Coming Up Roses

A destination boutique charts success in the Pacific Northwest.
by : 

Maggie Feeney

August 1, 2014
Coming Up Roses

You can’t be in two places at once, so the saying goes. Fortunately for Pacific Northwest shoppers, Compass Rose doesn’t take stock in that motto. After 14 profitable years in Olympia, Wash., they set their sights on expanding, opening a second store in Tacoma in 2013. Their secret to success? The creative, energetic managers who keep the business on course for store owner Paul Shepherd. Retailing Insight recently sat down with Liz Van Dyke, manager of their blossoming Tacoma store, to learn more about what sets them apart.

Maggie Feeney: The original Compass Rose opened in Olympia in 1999 and the store you manage opened in Tacoma in 2013. What was the inspiration for opening the second store?

Liz Van Dyke: Paul’s a unique boss who really supports the personal development of his employees. I had been working for him in Olympia for almost seven years and managing the store when Alana Carr, our Olympia store manager, was hired. She was just a natural and rose to the occasion of wanting to buy and merchandise. Paul had this scenario where he had two really capable people who were management material. His response after a lot of prodding was to open a second store.

Feeney: That’s an amazing reason for opening a second store!

Van Dyke: Unreal! I mean, where does that ever happen? We wouldn’t have been able to expand into Tacoma if we hadn’t been successful in Olympia. When I started managing there, we were growing 15 to 25 percent a year. Looking at the time period—I started in 2009—that’s not when that was happening to anyone.

Feeney: How did you choose the location of your second store?

Van Dyke: We heard a lot of our customers saying they lived as far as an hour north of Olympia, and a few in particular told us we should open a store in Tacoma. Paul and I drove to Tacoma and found the Proctor District. We just thought it was a great fit. It’s a nice big space—this is 3,800 square feet and Olympia is 3,000 square feet—and it’s walkable and there’s parking in back. It’s a dream come true. This area of Tacoma is a hidden gem.

Feeney: What’s the story behind the name “Compass Rose”?

Van Dyke: A compass rose is the symbol people refer to on maps to orient themselves north, south, east, and west. The name “Compass Rose” comes from Paul’s love of travel and adventure. I like to think the name offers a little hint of the world of interesting things to discover within our walls. Often people come in looking for a specific thing, much like traveling to a specific destination. Others come in on a little shopping adventure, wandering without a specific destination in mind. Our staff gets to help them through the adventure of discovering what they need, and we usually have a blast!

Feeney: So what would you say is the biggest draw for people to shop at Compass Rose?

Van Dyke: Compass Rose is this interesting place where you can find the perfect gift for anyone, really. Our tagline is “Fresh, local, and always in season,” and I think it really aptly describes the store. We bring in a lot of merchandise—more than 350 lines in the nine months we’ve been open. We touch on as much as we can, and we move it around a lot. People notice that and really appreciate it, minus the initial grumble of “Where’s my candle line that you keep moving around?” We show them, and they discover other stuff on their way to finding it.

Feeney: Where do you source the many wonderful products you carry?

Van Dyke: We work with reps, so we get a lot of stuff there, and we go to shows. We just reach our fingers out in every way possible.

Feeney: Which are your favorite shows?

Van Dyke: We like New York (www.nynow.com). It’s really good for us. We like the San Francisco Gift Show (www.sfigf.com) a lot, too; the Mary Hada showroom (www.maryhada.com) is where we get as much as we can. Alana and I go together to the shows; it’s great to have more than one buyer there to bounce ideas off of.

Feeney: Are you looking for certain aspects in your product mix, such as Fair Trade or green gifts?

Van Dyke: Things that are Fair Trade are a plus, things that are green are a plus, things that are made in the USA are a plus. With our jewelry lines, I really like to be able to say we have met the people who make it, because I think that helps explain the price to people. When they ask why a piece is expensive, we can say, “Well, this is handmade here in the United States,” and tell them the story about that piece. We buy what we’re attracted to, but we do try to ask questions about how and where things are manufactured. When push comes to shove, it’s really what we think will do well.

