The Right Stuff

Two sisters craft their own brand of retail success in Kansas City.
by : 

Maggie Feeney

April 1, 2014

How do you sum up a store customers rave about for its creative, quirky, amusing, fresh, unique, irresistible, one-of-a-kind gifts? In a word: STUFF. Hailed as “a jewel in Kansas City’s retail crown,” STUFF is known as much for its helpful and knowledgeable staff as for its amazing array of mostly artist-made goods. At the heart of it all are sisters Sloane and Casey Simmons, the dynamic, entrepreneurial duo who have nurtured the evolution of a store named STUFF.

Maggie: You opened your store in 1996. What did you do before STUFF?
Casey: Sloane and I were both political consultants with offices in an area in Kansas City that attracted a lot of creative artists. The offices were loft spaces that had been converted, and we had these giant, empty, white walls. Artists started saying to us, “Hey, if you ever want something to put on all those walls, let us know.” So, we started hosting these one-person art shows.

Maggie: How did that experience transition into owning a store?
Sloane: We really liked the shows we did with the artists, so when we decided to leave our careers as political consultants we thought, why don’t we just open a store and have art shows, kind of thematically throughout the year, and invite people to come? They’ll be kind of fun, and we won’t have to be there every day (laughs). Well, that lasted all of 15 minutes! We opened our store in November 1996, and by the first of December, we were there every day.

In addition to the art shows, our customers wanted more—like candles and cards. So, we’ve always just had organic growth in the way we moved forward.

Maggie: How has your store evolved since the early days?
Sloane: Our store is nothing like it was when we started in 1996. There was no set-in-stone, on-paper business plan; there was only ever a plan to grow.

Casey: We always tell people we started this business by accident, and that’s actually very true. We kept thinking of it as kind of an experiment, and then all of a sudden, we realized, wow, we’ve been doing this a while—it’s probably technically a career! What we wanted, subconsciously in the beginning and now very consciously, is for our store to evolve. What we didn’t want was a store that looked the same every day, every week, every month, every year. We thrive on new discoveries, and our longevity comes from the signature style we’ve developed. That is consistent, but as far as anything else, it’s very unpredictable.

Maggie: How would you describe your signature style?
Casey: It’s called the “STUFF style.” What it is is eclectic, creative. We’re always experimenting with materials and ideas and displays and what we sell. We also try to create a conversation, somehow, visually. What we try to do with our window displays and our displays inside the store is very much about sharing an idea and wanting a response, being over-the-top creative, catching people’s attention, and encouraging them to think and be creative in their own minds and their own life. I guess that’s what the signature style is: bold, unique, and inspiring.

Sloane: What makes that happen for the customer is we display a 360-degree experience inside the walls of the store. We decorate the ceiling, the walls, the floor. You are truly immersed in a really good feeling.

Maggie: Have you always been in your current location?
Sloane: No, we were in our first location six months. It was a destination retail store, meaning you had to want to come see us—there was nothing else in the neighborhood. That lasted six months. Then we moved to a more urban setting for about five years. We moved to where we are now about 12 years ago. Each time we moved we grew a little bit.

Maggie: How many square feet does your store occupy?
Casey: About 1,800 square feet of retail space, but I call it 2,000 because we use the ceiling and the floor (laughs). We do have a lower level, but we don’t retail out of it. We need it for staging, and we do seminars and classes and things like that.

Maggie: Take us on a stroll through your store. What do customers see when they first walk in the door?
Casey: The thing to know about STUFF is it’s an explosion of color and inspiration, five feet out the door, even. We kind of spill out into the street. Our display windows are very well known for being artistic and challenging and different than what you’d expect in a more regular retail setting. As you enter the store, it’s very, very colorful. We merchandise floor to ceiling and all parts in between. Every little square inch, every surface, everything you’re around, you’re surrounded immediately by handmade goods and art.

On the walls are beautiful, original fine art paintings surrounded by three-dimensional wall art—ceramic sculpture, pottery sculpture, metal sculpture, little plaque paintings, mosaic wall art. On the ceiling are interesting lighting fixtures and hanging sculptures. On the floor are colorful rugs. In between are tables, benches, old mail sorters and beat-up cabinets, and newer things all mixed together.

