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Caroline and Main in Saratoga Springs, NY with Heidi Owen West

Heidi Owen West Headshot
Episode #: 093
Caroline and Main in Saratoga Springs, NY with Heidi Owen West

Guest: Heidi Owen West
Topics: Brick-and-mortar, entrepreneurship


Chris Ressa 0:01
This is retail retold the story of how that store ended up in your neighborhood. I’m your host, Chris ReSSA. And I invite you to join my conversation with some of the retail industry’s biggest influencers. This podcast is brought to you by DLC management.

Hey, everyone, welcome to retail retold. I hope everyone is having a great start to the new year. Tough to imagine we are already here in February 2021. I hope that you are accomplishing all you dreamed of accomplishing this year because it’s moving fast. I wanted to come on and give everyone a preview of the next three episodes including this episode. Because I’m so excited about these episodes. They highlight three entrepreneurs that have battled tremendous adversity and are really inspiring stories. We have an entrepreneur from upstate New York that owns three clothing stores, you’re going to learn how in the middle of the pandemic she was up all night, packing boxes, trying to ship things out to keep her stores generating cash. You’re going to hear about an entrepreneur that owns a coffee shop in St. Louis, Missouri. And you’re going to hear about a woman named Nikkei that owns seven cake shops in Lagos, Nigeria, our first international guest. The stories about these entrepreneurs are powerful, they are inspiring. And I hope you enjoy and learn as much about retail and real estate as I did talking to them.

Today I’m joined by a superstar entrepreneur Heidi West. Heidi is the owner of three retail stores in Saratoga Springs, New York, lifestyles of Saratoga Springs, Carolina in Maine, and union hall supply company. Welcome to the show, Heidi.

Heidi Owen West 1:57
Well, thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Ressa 1:59
Glad to have you. Heidi, why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what your stores are all about in what you do.

West 2:10
Okay, well, I consider myself a brick and mortar entrepreneur. I have three brands in beautiful downtown Saratoga Springs. If you’re familiar with it, it’s a historic, beautiful downtown, and I feel very lucky to have all of my roots planted here. All three of my brands are located in downtown Saratoga Springs. That’s how much I love it. I am an apparel retailer, a brick and mortar apparel retailer, I sell women’s clothing. I sell men’s clothing, I sell gifts, and some home furnishings. And at times I sell some children’s clothing. So apparel it is for me.

Ressa 2:56
So you have three different stores, lifestyles of Saratoga, union hall Supply Company in Carolina, Maine, what is the difference between the three stores.

West 3:06
So my original brand lifestyles, is 30 years old. And there was a gap in the market for wellmade women’s clothing. So my mother and I opened that brand years and years ago. Clearly it’s been a success. Five years ago, I expanded we basically ran out of space in in a historic district. As you know, the spaces are small and hard to come by. So I expanded to the corner next door. The feeling Caroline made is a little bit more casual, a little bit younger, and we have a large gift experience over there as well. And Union Hall is the men’s version of lifestyles. Basically, I had men sitting in outside of my dressing rooms for hours each day asking me why I wasn’t doing this for them. And finally I said, You know what, that’s a really good idea. Let’s do it. And it’s that was maybe just over a year ago. It’ll be two years with summer or a union hall supply company.

Ressa 4:12
It’s a great story. I love that you have three stores, all in the same market all in the same downtown that have their own niche. Really, really inspiring to the entrepreneur out there that wants to grow their business. Do you also have an online presence? Can the listeners find you online?

West 4:34
Well, that’s a that’s a long story. That might be a whole nother podcast, but I do have an econ presence. It is not perfect. It is not functioning how I’d like it to function. It’s been a bit of a struggle, but we’re working on it.

Ressa 4:53
I understand that the pivoting from physical to digital is not easy, but I, everyone’s starting to do some version of that. So I’m glad that you’re out there doing both on the channel. That is a good thing. But I’m sure the brick and mortar is the more profitable for you.

