Secret to success, ‘start out small and put in the hours’
By BETH ALTENA
Kimberly’s Boutique is one of Rockford’s cornerstone businesses, serving customers for over two decades since the doors first opened in June of 1993. Evolving to meet the changing needs of customers and the retail environment is a key for a successful business, but more than that, a genuine appreciation of personal interaction is essential for any retail shop that makes a living serving customers.
Long-time employee Jane George said Kimberly Smith’s easy and open personality toward customers is a hallmark of Kimberly’s and is as much responsible for the loyal customer base as Kim’s eye and talent in choosing clothing, jewelry and accessories. Her attitude is reflected in her staff.
“There is so much more to retail than standing behind a counter and writing up orders,” said George. “You have to be a people person, friendly and genuinely care about your customers. You talk to people and over time really come to know them. You know about their grandkids, you know where they live, what is going on in their lives.”
Kimberly’s mother said that as a little girl, Kimberly didn’t play house or dolls, she played retail. She liked to go through magazines and catalogues and cut out different outfits and accessories and pair them together. As an adult she does much the same, going on buying trips for the shop and going over orders with vendors.
“It is a lot of work keeping the store new and exciting,” she said of the bright displays and ever-changing line of clothing and jewelry in the shop. Repeat clients know they will never walk into the same Kimberly’s twice as inventory is constantly changing to reflect seasons and new styles.
The store itself has changed drastically since Kimberly took the plunge into owning her own business twenty years ago. She opened her doors as Wrap It Up, a paper products shop located in the lower level of J.T. Stitchery and Frame Shop on Bridge Street.
From the get-go she recognized the importance of keeping on top and ahead of the status quo. “I was the first to carry the White Caps lines of merchandise,” she said. The store sold gift wrapping, ribbons, some craft items in addition to the White Caps products. It was a good fit with downtown Rockford, and after awhile she was able to move “above ground” to the former train depot building across the roadway from Arnie’s.
She began carrying sterling silver while at her second location, a transition that was easy because she had a background selling fine jewelry and knew the business. After a year and a half in the depot building she met Floyd Havemeier, then of the Melting Pot. Kim said he then owned the building rented by Blakeslee Plumbing that was recently occupied by Rudi Kazudy across from Grand Cakes on Bridge Street. She became a tenant of Havemeier’s and was doing well.
“Then the dollar stores came along and I had to change gears,” Kim explained. Not able to compete in the paper goods business, Kimberly switched to apparel, and continued to build her business in a new space owned by Havemeier on Courtland Street where Aunt Candy’s Toy Company is now located. She took over the space that had been occupied by the Irishman’s Corner and the Olive Branch. The Melting Pot shared the building.
“When Floyd had to expand, he made plans to build this building,” Kimberly described. Old timers may remember when you could drive through the alley between The Candleshop and the building to the east. When Kimberly’s current location went up, the alley and five parking spaces became a new retail location, 54 Courtland Street.
“He knew I was going into this so he let me have some input on the design,” Kim described. When Floyd outgrew even his larger location across the street he bought a farmhouse on Old Northland and planned expanding The Herman’s Boy Coffee Ranch in the space.
“When Floyd moved, Gary (Kim’s husband) and I had the opportunity to buy it,” she said. She called the transition from renter to landlord “scary but refreshing” and said it is a good feeling to be making mortgage payments rather than rent installments.
It has also been a challenge to find new businesses to fill vacancies in the retail spaces in her building over the past ten years since she purchased it. Kimberly has
expanded her own shop into a space attached to her original footage. Last October, she took over the retail space that faces the parking lot outside her back door to Kimberly’s, opening a variety store, the Squires Street Mercantile.
George ? has been with Kimberly’s since 2002 so has had plenty of time to observe her co-worker and boss. She said Kim is nothing if not ever enthusiastic about the store, her inventory and customers. She is also a good boss who knew from day one that George needs Friday evenings off to watch Rockford football.
“Kim has really taken me under her wing,” George commented. Going along on buying trips, helping choose from the latest lines offered by vendors, George has been learning the business and is so good she managed the store when Kim took a long and much deserved anniversary vacation this spring.
Choosing what to buy is a top priority, and George said it isn’t as easy as people might think. “You have to know the latest colors and the latest trends. You have to make sure you aren’t duplicating what you are already buying,” George said. “You have to look for the “wow!” factor.”
George also praised Kimberly’s loyalty to her staff. In addition to recognizing the importance of Ram football in George’s life, Kim never forgets a birthday or anniversary. She takes the team out each year for a holiday celebration dinner and makes sure each person has a present to know they are appreciated. “She makes us feel important,” George said.
Sally Murphy is Kimberly’s oldest employee in all respects, she said of herself. She has been with Kim twelve years and, like George, admires her boss. “You can’t work with someone twelve years and not know them. I know Kim and I know her care and concern for her customers.”
Murphy said she also admires Kim’s integrity. “If something doesn’t fit a customer right, she will tell them. She won’t tell them it looks good on them if it doesn’t just to make a sale.” Murphy also noted that in twelve years, she has yet to meet a woman who is happy with her body.
She said Kim’s gift is knowing what to buy. “She shops for the store and for her customers, she doesn’t shop for herself.” Murphy said customers love the lines Kim has chosen, and want to know when a new order is coming for the season.
Surprisingly, Kimberly said it is the costume jewelry, even more than the large selection of accessories and apparel, that are her strongest sellers.
“You can have an outfit and totally change it with jewelry,” explained George. “Maybe you can’t afford a new outfit, but you can afford new jewelry.”
Among her apparel, Kimberly noted that adding Vera Bradley to her offerings has brought in many new customers, often younger ones. Beads and charms are also something that “took off” five or ten years ago and continue to sell steadily.
Rockford has been a great location for Kimberly in business, and she said she is always surprised when a new customer walks in and says they are from Rockford, but haven’t shopped downtown. “They are really missing out, every shop is unique and different, there is so much to find down here,” Kim said. She has many people who visit from out of state to see family and have Kimberly’s is on their must do list while in Michigan.
Kim and George both say they enjoy the camaraderie of the downtown business merchants. “You do get close to the other merchants,” Kim said. “Everyone works well together. When someone has to close their doors we all feel terrible.”
Kim said too many people go into business thinking they will hire others to do the work, and that is a mistake. “Start out small and plan to put in the hours,” she advised anyone thinking of opening a shop of their own. “You can’t just own a business and be successful, you have to love people.”
Over the years the store has seen some exciting times, including three times being hit by cars and a bomb threat that caused the street to be evacuated. The crashes were inexplicable, a young girl who crashed into the store for no apparent reason and an elderly woman who was backing out after a visit to the Post Office across the street. She kept on backing up right into Kim’s shop. The bomb threat turned out to be a prank, but it was exciting watching the Michigan State Police Bomb Squad robot remove the suspicious package.
“What is not to love about Rockford,” enthused George. In addition to the best football in the world at Rockford, the schools are terrific and downtown has lovely views, the river, the dam, parks, trails and, of course, the shops.
“Rockford wouldn’t be what it is without the downtown merchants,” George pointed out. “We bring in the carriages at the holidays, we are the wrapping and the bow on downtown. This is a beautiful place for families. They come in to be by the dam, to eat or get ice cream, we are part of all of that. You don’t get that in a mall.”
Kim said her biggest piece of advice is to treat your customers right and they will do right by you, too. “We try to welcome every single person who comes in our door. They could go anywhere to shop and they choose to come here. We wouldn’t be here without our customers.”