Feeney: What would you say are your top sellers?

Van Dyke: What’s cool here is we have a point-of-sale system—we don’t have that in Olympia—so I can look and see exactly what’s selling. Kitchen is really strong for us here. Baby is really strong for us. Accessories has been a growing category—it’s something we’ve realized you don’t have to be a clothing store to get into.

Feeney: What point-of-sale system do you use?

Van Dyke: We are using Lightspeed Cloud. They’re based out of Olympia, and we really liked that. They were right up the street and customers of ours. They asked us, “Why aren’t you on point-of-sale? Why aren’t you on our point-of-sale?” They’re great to work with. And of course, when we can, we support local.

Feeney: What are some features you really like?

Van Dyke: I love it because I’ll be out with friends and I can pull it up on my phone and say, “Let’s see how much the store has sold today.” It’s fun to interact with. Another feature that’s really useful is if people want to start stash piles, we can put it all in, and when they come up with their final purchases, we can go right back to it and already have the 15 things in there and ring up the five more. With Lightspeed Cloud, the opportunities are endless compared to our old register in Olympia.

Feeney: What are your favorite products in the store?

Van Dyke: We carry Le Creuset, and I love to cook with Le Creuset. We just picked up Yala out of Ashland, Ore. They make bamboo clothing. I’ve had their stuff for years, and it’s so comfortable. We carry Mrs. Meyers hand soap. You see it at Target, but I just love it—it makes me so happy. I use it at home. Rifle Paper Company is one of my favorite things in the entire world. We sell a lot of their stuff. They do calendars; they do a cute little recipe box with recipe cards; they do greeting cards; they do wrapping paper and notebooks.

Feeney: Not every product is a bestseller. How do you promote slow sellers?

Van Dyke: It depends on if we love it or not. If we really, really love it, we’ll work on educating—so that’s reps talking with us about lines or me talking to staff about products we really love and why they’re so great. For the most part, we try to buy products that don’t necessarily need a full-on, seven-piece demo explanation, because who has time for that? So if we love it, we’ll really bring it to people’s attention. Occasionally we’ll do 25-percent off sales. We have this bargain room like you see at clothing stores, where they just put everything on sale at the end of a season and are able to make room for new stuff. We can’t hold on to stuff. If it’s not a strong seller, we put it on sale and get rid of it.

Feeney: How long do you wait before you put something on sale?

Van Dyke: It just depends. If it’s been three months and it’s the end of the Christmas season and it hasn’t sold, get it out of there! It’s just got to go! It’s important not to hold on to stuff, and it’s important to be comfortable putting stuff on sale. People do notice if you’re not selling stuff.

Feeney: Do you host events in your store?

Van Dyke: Here in the Tacoma store we’ve had three major events I’m hoping to make yearly. We went all out for our grand opening last year. Paul wanted a line around the corner—that was his goal. The easiest way to encourage people to come was to offer gift cards to the first 50 people through the doors. We opened at 10 a.m. that Saturday and had a line for half a block, so almost all the way around the corner. People came in and got gift cards. We had staff up from Olympia and gave out candy and hot dogs. In the afternoon, a local popsicle shop gave out free popsicles for two hours. We did giveaways every hour and had a little raffle area. It really was a party and a great success. It was a huge day for us because it was what we’d been working toward for so long.

We had a holiday open house here in early November, which was the first time I had really done that kind of thing. It was well received. The store that was here before ours really focused on Christmas. We did a fraction of what she did, because we don’t really get too much into the seasonal, obsolete kind of things you don’t really want anyway. We had three reps come. They all demo’d their product, and we served drinks and crackers and cookies. It went well, and I think it gave us ammunition for this year—we can build on the successes and realize what wasn’t as great. If we have a rep come this year, we need to offer a discount on their product to get people excited about it. Otherwise, there’s just someone standing there.