West 5:17
Well, it always has been. So you know, it’s been an interesting year. Even when we were down during the pandemic, though, and I was selling only online, it was still only two or 3% of what I normally do in a year or so. You know, that’s pretty telling. I’ve had a few false starts with the E comm. And it’s costly, to be honest with you.

Ressa 5:41
Yeah, I think I think that’s interesting to hear, because people think that it’s so much cheaper than the physical. But there is a cost. And you and I were talking, before we started this recording that the whole shipping aspect, if you have to give free shipping, it really crushes you. So it makes it really challenging to compete online. Is that fair to say?

West 6:07
Yeah, it is, it’s also challenging to get your get your brand out there, there’s so much, you know, noise in the industry right now. You know, and you have to think about the back end of it, I carry in my brick and mortar spaces, you know, at the height, I’ll carry between, you know, 7010 1000 items. So, in order to get those online, it takes a photographer, it takes a back end person, then you have to fulfill the other portion of it. People don’t think about for my business, I can’t just go to things square or a stripe, I have to have everything linked to my inventory, because I did get an awful lot of trouble when they weren’t linked. And we’re selling stuff online. And then the stores are open and just you know, the turnaround is too fast. If they’re not linked it it creates a disaster and losing customers. The last thing I want to do during you know, a countdown and

Ressa 7:05
that is for sure. It’s it’s interesting. You mentioned the getting the brand out there there are last I checked it somewhere around this, there were 1.8 million online stores in the US. And there were 464,000 brick and mortar stores. I find that interesting. Because my point is, it’s harder to get seen online than it is in person because it is so busy out there. And everyone is trying to open up an e commerce Store,

West 7:37
especially in apparel apparel, you know, with the pandemic apparel, there was a glut of apparel, the industry needed to dump goods and it just you know, it was it was it was a bit of a shitshow oops, I’m probably not allowed to say that.

Ressa 7:54
You’re you’re you’re all good. You know, we

West 7:56
really had to dump goods. It was not pretty. So yeah, it’s hard to get that the acquisition costs for that customer online is

Ressa 8:05
I say the customer acquisition cost is the new rent.

West 8:10
Exactly. Yeah, I think I remember you saying that. I love that.

Ressa 8:13
Tell us a little more bit more about the stores. So if I’d go into lifestyles, and union hall supplier Carolina mean, give us some brands that you carry so that the listener can get a little more familiar with the style.

West 8:26
So at lifestyle is one of my leading brands is Eileen Fisher, that’s probably the most well known brand. I do concentrate on small batch brands, I try to concentrate on items that are made in the USA, I try to concentrate on brands that are eco friendly, that are socially conscious I focus on, you know how everything is made, what it’s made of, I just try to you know, keep it as local as possible. If I can find a local brand, I’ll do that too. So I carry Eileen Fisher, I carry habitat, which I was just on with the owner of habitat this morning chatting about what’s happening in the industry. She’s out of Massachusetts, I carry a silver down which is a denim line out of Canada, Frank Lyman, which is also a Canadian line. The goal is to have well made clothes really kind of balanced that price point for my customer, that beyond what I actually sell. What I do is create an experience with my team. So someone can walk in my door. And whatever their needs are, we are going to take every moment to get to know them to do what they need to do to put together outfits and to send them out the door as happy as they possibly could be. So it’s more about the experience. We feel like we’re a big part of the community. We push out into the community a lot as well. But basically we We are a place where people will just come in to catch up and let us know what’s happening in their life as well. We are kind of a community hub. That’s what I that’s how I look at it.

Ressa 10:11
I love that I love how rooted you are in Saratoga Springs, the Saratoga Springs is a little bit of a tourist spot, is that a big part of your business?

West 10:22
You know, it used to be a lot more, but there has been a significant change. I’d even say in the last 10 years, last five years, you know, the population has grown, but we have a really strong combination of local people that, you know, swear by us, and then we do have an influx, you know, over the summer, most particularly, and then in the beginning of the year, we have a city center that puts on conferences, so that, you know, gets us through First Quarter normally, with a lot of conferences and business people in town now that’s kind of off the plate right now. But there’s a significant difference. Significant Difference first quarter before our city center came in and after it’s been a huge, you know, saver of many businesses, which kind of turn and burn that time of year. So

Ressa 11:13
yeah, that that that must be tough right now, given? There’s no conferences really happening in person. As an I assume the tour, did the the tourism drop? Or did they get this? Did you get the influx in the summer from all the New York City people?

