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Retail Rodeo

A tip of the hat to our latest roundup of noteworthy retailers.

Over the past 100-plus years, Earnshaw’s has profiled countless retailers spanning all formats, concepts, sizes and locales. The list ranges from one-store and mom-and-pop boutiques to publicly traded category killers. We’ve showcased a hefty share of brick-and-mortar stalwarts as well as digital-only startups. The one constant over the years: retail is a rough-and-tumble business. You can be tossed off the saddle and trampled in an instant. For proof, one need only look at the many names that have been left in the dust of retail history. What unites those who hang on to the reins despite a stampede of recessions, revolutions (a.k.a. retail apocalypses), natural disasters, tectonic demographic shifts and a fury of fashion fads? Nearly all exhibit a willingness to embrace change and take (calculated) risks.

Take Caitlin Quirk of Bowfish Kids in Ocean City, NJ, and the subject of our retail profile (“Making A Splash,” p. 12). Originally located on the boardwalk in the summer resort town, Quirk struggled to find traction as a year-round business. But she knew it was her only chance for long-term survival. During those first few cold and lonely winters, she created new concepts (several of which her friends and family members described as crazy) that would be rolled out the following summers. Quirk was never sure any of them would be prizewinners, but it didn’t stop her from competing. She knew she had to keep adapting just to survive. Eventually, she graduated to a year-round space in town, but it was one of her “crazy” ideas—an in-store mermaid makeover salon—that became her watershed moment. The add-on business, Bowfish Studios, has expanded to offer a range of themed makeovers, becoming a major attraction for kids and adults alike who want to get their cosplay groove on. Meanwhile, Bowfish Kids is thriving, fed by a steady stream of magical makeover fans. Quirk credits much of her store’s success to leaving her comfort zone—again and again. She says a store owner’s job is never done: “You must constantly evolve and try new things because if you rely solely on one approach, your doors will close up pretty quickly.” Amen to that.

DSW (Designer Shoe Warehouse) took a similar risk with the national rollout of its new-and-improved kids’ department last month. The concept (“DSW Goes Big on Kids,” p. 16) has been several years in the making and involved a series of tests and tweaks to get the format right. The selection is broader, deeper and designed to be a destination for busy moms who can now do their family’s shoe shopping in one place. What’s more, the kids’ staff are all trained fit experts—a level of service new to DSW. Kirk Persson, GMM of DSW Kids, says going the extra mile on service is a must. For starters, it reassures parents who want what’s best for their children. Second, it’s a way for DSW to stand out from the competition, particularly when many large chains have pulled back on service. Perhaps most important, DSW research showed that the chain was losing some of its regulars when they entered their parenting years, mainly because they didn’t have the time to indulge their own shoe shopping needs. So, while making a major investment in kids comes with risks, the potential reward of retaining or regaining its core customer (more than half of the chain’s 25 million VIP Rewards members have at least one child in the household) appears worth taking.

Then there’s the entrepreneurial success story of Liz Connor, founder of Pitter Patter in Louisville, CO, (What’s Selling, p. 38). Since opening in 2016, the store has lassoed a strong following in the mining town-turned-suburban community that Money and Family Circle magazines recently ranked one of the best places in America to live and raise a family, respectively. With a focus on selection and personalized service, Connor has hitched her store to the town’s booming baby buggy train. The former TV news exec couldn’t be happier, having left the “doom and gloom” of news behind to work amid “goo-goo, ga-ga and giggles” all day.

Our retail profile archives are filled with startup boutique shop owners who left other careers, tired of mundane routines or feeling hogtied. A career in retail can let a person’s imagination run wild. The retail rodeo is the perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs to hit their stride. The excitement, pace, creativity and, yes, risk serves as a magnet for adventurous sorts. While some retailers fall deeply in love with the product and others are driven by profit, they are all passionate, people-oriented souls. This is, after all, a business about kids and their families. Not surprisingly, Connor’s favorite part of the job is building relationships with her customers. She’s a refreshing reminder that childrenswear retailing, despite being a ride as rough as a bucking bronco at times, offers rich rewards.

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