We have reproduced goods, too, letterpress and things like that, and a few of what we call “creative gift items we can’t resist.” We have stationery and notepads and fun gifts and little zipper purses. We do dishware. We do candles, bath, and body, all handmade in our hometown. It’s all mixed together. We have a section on the wall full of Frye boots next to leather handbags made in the U.S. by small mom-and-pop companies. We have a kids’ section, too. It just goes on and on and on. And then we have our pièce de résistance: a 40-foot jewelry counter constructed out of vintage and antique jewelry cases we’ve collected over the years. We represent and show a huge collection of artist-made jewelry; it’s one of our most popular areas in the store.

Lots to read, lots to look at, lots to touch. We want people to interact, and we make everything accessible so they can touch and feel the texture and enjoy the beauty of the art in their hand. To hold something handmade is just a different experience than picking up something mass produced off the shelf.

Maggie: Of all the products you carry, why do you think jewelry is so popular?
Sloane: Jewelry is wearable art, and a majority of the jewelry we sell is one-of-a-kind. People love to give jewelry because it’s personal and can be a lasting gift.

Maggie: Who are some of your favorite wholesale vendors in your category of “creative gift items you can’t resist”?
Sloane: Alchemy Goods, Curly Girl, Badge Bomb, Thimblepress, and One Canoe Two are a few we love.

Maggie: Beyond your artful merchandising, what else goes into your recipe for success?
Casey: We provide a shopping experience, and we think our staff is the most outstanding in retail. They are energetic, friendly, and nice, but the key point is they are knowledgeable and also have a passion for the art.

Maggie: How many employees do you have?
Sloane: We have three full-time employees, and that includes Casey and me. The number of part-time staff vacillates—it can be anywhere from five people to 12, depending on the needs of the business and the time of the year. Sometimes at holidays we will have a more seasonal employee, but there’s so much to learn when you have this many artistic sources. We’re really playing with how to make the full STUFF experience continue when you’re just the person carrying out the trash or building the boxes when it’s really busy.

Maggie: How do you train your staff to deliver your STUFF experience?
Casey: Sloane and I love to know a lot of information, and we love to share that information. So, I think the secret ingredient in our formula is we over-share dramatically with our staff until they absorb it, until they feel completely full. If you hire the right people, people who are curious, kind, open-minded, genuinely interested, and who have the right personality, the rest is just sharing knowledge endlessly.

It’s a really tiring process to be the trainer, because you have to sort of pour everything out of you into them. There are times when it would be easier for us to do a task or answer a question, but we spend a lot of time having them do it, watching them struggle, and knowing it is an investment that will pay off. It takes at least six to 12 months to fully train even a part-time employee at our store. It’s a huge commitment.

Maggie: Have you found your training program to be worth all the time and effort you put into it?
Sloane: I think it’s worth it because, ultimately, we are not cashiers. We are a knowledgeable sales team together. We don’t train people to just ring up a sale. We train people to be knowledgeable helpers to the customers who come in, and that’s just a different ball of wax.

Casey: Sloane and I always say one of the greatest ironies is we opened a store named STUFF, and we’re actually about people, not product. It’s about the artist who made it, our employees who learn everything about it and share that with the customer, the customer who falls in love with it and buys it for themselves and maybe for someone else, and they pay that story forward. That’s really a process about people. We really focus on the people element in all aspects of our business—it just happens to be a store called STUFF.

Maggie: How did you come up with the name “STUFF”?
Sloane: We lamented over the idea of naming the store for probably several weeks. I think, honestly, we got fed up with the entire process and said, “Let’s just call it STUFF!”

Casey: It was our resistance to being boxed in that pushed us into the name “STUFF.” We really didn’t know what exactly we were going to be doing and for how long, and we wanted to have the freedom for it to become whatever it needed to become. If we had put professional marketers in here, they’d probably spend six months arguing over what to call it, and it would probably end up being called “Things” or something!

Sloane: Since then and through that, we have built a lifestyle brand called “Pursue Good Stuff.” We are constantly designing and evolving different products with the idea that you can live your life pursuing good stuff. If you pursue good food, you feel good. If you pursue good art, you feel good. The “Pursue Good Stuff” brand was born from STUFF itself. STUFF is the mothership.

Maggie: Let’s switch gears. Do you offer events in your store?
Sloane: Yes, we offer many different types of events. We have featured artist talks and artist demonstrations throughout the year designed to put the customer directly in touch with the artist while they’re here. We are also part of the events happening in our historic neighborhood: the Brookside Art Fair, some parades, other different things. We have our own, special yearly and seasonal events like our holiday open house. Several years ago, we started having charity fundraisers, special shopping nights in the evening in the store. Those are a big part of our fourth quarter; in 2013, we had almost 30 of them. The fundraisers are very important to us. They are about growing community, and we think it’s an important part of the total STUFF experience.

