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Multi-tasking maven, Mary Lauer, CEO and founder of Lauer Enterprises, Inc. and Happy Family Designs, Inc., on overseeing two Minnesota-based retail concepts while growing her wholesale business, Oh Baby.
“I’ve always been a doer,” Lauer says, modestly reflecting on her journey to becoming the CEO and founder of Lauer Enterprises and Happy Family Designs, the parent companies to her retail/wholesale concepts, Oh Baby, featuring children’s fashion and home furnishings, and Que Sera, a home décor boutique and interior design studio. “Sometimes my husband says I have too many things going on, but that’s just who I am,” she adds. “I’m always trying to be more efficient and never complacent. Everything you do can be done better, but you have to take the time to do it.”
Nearly all that Lauer does is done in her native Minnesota. She, her husband/business partner, Tom, and a team of less than 50 employees manufacture most of the Oh Baby collection in its 5,000-square-foot facilities in Minneapolis (a small portion is made overseas) while operating two Oh Baby stores nearby. The Que Sera store/interior design studio is in Excelsior. “It can seem overwhelming at times, but at least I’m able to keep close tabs on everything,” she says. “Buying, dying and washing fabric, ordering trims, the threads, the elastic—that’s all done by our team. I manage design, fulfillment and shipping—all in the same building. My son even does the photography.”
Lauer is blessed with the Just Do It gene. Prior to launching her own businesses, she worked in the fashion industry as an impact manager, after dabbling in real estate. But it wasn’t until their twins were born in 1990 that Lauer turned to the sewing machine again to make some extra-soft, 100-percent cotton outfits for Alex and Tyler. “I couldn’t find anything on the market that would satisfy their sensitive skin,” she says. “So I had to make it myself!” Before long, other moms were asking for Lauer’s hand-painted and hand-dyed designs. That’s when Lauer and her attorney husband started bringing Lauer’s wares to art fairs around Minnesota. In 1994, shortly after their third son Ethan arrived on the scene, Lauer was selected to participate in the Entrepreneurship Partnership Program at the Mall of America. The mall provided the space, which Lauer dubbed Cuddle Duds. She brought a variety of product to sell, spanning handmade clothing and accessories to hand-carved nursery furniture. The then young mom juggled parenting obligations with managing her growing business as best she could. It was a challenge—even for a multitasker like Lauer. Fortunately, her family pitched in whenever and however they could, and the teamwork paid dividends. “The response was better than we could have ever imagined,” Lauer says. “It was just the right concept at the right time.” Cuddle Duds’ success quickly attracted Gabbert & Beck, operator and developer of the upscale Galleria in Edina. In 1996, Mary opened a new concept in a 700-square-foot space in the Galleria, under a new brand identity Oh Baby. Twelve years later, that store relocated to a neighboring space nearly four times the size.
Known for its quality products, nearly 60 percent of Oh Baby’s inventory is designed by Lauer and manufactured locally by artisans in the company’s 5,000-square-foot Minneapolis warehouse. Everything from take-me-home gift sets and glittery tutus to embroidered T-shirts and bed linens is neatly stacked in thoughtful merchandising techniques in the stores. “Everything has a place,” Lauer says. “I spend tons of time and money making backdrops and other artwork for the stores because that’s what gets customers to stay.” In fact, Lauer’s design skills had impressed customers so much they started asking her for interior design advice. She began making visits to the homes of customers, consulting on decor of children’s bedrooms, play spaces and nurseries. “Oh Baby was such a success that the owner of the Galleria wanted us to open another concept,” Lauer says, noting that home furnishings seemed to be a natural extension. “So I just hired a few more designers and opened my home furnishings and design studio, Que Sera.” The 2,200-square-foot shop opened its doors at the Galleria in 1998 in what was originally a flower shop. Quickly attracting customers, Lauer became one of the most trusted interior design consultants in the Twin Cities area. “That’s when we really started to hit our stride,” Lauer says. “It was a dream come true.” (Que Sera has since moved to street front location in Excelsior.)
Another dream come true came with the opening of the second Oh Baby store, in 2001, on Lake Minnetonka in Wayzata. It was just across the lake from the Lauers’ home. Or, you might say, a quick water ski jaunt to work, weather permitting. “Tom and I both love waterskiing, so the opportunity to ski across the lake in the summer for meetings at the store has been a treat,” Lauer says. “When you’re working 14 to 17 hours a day, you’ve gotta fit in fun somehow!”
Speaking of which, Lauer began wholesaling Oh Baby six years ago, which has given the couple an excuse to escape the harsh Minnesota winters to explore the West Coast and Europe for new accounts and sourcing opportunities. “I would have started sooner, but I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do so while the kids were still home,” she says, adding that Oh Baby is now sold at hundreds of retailers around the world. In fact, during Oh Baby’s first year at wholesale, Anthropologie dedicated three pages to the brand in its annual holiday catalog. Lauer credits fellow brands and reps—people she has been doing business with in her stores for more than 25 years—for encouraging her to make the leap into wholesale. She is thankful for the good advice that she believes has helped generate a greater industry good. “As an industry, we should be working together to grow our businesses,” Lauer says. “There’s room in the sandbox for everyone—just play fair.”
What do you mean to ‘play fair’?
