Moments in the Sun

The owners of Elysian Fields, 2011 COVR Visionary Retailer of the Year, talk success secrets, tough economic choices, and the future of conscious retailing.
by : 

Janine DePaulo

October 1, 2012
Moments in the Sun

This year a beautiful store in sunny Sarasota, Fla., called Elysian Fields Books and Gifts for Conscious Living celebrates two milestones: 20 years in business and being selected as the Retailer of the Year by the Coalition of Visionary Resources (COVR). Both achievements are the result of an extraordinary partnership between the two owners, Lea Semple and Kim Perkins (yes, the same Kim Perkins of Shop Talk fame).

While I already knew a bit about their store (New Age Retailer profiled Elysian Fields in the Trade Show 2009 issue; to read that article, visit www.newageretailer.com), I wanted to learn more in light of this year’s events. So, in a recent conversation with Semple and Perkins, I asked them to share their thoughts about their longevity, adapting to the changing economy, and the future of the body-mind-spirit industry.

Janine DePaulo: Your store, Elysian Fields, was chosen as the COVR Retailer of the Year for 2011. What does it mean to you to have your business acknowledged in this way?

Kim Perkins: I love it! And it means a great deal because it is the vendors that voted for us. It makes my heart feel good, and I am grateful to all of them.

Lea Semple: When we opened in 1991, we agreed we would not work with vendors who were difficult or unpleasant, even if their products were good sellers. We were striving to do business with integrity and goodwill, and hoped that our vendors would enjoy working with us as much as we enjoyed working with them. It is very meaningful to be recognized by those vendors with whom we have developed such great relationships over the past 20 years. I am very honored and grateful!

DePaulo: If you had to name one thing that has most helped your store succeed when many others don’t, what would it be? And how would you recommend other store owners find their own “secret of success”?

Perkins: In the big picture I would answer, “Doing business in a conscious way.” It all flows from there. That sets the tone for being ethical, honest, and loving with customers, vendors, employees, and all the peripheral people that make our store run. I think the biggest secret of our success has been our partnership and friendship. I get to go to work every day with not only my best friend, but someone whose taste, style, manner, and talent amaze and delight me.

Semple: Sticking to our vision and our high standards of excellence has contributed to our staying power. Even when times got tough and our inventory was downsized, the store maintained its integrity. Our staffing is consistently wonderful, and the store always looks beautiful, full, clean, and organized. The product selection also always remains a dependable mix of unique, quality items. People love how they feel when they come into the store—that never changes.

DePaulo: As you know, the economy has been rocky for the last few years. What kinds of strategic changes, specifically, have you made in your store in response to the tougher economic conditions? Which changes have been most successful? What changes (if any) did you try but were not effective?

Perkins: One thing we did, reluctantly, was to reduce the size of our space and give up our classroom. This was really tough for me because the educational aspect of the business has always been a priority; plus, I loved teaching classes. However, our revenue from events did not cover the cost of the space. Although our customers professed to want classes, only a small percentage actually attended. Some classes were very successful, but not enough to warrant keeping the space at lease renewal time.

Probably most successful has been our customer loyalty program, which we call the Gratitude Club. We started it in June 2008 to encourage sales when we were feeling the economic downturn in a big way. When a customer’s gift purchases reach $250, they are eligible for a $10 gift certificate to use on their next order. Thanks to our newsletter and our staff promoting the club, over 4,000 customers have earned at least one $10 certificate (and some have received many). It is the rare day that we do not have at least a few certificates redeemed, and this has created a great deal of customer loyalty.

Semple: We also took a 10% across-the-board pay cut, 2% of which we were able to give back this year. We reduced our inventory overall by analyzing sales and making cuts based on that information. Cutting the book inventory was very hard for me personally, as the buyer. I was very proud of the depth I had created, and it hurt to see it get so thin, but it had to be done. We also found ways to reduce costs in printing, utilities, and insurance. And of course, Kim worked her magic renegotiating contracts and advertising costs; that helped a lot.

DePaulo: Having a consistent look and feel to your store in terms of merchandise displays, marketing materials, and general brand identity seems to be a key element of Elysian Fields’ appeal. For other store owners who want to create a similarly cohesive impression in their own businesses, what advice would you offer? How do you stay true to your brand identity while still keeping things fresh and exciting for customers?

Perkins: I can answer this in one word: Lea. She not only designed the brand, but she is vigilant in making sure all ads, logos, signs, promotional and printed materials, down to the tiniest tag reflect the “look” of Elysian Fields.

Semple: Unless you have proven talent and experience with graphic art, store design, and retail planning and merchandising, my advice is to hire a professional. This is not a “do it yourself” job unless you really know what you are doing. It will be well worth the expense in the end.

It’s easy for us to stay true to our identity because I am the person who buys the merchandise, displays it, and designs everything in the store. However, even if I had other people I was supervising, I would still have to approve everything and make sure it was in line with the look of the store. Too many cooks doing their own thing can definitely spoil the broth.

DePaulo: With the changes happening in our world as a result of technology, the economy, and other factors, what do you see as the future of conscious-living retailing? Are you optimistic about the industry—do you see it as a growth market? Or do you think it will continue to be challenging and require creative adaptation to keep up with the evolving landscape?

Perkins: Every day, all over the globe, people are waking up to who they are. And many of those people are searching for spiritual guidance. I see our customers as a growing market. Much has changed over 20 years, and what was considered “New Age” back then is now very mainstream. Yet, each day there is another wave of seekers. Our job is not to provide them with our beliefs, but to offer a smorgasbord of possibilities for them to find their own path. With that mission in mind, I think our industry may still be in its infancy.

Semple: I agree. New and old customers will continue to seek information and personal attention. Being able to provide that service is how we will always set ourselves apart. Our staff is intelligent, knowledgeable, caring, and can answer questions on a wide range of subjects. That is where our industry can excel. We really care about what we are doing and the information we are offering. That’s a new shopping experience for many customers, and they keep coming back!

Janine DePaulo, former managing editor of Retailing Insight.