At the end of November, we did a maker’s day in the store. We had four artists: C. Rose Jewelry, Three Bad Seeds, Tim Norris, and American Wooden Toy Company. People who didn’t necessarily know the event was happening came in and said, “Oh hey! This is cool. I wanna talk to you about this stuff you make here in Tacoma.” I just emailed one of the artists today, because so far this year out of 350 lines, he’s number nine! He participated in that event and sold some of his prints, and we started carrying his work after that.

Feeney: It sounds as if you and Alana are very hands on in all aspects of running your stores. Do you receive some kind of benefit or incentive beyond your salaries?

Van Dyke: Paul this year gifted Alana and I both with ownership—we’re each two percent owners! People ask, “Are you the owner,” and now I say, “Yes, I’m a little-piece-of-the-pie owner.” We both have so much personal investment and feelings of ownership in the store, and him giving us this gift really has made us even more invested now. It’s an investment in the community, too, that spreads; it’s good all around. Our staff here is primarily composed of the people who opened up the store with us. They were here before furniture, interviewing when the store was still empty. They got to see the store come into being. So even though they’re not owners, they’ve really been around to have emotional ownership in making this place awesome.

Feeney: On your website, you say you approach retail as theater. Could you tell me more about that?

Van Dyke: When people come to Compass Rose, we want them to enter into another world. The staff we choose, you could say they’re performers, but really, they’re real. We encourage our staff to be themselves. We don’t do commission-based sales. We hire people who love to talk, so they’re going to chat with whoever comes in. And, we work to design beautiful spaces. The Olympia store is a stage with elaborate design. Here, it’s a little more simplistic, but it really lets the merchandise speak.

Feeney: Your store is very artfully displayed. Do you have an art or a visual merchandising background?

Van Dyke: I think Alana and I are just natural shoppers. Neither of us have formal training in design or merchandising or art, but we have an eye for it. For me, it’s really what I love.

Feeney: Do you design all the displays in your Tacoma store yourself?

Van Dyke: Everyone here helps a little bit, but I guess you could say I’m the artistic director and they’re the set designers.

Feeney: Do you go so far as to repaint elements of your displays as you would a theater set?

Van Dyke: When we were designing this store, we worked with a Seattle-based designer who was hoping we’d be moving stuff around and repainting things and changing it. The displays and fixtures, we probably won’t be painting much, but we do move them around a lot, which is fun.

Feeney: Are they somehow portable, then?

Van Dyke: (shakes head no)

Feeney: Oh wow, that sounds like a lot of work! How often do you rearrange?

Van Dyke: Well, we’ve been open nine months, and I’ve been moving smaller stuff—probably two fixtures a week. I feel it’s time for a massive zone switch, like moving the kitchen zone somewhere else.

Feeney: Have you faced any challenges in your new location that weren’t a concern at your Olympia store?

Van Dyke: The challenge here is being the new kid on the block. This is a very established shopping district, so we’re definitely the new kid. In Olympia there are a lot more stores, so lines and crossover is a challenge. I think about it all the time here, too, but nine times out of 10 when I ask a rep or a company, “Who’s selling your product in the Proctor District? Who’s selling your product in Tacoma,” the answer is “Well, Vno one.” So, we’ve come in at this really cool time when there are not a lot of stores here. I think Tacoma’s about to boom, but we’ve managed to pick up a lot of lines we can’t have in Olympia.

Feeney: Do you find people showroom in your store?

Van Dyke: A little bit, not a ton. I think the customer who wants to come into a locally owned gift shop is looking for an experience, and they want the person helping them to recognize them when they come back again and again. We’ll get people who come in and showroom, but I think we usually creep them out with our friendliness and they don’t come back (laughs).

Feeney: You just articulated the unique appeal of independent stores: the personalized shopping experience.

Van Dyke: Yes, and that’s the theater and that’s the design and that’s making the decision to put a large amount of our opening budget into design. A lot of stores just slap up slatwall and go for it, and people notice.

Feeney: How do you handle returns and difficult customers?