West 11:30
No, we were way off. I mean, it was a huge, it was a huge hit. I want to say, you know, I want to off the top of my head, I think for the year, I want to say I was 47% down but you know the that September August, I want to say it was August, September was closer to 60%. I mean, it was it was significant. Now, people were not coming here.

Ressa 11:55
Wow. Can you give us context of dollar amounts? how successful the stores what is the what is an average year of lifestyles are Carolina and Maine do kind of in volume.

West 12:08
Lifestyles really is, you know, a multimillion dollar in sales, we do about eight or nine inventory turns a year, which is significant in my business. The other two are, you know, smaller players, just under a million a year.

Ressa 12:25
One of the things you mentioned before that that caught my attention was you have a focus on small batch brands. Is that to differentiate from a lot of the other apparel retailers out there?

West 12:41
Yes or No, I think we always focused on that. You know, I’m my goal is to find something you can’t find everywhere, to walk into my store and just be wowed. And even if it’s a small, small brand with only a few items, you know, that’s, you know, that’s what differentiates me from from all the other businesses. And that’s just been, you know, more driven home as the internet evolved. And everything’s online. You know, now that vendors will offer items that they, they say they will not actually sell online. So it’s it’s definitely changing the industry, which I think is fascinating, fascinating and exciting. But at the same time, a little nerve wracking. It’s a whole new world out there.

Ressa 13:27
I love that. Yeah, that is what I was getting out i, the retailers that can differentiate and have product that you can’t find elsewhere. They’re going especially those specialty retailers are going to succeed. I often use the line and people have heard me say it a ton on this podcast. The example I give is pampers and Pepsi, you can find that everywhere. And if you’re competing on Pampers and Pepsi, you’re going to be in a dogfight because it’s hard to make money on those commoditized brands. And they’re everywhere. So I love that you have small batch brands that are hard to find, and that can wow the customer. I think that’s fantastic.

West 14:01
And I do think one thing that a positive thing that has come out of the pandemic is the industry really has taken a step back. And we’ve been able to kind of work in a different fashion. And that’s one of the things that’s really evolved is that people aren’t willing vendors aren’t willing just to sell and put things on sale anymore like they used to be, which would be very difficult for us if I got a grouping and Eileen Fisher. It was immediately sale before I could even get it on my floor and that has kind of rolled back a bit in the industry and that I’m kind of excited about because it was becoming you know, we were teaching the customer just a week until things were so deeply discounted. That you know, nobody was able to make a profit.

Ressa 14:49
I totally understand. I recently had a podcast you should check it out with a guy named Simeon Siegel, who did a study in 2020. And his study was did COVID Save retail. And one of the punch lines that came out of the thesis of that was, it seemed to them that the American retail problem wasn’t a problem of oversaturation of stores, but an oversaturation of discounts. And the race to the bottom was the biggest problem and causing challenges for large scale retailers. And because of the inventory, shrinkage, or the inventory shortfall, I should say, with the supply chain issues, it gave retailers an opportunity to hold price because there was a shortage of product. And if retailers can maintain that discipline. Well, it may be it means the consumer have this consistent wait for the discounts to come.

West 16:00
Yeah, I do think the reset began years and years ago, if you follow retail, especially large box retailers, you you know that the reset started years ago, and this may be a nail in the coffin or it just the timing is now but this is not new.

Ressa 16:18
Totally makes sense. Speaking of the pandemic, not an easy time for retail, not an easy time for entrepreneurs, not an easy time for entrepreneurs in tourist towns like yourself. How did you survive this pandemic? What did Heidi and team do to get through to 2021?

