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Ask the Architect

Rosa Lee built The Urban Toddler out of her need for community connection and today, it stands 18 years strong.

Rosa Lee

Rosa Lee

A first-time mom knows all-too-well the feelings of loneliness. She might seek out a new-mother support group or attend mommy-and-me classes to start to create her village. But what she typically doesn’t do—especially with zero retail experience—is open a children’s boutique. Not unless she’s Rosa Lee.

Lee, born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI, has a master’s in architecture, an MBA as well as a career in acting and a strong tennis game. But after she gave birth to her first child in 2006, Lee experienced some difficult feelings that took her by surprise and had her yearning for something. “I was lost, disconnected and isolated,” I needed connection with a community,” she recalls. Lee also wasn’t finding the type of baby stores that had the more intimate experience she was looking for. She wanted to develop a neighborhood gathering spot where customers could both enjoy curated shopping with concierge-like service. “When I created My Urban Toddler, it gave me the ability to connect with other families and ultimately with myself.”

Lee already had a deep understanding of the local demographics. It also turned out that she had many of the knowledge-based building blocks for a retail store—and her fresh approach was a huge benefit. “Architecture is project-based and requires managing many aspects of a building project. I’m always looking for efficiency and best practices. My design background enables me to create environments, using the display work in furniture, so that each customer experiences a place of discovery—not just a grocery store layout of products.”

My Urban Toddler carries apparel, essentials, toys, gifts, books, and University of Michigan merch for ages newborn through 12. Top brands include Angel Dear, Cooper Pearl, Deux Par Deux, Hatley, Huggalugs, Little Me, Magnetic Me, Mayoral, Me and Henry, Petit Lem, and Tea Collection. Special events are sponsored throughout the year, and Lee knows how to lead the charge on these as well. “I use the analogy, ‘set the table, and then invite the guests.’ As an architect, I’m very good at setting the table, and as a businessperson, I’ve had to learn how to create in-store events that bring people to our physical location,” she says. “Our mission is to curate the finest children’s apparel and gifts, create a tactile environment for discovery while treating each customer like guests in our home. We offer a true in-person experience for meaningful purchases.”

Face Time

The shop has a comprehensive website and strong presence on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. In the past, Lee outsourced social media, but now she’s put herself at the helm and she’s grown to enjoy it. “I think the importance of having me as the face of the company connecting with our customers has been incredibly valuable. They know that experience that they have online is going to be the same once they see us in store! We post regularly and intentionally. Social media is the way that we connect with future customers and educate them on what’s in style and what new products are available to help their daily schedules.”

Social media also helps to get the word out about special events. “People are drawn to special occasions and celebrating milestones even more than ever. Having a world pandemic interrupt our lives, and show us that, at any moment, something can change, I feel that people are very purposeful and celebrating specific milestones, like the birth of a baby, a first birthday, holidays, etc. Our events are focused on gift giving, whether it’s a portrait session, working with clay for hand impressions, photos with Santa or the Easter Bunny, or Valentine’s Day being a time to celebrate love and kindness.”

Lee is planning to host monthly events this year, including ice cream socials, gatherings with local daycares and preschools. While the store used to have a baby registry, it doesn’t get used as much as it used to—but this is more of a reflection on the type of merchandise that Lee carries. “I think that most customers come to our store for items that are special and functional. We’ve heard from customers that at baby showers, gifts from our store are always the wild gift.”

Curated displays at My Urban Toddler

Curated displays at My Urban Toddler

Being Present is the Gift

Almost two decades in business, Lee has learned a great deal, especially about overall buying habits: “I’ve learned that you need to be where the customer is. If some people prefer being an in-store shopping person, then you need to entice them to come in. If they’re online shoppers, constantly provide them information about the products you carry as well as your expertise in the type of products that you sell.”

Another credo by which Lee operates is to be physically and mentally present in your business. She also advises the following: “Don’t be too forward-thinking so that you miss what’s happening right now. Don’t dwell in the past–move forward from mistakes and use them as opportunities to get better.” Lee adds, “The word ‘present’ also means gift, so providing a way to mentor the young staff to be the best that they can be providing gifts that give joy to other people is the best thing that I can do.”

Be ready to shift

The longevity of the store can be attributed to many factors, Lee says, including the connections that the store has made with the community and other small boutique owners, who face the same challenges and can share solutions. “I play a lot of tennis, and sometimes my analogies have to do with specific tennis skills. So, in this case I would refer to the split step, where you must be ready to change directions, and make decisions as they develop,” she says, adding that she is always “challenged by new concepts, strengthened by defeats and encouraged by victories.”

One instance of a potential defeat that became a victory was the pandemic and the shift to e-commerce and other necessary business strategies such as social media, staff engagement and more staff training. Lee also became a mentor to other female business owners in other industries by co-hosting a podcast. Forming these bonds was critical, and everyone was able to support each other—a piece of advice she strongly recommends. “If you’re struggling with something, find a group of business owners or find a business source to get the answers and support that you need—don’t sit quietly and suffer. I believe in sharing as much as I can, because I know it comes back to me tenfold.” Indeed, the net result during the pandemic was incredible: “We improved our business operations and had a more than 50% increase in profit from 2020 to 2021.”

Another challenge being faced by many business owners was The Great Resignation and losing good staff members for a host of reasons. Lee, however, has been vigilant about proper training and with that knowledge comes staying power. “I’ve been fortunate to have had so many positive experiences with employees, and the best vehicle has been word-of-mouth. They tell their friends that it’s a great place to work, and then we end up with like-minded employees. I handle onboarding so that they understand my message to them and the customers. We train our employees to do and know everything so that they’re empowered to make educated decisions—even when I’m not here,” she stresses.

After hearing how Lee built her business, how she continues to operate with the tenant of connection at her core, it’s easy to see why this architect-turned-retailer has become a destination for Ann Arbor families, grandparents and visitors. Lee has a list of sound advice she wants to impart to other independent store owners, which she truly follows: “Lead with kindness and integrity. Work with people that believe in the same things. Serve the community which includes your staff and customers with a commitment for excellence. Have an eye for beautiful products that also serve a function. Understand that the customer’s time and money is valuable.” As a previously newcomer to this industry, Lee knows everyone involved with helping her create her dream store, values what got her to where she is today—and she won’t be forgetting them any time soon. Building a business, she says, “is not only about getting more customers, but also about keeping the ones that took a chance on you the first time.”

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