must be talking about Walmart and Target."
Combining complementary businesses is "a smart thing to do," said Mario Iezzoni, who teaches entrepreneurship at USF and is a consultant for its Small Business Development Center.
Owners decrease their expenses, but they should be careful.
Housing two businesses under one roof is common in service-oriented industries — say, a chiropractor and a massage therapist, Iezzoni said. It is more unusual in retail, and perhaps more fraught with obstacles. Business owners have to decide whether to combine inventory, how to divide income, and how to share employees.
Most important, "they have to be stable relationships," Iezzoni said. "You have to all get along. There have to be certain synergies that drive the whole partnership."
Gagnon and Hightower would agree.
"It has to be the right person to come in," Gagnon said. "It's like a marriage."
Missy Purcell, owner of the Sparkles Plenty jewelry shop, recently gave up her retail space and moved in with brother Charlie, owner of Nicholson House on S Howard Avenue.
They've worked together before, back when their mother owned Nicholson House. They didn't always get along. But a month or so since Missy moved in, "it's a lot better," she said.
They are still hammering out how to combine profits and inventory. And Missy has had to teach Charlie about jewelry. Still, they say the move was for the best.
"It's a sign of the times," she said, adding that owners' profits have dipped while rental expenses often remain steady.
While waiting for their businesses to pick up, Dutkowsky and Stewart started to yearn for more vacation time — and moral support.
"This business can be very lonely," Dutkowsky said. "You make every decision by yourself. … We felt we each bring something different to the table. Now is the best time to do it."
Her lease ends in 22 months, Dutkowsky said, and if the partnership doesn't work out, they can choose to walk away.
The key, she said: "I think you need to understand each other and be friends beforehand."
A year ago, Jennifer Tishler of the kids store Giggle Box Couture invited a friend to move her online business into the shop on Bay to Bay Boulevard. Staci Brum's Kooky Kidz store specializes in handmade clothing and gifts, while Tishler's focus is upscale kids' clothing.
They keep their businesses separate, and sometimes the arrangement is confusing to customers, Brum said. "Other than that it's been great. We share time in the store and have an employee for when we can't be here.
"I'm just not confident enough to do it on my own. I've learned a lot about how to have a store from (Tishler)."
Hightower, the clothier, has similar feelings about Gagnon, Blue Moon's owner. Their collaboration has worked out so well that Hightower decided to go out on her own.
She's not going far — just across the street on S MacDill Avenue. She will take on a business partner and they will use space in a salon that has decided to downsize. A door will separate their shops, so salon customers can mill in and out while they wait.
"I love that businesses want to collaborate and get along and not be territorial," Hightower said.
"We're going to miss her," chimed in Gagnon, who is already in talks with other entrepreneurs. Hightower will leave June 1.
Dutkowsky can only hope her young venture with Stewart goes as well in the long run.
"Business ownership is the American dream," she said, "but you don't realize how time consuming and costly that dream can be."