Maggie: How many artists and other vendors do you carry?
Sloane: It fluctuates throughout the year, but we have about 300 total artistic sources, with 60 being local artists. We have local artists, national artists, mom-and-pop companies, and other artistically sourced items from bigger companies that work directly with handcrafted artists.

Maggie: Do you have any advice for traditional retailers who want an element of handcrafted, artist-made goods in their store?
Casey: I would suggest they go to handcraft markets at some of the bigger shows and shows that are dedicated just to handcrafted goods—places where artists are already prepared to work with retailers. They already see themselves in a wholesale role, so you are not burdened with having to educate them about the industry just to do a little bit of business with them.

Artists take a lot of time, and they’re a unique bunch of people. Because we deal with so many of them—70 percent of our product is artist-made—that’s where our time is already invested. But if you don’t have the POS system that can handle it—ours was custom made for us—it could be a drain on the rest of your business. A lot of artists now have educated themselves on how to be in a wholesale role, and those relationships work successfully because you’re working inside a business practice you're used to. Go with a business practice that is tried and true for you and put handcraft into that.

Maggie: What advertising avenues have you found most effective?
Casey: Nowadays, you’ve got traditional print, radio, and television advertising, you have your own email list, you have social media, and you can buy online advertising. We see our advertising as simultaneous, cross-platform advertising, so Facebook would be a platform, our email blasts would be a platform, a radio buy would be a platform. When we decide to promote something, we decide which platforms to go with, and then we use the same messages and images on multiple platforms at the same time. Some promotions may have three platforms, some could have seven. It depends on what we’re doing, but we don’t do anything anymore that is not on multiple platforms.

Maggie: What have you found to be the key to marketing effectively?
Sloane: You must stay true to your brand. If you try to be too many things to too many people, you will fail. Be what you are, tell that story constantly, and new people will find you.

Casey: You have to know who you are as a business. You need to be able to do the networking speech. If someone reached out and shook your hand and said, “What do you do?” you should be able to answer that in a quick paragraph. Once you have that brand started, you can experiment with marketing platforms, but you shouldn’t be still experimenting with your brand.

Maggie: What do you think about the use of tablets, QR codes, and so on in stores? Have you integrated any of that into your store?
Sloane: People come to STUFF to be inspired to work with their hands. They embrace the creativity in the store. That said, we utilize a tablet for our staff and customers to look at several lines we carry in the store but might not have the full selection on hand. We have a few QR codes around the store, too, but it’s mostly to send them to our website to sign up for the mailing list or to access our Facebook page.

Maggie: After being in business 17 years, is there anything you would have done differently?
Sloane: Off the top of my head, what I wish we had done differently is bought the building. We’re still trying, I can’t say that we’re not, but hindsight’s 20-20.

Casey: If I was going to do something differently, I would have spent more company dollars on professionals when needed. A couple thousand dollars spent on a lease negotiator could have saved us an amazing amount of money and grief and misunderstanding and stress in the beginning. That would have been money well spent.

If your gut tells you you need to spend a little money on the professionals you need to have for a successful business, do it. Whether it’s to better understand human resources, leases, or contracts; whether that’s a tax attorney, a branding expert, or a trademark person—whatever it may be along the way.

Maggie: What’s in the future for your store and for you both?
Casey: We want to have this wonderful brick-and-mortar store continue to grow and evolve and do what it’s going to do. We are also going to start more aggressively developing the “Pursue Good STUFF” lifestyle brand and commit more time to offering consulting, public speaking, and seminars. We’ve done this a little bit more each year for three or four years now. If we can get in a room with 50 retailers and five of them pick up a tidbit that saves them $40,000 over five years, we’ve helped them in a massive way, right?

Maggie: Do you have a final piece of advice for our readers, something you’ve found particularly helpful in finding lasting success as a retailer?
Casey: I think you have to get outside of your business to get back in it healthy. We’re open 358 days a year, and it’s very hard to get out of the store and go to seminars, but I’ve never been to one where I didn’t learn something, even if it was a bad seminar. We force ourselves to go because every time we do, we come back better business owners. And remember, you’re a professional retailer. This does not mean you are a lawyer, a lease negotiator, an advertising executive. What it means is you’re supposed to be really, really good at your job and then trust people.

Maggie Feeney is Editor in Chief of Retailing Insight.