Dan Haar: Getting a bead on one successful retailer’s challenges
Updated 10:11 am, Sunday, November 26, 2017
It’s hard to predict the flow of customers at Beadworks, a make-your-own jewelry retailer in South Norwalk, Fairfield and Philadelphia.
The stores can be dead and then, as one employee put it, the (mythical) Beadworks Bus pulls up to the door — with little reason for the timing.
That’s true for most in-the-flesh retail, of course, and many other types of businesses in the Amazon-Uber age. Abigail Wall knows that well, as the owner of Beadworks and a former business consultant with Boston Consulting Group.
But it’s espcially true at Beadworks, nowhere more than at the original store location on South Norwalk’s Washington Street. SoNo delivers a perplexing mix as a hot destination for restaurants — though even they don’t see a clear pattern of customers — and a challenge for stores despite all the feet on the street because merchandise sellers are scarce on the main drag these days.
With the launching of the shopping season and the national focus on the big picture of spending that reflects (but does not drive) the U.S. economy, I looked at Beadworks not as a typical store but as a successful, independent retailer that’s facing more than the usual challenges at a tough time and place.
How does beadworks compete — not only with online sellers, but also with malls, shopping centers, discount outlets and even stores in other downtowns more known for merchandise?
“It’s about being focused and about providing value to your customers and an extraordinary experience,” Wall said. “It’s about being as nimble as possible and as responsive as possible.”
Wall bought the business in January 2007 from her aunt, Nancy Wall, who founded Beadworks in 1983 as a mail-order business and opened the store in 1987. Raised in Vermont, she had not grown up in the business. “Certainly I went there. It was a magical land for me.”
She became the owner with more than a business interest in jewelry design. As it happened, 2007 bled into the Great Recession. Beadworks has seen some retrenchment over the years, from a peak of 13 stores as distant as Atlanta and Texas, most of them franchised, to the three locations Wall owns today.
Despite living through the national downturn, Wall said, “The past two years have been my most challenging in business...I can’t necessarily put my finger on exactly what it is but it does tend to be Connecticut specific.”
It’s not just about money. “Certainly the election was horrible for business,” she said without mentioning the name of the president. “Frightened people don’t want to spend money.”
That brings us back to the in-store experience. As a mark of how serious that is, Beadworks no longer sells online. Experience can mean in-store birthday parties and trunk shows, along with the daily ritual of staff members and customers perfecting the art of making a unique object.
But to Wall, the experience for customers is as much inward as outward. It’s about how customers feel, not just what they’re seeing and doing.
“People are in desperate need of some creative therapy and an outlet. It’s about having a creative refuge from the world,” she said. “You can make something better than you can buy... and also it’s deeply personal.”
So the stores that are loaded with “findings,” as they call the beads and stringable baubles, in a way that stimulate the imagination — with African masks on the walls, for example. Yes, Hannah Stratham and Maggie Bloch tell me in the Norwalk store, the masks are for sale.
The key is that it’s a destination, as several customers told me this past week. You’d think being on the marquee corner of South Norwalk, between the aquarium and a slew of restaurants, would bring in lots of casually curious shoppers.
Why wouldn’t it? While Beadworks sells some high-end, precious gems, many items can be had, on a string, with a clasp, for just a few dollars.
No, casual foot traffic isn’t enough. And yet destination customers such as Allison Vodola, a jewelry maker from Darien, like the fact that it’s in a nice place, not a warehouse in the back of an old mill.
Vodola looked for antique-looking pieces, in part, among many unique findings. She’s part of the wholesale customer base, those who are making jewelry to sell, and she will show up at least once a week to stock up during the holiday season.
“It’s more intimate, I think, as a store,” Vodola said, compared with a warehouse outlet or certainly a web site. And that matters.
Friday was packed and busy with some casual foot traffic, some who came as a destination and some who make a ritual of their trip on the day after Thanksgiving — even more than expected, Stratham said at the end of the day.
Independent retailers such as Beadworks aren’t driving the U.S. economy and, in fact, all of merchandise retail combined, online and in person, doesn’t really drive the economy, despite what industry groups want you to believe. Rather, the smaller stores do something harder to pinpoint — they define the culture in a tangible way.
It takes a lot of vision to keep that up. Wall, with a staff of about 10 in Connecticut, sees the challenges and triumphs in one tableau.
“Your average Connecticut resident is feeling super squeezed with the cost of living there and I think it’s really compounded by the fact that they’re cheek and jowl with super-affluent people,” she said. “But we take a lot of pride out of the fact that we are…such a creative refuge for people and also a lot of satisfaction in our history.
“We find a lot of meaning in being part of the greater community.”