West 16:43
Well, we’re still surviving. Let me just put that out there, I understand. But looking back, it was a big old roller coaster ride emotionally for me personally. There were many, many sleepless nights because you know, as an entrepreneur, you know, part of the excitement and joy of being that is trying to reinvent yourself, because things are always changing. And how am I going to think outside the box and there was always there was always a way and I just felt like the further we got into the pandemic, the tighter the box became to the point where I literally could barely turn to try and figure out what my next move was going to be. So we were willing to do anything and everything. I like to paint the picture for people we had. We were closed for maybe a couple of months, I was getting very desperate. I think I had laid off my team. So there was just a few of us here. We had our town decided to do a virtual sidewalk sale. And it was gonna launch the next morning so I had to have everything kind of online and ready to go was home at night late at night in my pajamas like any good entrepreneur would be kind of loading things up and sure enough here comes up a tornado which we never get knocks out all the power. Oh my god. So I literally got in my car it’s probably close to midnight drove down to the store because I knew they still had power and scuffled out thank God there was not a soul around scuffled into the store and literally spent the next couple hours photographing, trying to get everything up online and was I swear I was talking to myself, I was in tears. I’m like, You got to do what you got to do. And the whole thing did work out very well. And we needed that virtual sidewalk sale. It gave us just another you know, another day, another day forward. And that’s all kind of I was you know where my headset was, at that point willing to do anything.

Ressa 18:48
Wow, that is inspiring. That is a fighter Heidi, so kudos to you another day. So it was a roller coaster but you got through how’d you do holiday 2020

West 19:04
You know we did have a strong holiday. You know what it did not compare to a normal holiday. But the community at that point was out to save us I mean the messaging all of them everyone who reached out to me What can I do? What can I do? They really came out and supported the town locally. It was honestly I was on the floor a lot I was talking to people it felt it felt like a regular holiday you know part of the issue was not having the inventory that I normally would be so that’s gonna hurt you know, you know my profit but at least people were out and now you know, it’s a different story. It’s it’s quiet, it’s very quiet. So we just apply for and did get our second round of PPP funding which will take some of the pressure off so that I can keep my staff If all working for the next three months,

Ressa 20:03
well, what does the next six months look like? Do you have any plans to get to the the other side? Now? What? What have you learned? And where do you think you’re going next? Because I know it’s not easy, and no one has all the answers. If they did, we’d all be rich. I understand that. But what what’s what’s on your mind that you you need to do next to keep the keep it moving and get to the next day? So my

West 20:34
industry, obviously, we work way ahead of time. So I’ve already purchased all spring and summer inventory. I’m almost finished with late fall buying. So you know, looking at kind of how how I’m going to buy I think I overall I would say probably bought about 20% less, but then really lined up vendors to see who I could chase for goods if I need it, because I am confident that it will open up. You know, honestly, it’s retail, I live on hope. And I offer hope and if I don’t have that, but those were the moments that were tough last year, the moments when I when I lost hope so I don’t, not a lot of people know this. But in February, my son was diagnosed with cancer right before, right before the pandemic. So I had a couple things piled on top of that, and there were some moments where I lost hope not a lot of them. But then I, you know, figured out how to pull myself back up. So I love that word. And that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for a spring where things start to open up. By summer, I think that we will have, you know, our Taurus business, will it be completely back to normal? I don’t know. But I do know that people are tired of being in their homes. They’re tired of eating in their homes, they’re tired of shopping in their homes, they’re tired of everything they really want to be out and about and is it about buying, you know, a shirt now. It’s about being out in your community and experiencing you know, life again, with the people that you miss. And you know, a lot of them are anxious to come back in and catch up. We miss each other. You know,

Ressa 22:26
I do know, I had a woman on the podcast, and malam, She is the CEO of solid core, she owns 77 Pilates studios. And she said something profound, which is what you said people don’t want to work at home, eat at home, sleep at home, shop at home, workout at home and do everything at home. And I agree, I am one of them. I need to get out. I most of my day is calls and meetings virtually. I can tell you I take a bunch in my car, because I need to get out of my house. So I understand. On that note, how is your son doing?