Van Dyke: You can’t get upset when people make returns. It’s hard not to take it personally, but if people have a positive experience returning something or if they come in expecting a negative response and we can make it positive, they’ll come back here. Places like Nordstrom’s and REI have pretty epic return policies. We can’t always do what they do, but we do what we can. If someone comes in wearing their “awful pants”—they’re having a really bad day—we try as much as we can to be great, but I also tell my staff I don’t want them doing things that make them uncomfortable. We’re not second-class citizens, although people sometimes want to treat us like that. It’s like they’ve been watching Downton Abbey, and they think of us as the housemaids of Compass Rose (laughs). If someone comes in and they’re really awful and you think, “Oh God, they’re going to complain about this store to all their friends because we won’t take back that water bottle they used for six months,” my response is, “I’m sure their friends are very used to hearing them complain.” My hope is their friends will say, “Compass Rose? What’s this new store I hadn’t heard about?”

Feeney: How many employees do you have?

Van Dyke: We have five in this store including myself and five in our Olympia store. In the Christmas season our staff probably swells to 10 in Olympia and nine here. We have a full-time point-of-sale person here, which is not something we have in Olympia. Everyone there checks in orders, and they use the old-school pricing gun.

Feeney: Do all your employees work full time?

Van Dyke: No, everyone’s around 30 hours for the most part. The people who have been with us the longest have the option of being full time, but one of them is a mom of two who doesn’t want to work full time and the other two are students.

Feeney: How do you advertise your store?

Van Dyke: For our grand opening we did a postcard mailer, which was new for us. Paul had this idea of doing a billboard for a number of years, so we did billboards in Tacoma last year around Christmastime.

Feeney: Wow! Did people respond to them?

Van Dyke: People would come in and say, “I saw your sign, and I didn’t know what you were, so I just drove to Proctor and now I’m here.” So that was a big success and also just Paul realizing his dream. We did little mentions on National Public Radio this year, too, and a lot of people mentioned hearing that. There are also a few local publications we advertise in. Someone just dropped off something today about advertising in a coupon book for the Puget Sound, and we’ll probably get in there. There’s also a little map some women are doing here locally, and I’m a big supporter of that, especially because we’re new. Opening a store, I think not having a big advertising budget to start is where a lot of businesses go wrong. You just need to advertise. We need to be out there; we need to be in people’s heads.

Feeney: Do you also rely on social media to get the word out about your business?

Van Dyke: I just opened a Twitter page. We have a Facebook page, but I can’t help but feel like Facebook is losing steam. The Olympia store has an Instagram page. One of the staff here pins on Pinterest and tags it “at Compass Rose.” We had a blog I was working on a lot. We need to get other people working on it, but we have to really calculate what we do with our man hours. And really, if our staff isn’t out there trying to talk to people, then we’re not going to sell things.

Feeney: What about managing the store gives you the most joy?

Van Dyke: It’s a mix of everything. This store has been a unique opportunity because we started it from scratch, and I’ve gotten to be here from the beginning. My job is everything I’d ever want. You never know what to expect, even though it’s this day-to-day thing. We really try to make the mundane exciting. I think Paul sets the framework for that, and I hope I follow his lead and set that framework for our staff.

Feeney: What is something you weren’t expecting along your journey to becoming a manager—and part owner—of Compass Rose?

Van Dyke: I expected at some point to open up my own store, and Paul’s generosity allowed for that feeling of ownership, which is really cool. I studied community development a little bit in school, and being able to take some of what I learned and have it be part of my job as a manager of Compass Rose—to have the store be a way for me to get involved in the community—is really cool and unexpected. I went to Evergreen State College, where you don’t have prereqs, you don’t have a major; you study whatever you want. I could have studied so many things to end up where I am now, but I didn’t know this was where I was coming. People ask me what I majored in, and I say, “Compass Rose.” I went into Compass Rose just looking for a part-time college job, and it turned into my career.

Maggie Feeney is Editor in Chief of Retailing Insight.