Its easier being small

August 6, 2012
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When the Downtown Development Authority brought Robert Gibbs, owner of the Gibbs Planning Group in Ann Arbor and a retail expert, here to analyze the district’s offerings, Nikki Gillette was impressed with what he had to say.

Gillette, who owns Lee & Birch, said she received a lot of great information from a seminar Gibbs held for retailers, such as key data about what sales numbers should be based on a store’s square footage. She also was pleased with the vision he laid out on where downtown retail could end up. “That got me a little more pumped up about how things could go,” she said.

But Gillette was more amazed with what Gibbs told her when he paid a visit to her shop. “He actually said he thought I could be a national chain, and that was really nice to hear,” she said. “It was a confirmation that what I’m doing is on the right track.”

Gillette said Gibbs complimented her on the store’s mix of merchandise and the way she displayed the items. He also offered tips on how to develop a better flow in the store — advice she said she plans to follow.

Lee & Birch opened almost two years ago at 50 Louis St. NW and sells women’s clothing, jewelry, accessories, home-décor items and gifts. The store also features handbags, jewelry and other accessories handcrafted by local artists. Not only does Gillette showcase these items to give the designers much-needed exposure to a buying clientele, but it also gives her customers the chance to own one-of-a-kind products.

Gillette is a native of Grand Rapids who earned an interior design degree from Kendall College of Art and Design and then took master’s-level courses in that field at Columbia College in Chicago. It was while Gillette was attending grad school that her interest in fashion and her desire to own a store grew. Still, when she left Chicago and returned to West Michigan, it was to start an interior design business. Then, when she was lead designer on a building in Norton Shores, out-of-the-blue a tenant in the building asked if she would manage their furniture store.

“That got the ball rolling. I started thinking that I’ve always wanted to do this and I thought, why not just go for it,” said Gillette, who still has her interior design firm.

Gillette did her due diligence on managing retail. She met with experienced retailers and gathered as much data on retail she could get her hands on.

“So, I opened that first store in Norton Shores about five years ago,” she said of the original Lee & Birch, which debuted at 255 Seminole Road.

Gillette recently moved that store to 128 Washington Ave. in Grand Haven. The Seminole Road development never fully experienced the expected retail traffic, and her lease was coming to a close. At the same time, the Grand Haven site was becoming available; Gillette knew the shop owner who was nearing retirement.

“Her store was already set up and she had all the numbers. So it really was a perfect opportunity for me to get into a higher-traffic area,” she said. “It’s been better than expected, and I’m really happy about how things are going there.”

Almost three years after Gillette became a retailer, she opened her second Lee & Birch downtown. She came here because this is her hometown and, in the back of her mind, she had planned to locate a business in Grand Rapids at some point. Her reason for choosing downtown would certainly please the Downtown Development Authority and Downtown Alliance, which promotes the district and represents the merchants.

“What drew me to downtown was all of the events like ArtPrize and the growth that downtown has gone through. I was really excited about that and wanted to get in early. And downtown is my first spot to go to when we’re going out to dinner,” she said.

She, of course, designed her shop at Louis and Ionia, and those familiar with the store have told the Business Journal it is one of the sharpest-looking in the district. “An interior-design degree helped a lot,” she said with a laugh.

Gillette’s is one of 45 businesses nominated for the alliance’s 2012 Downtown Awards. Lee & Birch is in the Smaller Project with a Big Impact category. Public voting is going on all month at downtowngr.org/vote.

As for how sales have gone, Gillette said business has been good but not quite as good as she expected. She said people are coming downtown for events or to go to dinner, but not enough are thinking about shopping while they’re there.

“I knew going in that it was going to take a while because they’re still trying to grow retail downtown. It’s going to take a few years. But it is going well, just not as well as I expected,” she said.

Trying to succeed with a small shop can be a tall order, especially considering the advertising and marketing power of national chains. But to her credit, Gillette said it isn’t that difficult.

“It’s a different concept. I am all about customer service. That is the most important thing in my business … offering personal styling, really getting to know the customers’ names, and we’ll call them if something comes in that they like,” she said.

“It’s actually a little easier with a smaller business because you have that one-on-one relationship with your customers, which a lot of our customers really appreciate,” she said. “And that’s why they come back to us.”

The downtown Lee & Birch is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The Grand Haven store has summer hours through Labor Day: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10-6 Saturday and noon-5 Sunday.

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