West 23:12
He’s doing great. It’ll be a year. He has to go back every three months, but in a year as a significant time for a cancer patient. So we’re really excited about that. He’s doing great.

Ressa 23:25
Awesome. That’s great. Well, Heidi, listen, you are hope you are hope for the American entrepreneur so that keep pushing in all aspects of life. Keep pushing you are hope. We are going to take a quick break here. And now a word from one of our sponsors.

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West 25:32
Well, I 100% believe in location, location, location, location, location, so but I knew that there was a spot next to lifestyles and I was coveting coveting it for years. And I just, I believe a little bit in intention. So every day when I left and came into the store, I would say, Come to me, I want that space to be open. So I contacted the landlord, and he said, you know, we have a lease for the next whatever year, however many years I said when it’s available, do not put it on the market. I want it. So I waited. And I waited, and I waited. And sure enough, I got the call. And he said if you wanted it yours, and I did not hesitate.

Ressa 26:16
And that led to you having two stores in the market. And then you went even bolder, and you ended up and those stores are on opposite sides of the street. Is that right? Yes. And then you went even bolder, and you said, I’m continuing the Saratoga Springs domination and you opened up a third location, union Supply Company, union hall supply company. And where’s that in relation to the other two.

West 26:47
So that’s right across the street across Broadway. And that space again, stared at me that one sat vacant for a while. And it stared at me and stared at me and stared at me. And you know, I don’t tell this to a lot of people. But I went I was expanding. I really I almost purchased a store in a different town. I’ve looked in other towns and I was really hesitant. My gut was saying, Don’t do it. You don’t know that market. You don’t know that market, you know, this market, you know, the gaps like you know, the back of your hand, like stay here.

Ressa 27:27
And one day, you just decided, You know what, today’s the day where I want to start pursuing the site across the street.

West 27:37
The man store? Yeah, I mean, I, you know, one of my team members brought it to my attention. You know, we discussed it, I kind of chewed it over, I investigated a little bit. And there was another men’s store down the street. They were building a new building. So they were going to be gone for three to five years. And that was the only other game in town I said, Well, now’s a good time to give it a try. And in fact, I don’t think they’re coming back now that the pandemic has hit, I think they’re gonna stay where they’re at, which is not downtown. So kind of worked out perfectly.

Ressa 28:15
Good for you. Are you the only you’re the only men’s store in town now,

West 28:20
I mean, only independently on men’s store. There. There is another chain and then there are a couple of chains but no Banana Republic, sorry, they’re gone. The gap, I would say is the only other men’s store there might be another another women’s store that dabbles in it but I tried that initially and what I found was that the guys really wanted their own space. So I put a little sampling bar I have a lounge in the back where we’re always playing you know, either sports or surfing or something. So it really is kind of a nice situation guys will come in there just to say hi and see what’s on tap and give it a try and then you know get once you get to know them they trust you and you can offer them clothing

Ressa 29:08
where either of these stores that you opened Carolina main or union hall supply company. Was it tough negotiations with the landlord? Were they delighted to have you did they try to really push you around? How was that process?

West 29:27
You know, there’s not a lot of wiggle room with you want the best spaces in town. You don’t have a lot of a lot of negotiations to discuss. I mean, that’s the reality. There’s a line a mile long behind you here.

Ressa 29:43
Got it. So you were pretty adamant that those are the locations you knew they were in demand, and you weren’t gonna let them go. So you made it happen.

West 29:52
I mean, I did what I could, you know, I when I take over a space, I do a beautiful build out I add to any Space and I’ve made both spaces just stunning. So I work, you know, the landlords, you know, they like that. That’s, that’s, that’s good. So I work with that as I try to open. And you know, in when you first open you, you have a little more wiggle room and you’re not, you know, you’re not bringing in any sales yet. So I work as hard as I can, but it’s a line of mile long for the best space in a town like mine.

Ressa 30:29
You mentioned that you, you did a lot to enhance the interior fit out of the space. What type of investment do I had? Did you have to put into either these spaces?