I’m one of the good stores. I buy a lot, I don’t un-buy and I always reorder. I look at every relationship as a partnership. I’m investing in them, so they should invest in me. We’re a team. But if they decide to sell to my neighbor…we can’t all sell the same stuff. That becomes a race to the bottom, lowering the price on everything until we’re making no margin. That means no margin to pay employees, bonuses, vacation time, treats to keep people around—that’s no way to run a business. It’s all about playing fair as well as sticking to what we do best and not obsessing about what others are doing. As a mother myself, I know what works and what doesn’t. I only carry two or three brands of any product because they’re what I feel are the best. I do the editing so my customers don’t have to.
How do you keep Oh Baby a step ahead of the competition?
I’m always looking to do something that doesn’t exist. And by the time people see what we’re doing and copy it, we’re already on to the next thing. That can be tough when you’re running many businesses and creating things on a small budget. Sure, the big guys can do it much quicker and much cheaper, but it isn’t made in Minnesota. We’re always trying to carve that special niche: American-made, artisan goods that are still attainable for most consumers.
And how’s business of late?
From a wholesale point of view, Fall ’19 is the biggest season we’ve ever had. We just killed it! It completely resonated with buyers, making us totally slammed at every show. I did a little mommy-and-me collection last fall that received a great response, so we added more to it this season. Our faux fur coats were also a hit, as well as any embroidery or dappled knits. I also sold a ton of leggings last year because of our superior fit. As you can probably guess, anything Instagram-worthy sold particularly well.
What advantages does producing most of Oh Baby in Minnesota provide?
Well, I don’t have to constantly fly back and forth to Asia worrying about production. Sure, it costs significantly more to manufacture here and pay fair wages. But I’ve had some employees sewing for me for over 25 years! They believe in what we’re doing, and they’re happy doing what they do. If I need to make a trade show with new samples, fill a special order or have something delivered quick, they always meet the deadline because nearly everything is centered in Minnesota. I say almost everything, because since we’ve started receiving large orders from select accounts, we’ve shifted some of our manufacturing overseas. We monitor everything closely. Ideally, Tom and I would like to have a place abroad for part of the year where we can keep an even closer eye on production. That’s our end game.
As a designer, where do you look for inspiration?
I listen. As a retailer as well, I’m in the store asking customers questions. Sure, I’ll make something just because I think it’s a cute or funny idea—like metallic leggings inspired by Sandy in Grease, or a dress made from sparkly fabric like Glinda the Good Witch. But I always check back to see if it makes sense with my clientele. I want to design what my gift-givers are proud to give and what their kids are most comfortable wearing. I look for comfort, trust and loyalty from my designs. When a customer comes back to buy the same bamboo T-shirt in three other colors because that’s all their son will wear, I know I’m doing my job.
Speaking of jobs, how’s your other (retail) job going?
Great! Our sales per square foot are well above the national average for both Oh Baby and Que Sera. With respect to Oh Baby, consumers today are more interested in purchasing quality goods instead of just buying stuff. There’s a lot more variety now, so you need to have a certain niche for people to want to shop into your store. You have to inspire them to shop with you, rather than have them shop online. You have to develop a relationship, and your store has to be their happy place. We don’t just sell product, we sell experience.
What exactly makes your stores a ‘happy place’?
A good example is our recently opened Oh Baby location on France Avenue South in Edina. It‘s street facing and a space we’re thrilled for our customers to experience. The aesthetic is very Danish-modern. It’s clean, airy and loaded with natural materials. For instance, my neighbor’s tree got hit by lightning, so I had him slice it into big stumps that we placed throughout the store as merchandising displays. I also created a large tree motif on the wall with shelves that hold our plush items. My son also designed macramé wall hangings on branches that are indigo dip-dyed. Embroidered pillows, bedding and mobiles are some other decorative offerings we use to decorate as well as sell. They’re not available for wholesale—yet. Everything is colorful, beautiful and has a specific place in the store. When a customer loves how a space is curated, they feel compelled to buy. This location gives us more space as well as an opportunity to sell outside the mall.
And the benefits of being located outside of a mall?
I read an article recently about how a very low percentage of Millennials shopped at malls this past holiday season. Our move to a street front location is good for that reason, plus the fact that I’ll finally be able to close at 6 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. Having Sundays off will also be a perk of the new location. It’s give me some time to refuel.
Speaking of which, how’s your interior design retail/studio business doing?
We’ve expanded from homes into commercial spaces. One of my designers just finished a high-end optical shop. We also recently finished a children’s dentistry office and a financial company. We expanded beyond the Minnesota area as well—we’re currently working on homes in California and South Carolina. I’ve also done some retail consulting, helping stores achieve that rhythmic feel that makes customers want to come visit.
Would you say nursery décor is becoming more congruent with the rest of the home’s style?
Absolutely! We’ve always done it that way—before it became a trend. The nursery is somewhere you spend a lot of time, so it’s nice to have it be comfortable, serene and not over the top with trucks or bows. Soft and comfortable is my favorite aesthetic. It’s versatile, and you’re not going to get tired of it.
Do you enjoy working with family?
I love it! It’s so nice to have my husband join me and travel the world for shows. My one son does a beautiful job on our photography. And the family extends to our customers. We often feature their children as models to help further establish those relationships, which also helps spread the word about Oh Baby through social media.
What do you love most about your job?
I just love enhancing other people’s lives, whether it’s through my stores’ experience or the products I create. I also love business—hearing about other people’s businesses and bettering my own business. I’m passionate about delighting the customer and love the art of merchandising and design.