West 30:42
So I am lucky because my husband owns a restoration business. Okay. raishin. So he, I do get a cut on the deal, or a little bit of a deal. But you know, I would say, Carolina in Maine, close to 40,000. I put in a beautiful, a beautiful new wood floor, dressing rooms, I inherited brown carpets and you know, torn down builtins it was it was dark, I needed all new lighting. I did everything.

Ressa 31:18
What was the former tenant?

West 31:20
They were it was a paper store. But before that, I think it was a music store. It just had not been updated in in many, many years.

Ressa 31:29
Understood, but the bones were good. The bones were good. The bones

West 31:33
were great high ceilings, 10 ceilings, you know, white walls. Now I have a you know, a beautiful herringbone grey wooden floor in there. It’s kind of beachy it beautiful with tile on the front. So yeah, I think it makes a big difference.

Ressa 31:49
Totally. I will tell you this. You could give some education to entrepreneurs around the country, because I’m hearing build outs that are a lot more than that to get them looking great. And I think you probably given it’s a historic building. My guess is you probably left a little bit of the character in the building. You have your enhancements, but there’s also some character that had the high ceilings and all that to really make it an awesome look and feel.

West 32:21
Yeah, I mean, again, I do have, I do have somebody who’s pretty talented at my fingertips, but always last on the list just that happens at night.

Ressa 32:32
And it happens at night. I understand. I understand. Well, listen, this has been great. Like I said before, Heidi, you are hope keep grinding, I have no doubt you’re going to make it through this tough time we’re in. So I know it’s not easy, but keep pushing along. Glad you got the second round of PPP, and keep innovating. And I don’t think the the midnight photography is going to end and things like that anytime soon. But there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.

West 33:06
Well, thank you. Thanks for having me on. I love to talk about retail. So I appreciate it.

Ressa 33:12
No doubt. Well, I’m gonna take to the last part of the show. I’ve got three fun questions for you. Are you ready? Oh, yes, I am. All right. Question one, what extinct retailer Do you wish would come back from the dead?

West 33:25
So I had to think about this long and hard. I knew this was coming. But I really miss the high end department store the Lord and Taylor down out of New York City. I missed that really special retail moment where you could walk through the doors and walk into a whole nother world. It was calm, it was beautiful. There were items there that you’d never see anywhere else. The staff was fabulous. The music the sense that’s been gone for a very long time. I grew up in the 80s in New York City that was where I cut my teeth as a fashionista and I would spend hours in those stores and I really missed them.

Ressa 34:08
Wow, no one said that yet. And I know the store and I agree. All right, question two and I know this one was a surprise for you. But what is the last product north of $20 that you purchased in a store?

West 34:26
I purchased a cabinet because I just remodeled my offices and I needed to a new cabinet a little fun one for my office. So not so exciting. But

Ressa 34:38
where did you purchase it?

West 34:41
Oh, dear, I purchased it at this is not good. But I purchased at at home goods.

Ressa 34:47
It’s great. Okay, that’s great. That’s great. All right. Last question. Heidi, if you and I were shopping at Target, and I lost you what aisle would I find you in

West 35:00
100% You’d find me in the home goods Bath and Body aisle to buying towels. I don’t know why, but just I can never find the perfect towel. Okay, I’m on the hunt.

Ressa 35:11
My My house is on the hunt as well. I totally get that literally the conversation we had this morning my wife and I that she said we have to find new towels. So I understand completely. Love it. Well, listen, this has been great. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I for anyone out there. Please check out Carolina main lifestyles of Saratoga and union hall supply company. And thank you for coming on.

West 35:45
Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed the time speaking with you made my day

Ressa 35:50
mine as well. Thank you for listening to retail retold. If you want to share a story about a retail real estate deal that you were a part of on our show. Please reach out to us at retail retold at DLC This show highlights the stories behind the deals from all perspectives. So it doesn’t matter if you are a retailer, broker, entrepreneur, architect or an attorney. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to retail retold so you don’t miss out on next Thursday’s episode

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