Where Community Is Always In Season

A Rhinebeck, N.Y., store thrives by putting community first.
by : 

Maggie Feeney

June 1, 2016
Where Community Is Always In Season

Colorful, eclectic, playful, unique, enchanting. These are just a few of the words customers use to describe Winter Sun & Summer Moon, a lifestyle boutique on the Hudson River in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Even more telling is how customers describe their shopping experience: warm and friendly customer service, awesome atmosphere, pleasant and helpful staff. It’s no wonder, then, that Winter Sun & Summer Moon has become part of the fabric of community life in Rhinebeck—it’s a store for all seasons that appeals to locals and tourists alike. We recently spoke with Lila Pague, owner of this delightful shopping destination, who shared with us the twists and turns of her retail journey.

Maggie Feeney: What is the story behind your store name?

Lila Pague: It’s kind of two stories. Initially the store was called just Winter Sun. My friends were selling Ecuadorian wool sweaters to the snowbirds who came down to Key West, Florida. A brilliant textile artist named Anja came to town, and she and our friend Gazelle went into business together. They came up with the name Winter Sun because they were selling winter clothing to people in a sunny place. Later, the three of us became partners in the business. Eventually Gazelle moved on to become a midwife, Anja continued with a Winter Sun wholesale clothing line in Floyd, Va., and I stayed with the store. So, the store really began with Winter Sun in Key West—that was the force that made it happen. We’re all still good friends, and that’s the best part of the story.

Feeney: Wonderful! Often when you hear about partners leaving a business, it’s because something didn’t quite work out between them.

Pague: No, we were fortunate.

Feeney: How did you end up opening a store in Rhinebeck?

Pague: Anja, Gazelle, and I had been talking about opening a store in the Northeast, this is 28 years ago, and at the time I worked at our local health food store. I had been looking for a space in Rhinebeck for a while, because that is where we were headquartered, but every time I’d go out of town, the space I wanted would come available, and I kept missing it.

One day when I was working in the health food store, a guy came in that I knew had rented the space I wanted. I asked when he was going to open, and he got really mad at me. I thought, “I didn’t do anything wrong; something is amiss.”
After he left, I called the landlord and said, “I see your space is still empty. Is anything happening?” He said, “It’s funny you’re calling. I’m going to put the for-rent sign up tomorrow. The guy that rented it can’t get out of a previous commitment.” I said, “I’ll take it!” He asked, “Don’t you want to look at it,” and I said, “I’ve been looking at that space forever!” That was the beginning for us in Rhinebeck.

At the same time we took the space, I was seven months pregnant. Anja and Gazelle and I all agreed we would put in whatever monies we could come up with and try it for six months. If it worked, great; if it didn’t, we’d split our losses and call it a day. And it worked really well. We agreed to do this in February 1988, my daughter was born at the end of March, and we opened on Memorial Day weekend.

Feeney: What led you to change the name to Winter Sun & Summer Moon?

Pague: When the space next door to us became available a few years after we opened, we took on that space, too. We figured we might as well call it Summer Moon so there would be some relationship between the two spaces.

Feeney: So are the two spaces connected internally?

Pague: Yes.

Feeney: How many combined square feet do you have?

Pague: About 2,000.

Feeney: Do you feature different products in the Winter Sun side than in the Summer Moon side?

Pague: Well, originally Winter Sun was dedicated to clothing and handcrafts from around the world. The Summer Moon side tends to focus on home furnishings, personal care, candles, gifts, instruments, super foods, chocolates, greeting cards. It’s a little bit of everything, because it’s based on our own lifestyle, what interests us personally. We want to surround people with things of beauty, things that are functional, things that make you feel good, things that are healthy. When we opened up Summer Moon, we thought we wanted it to be more green, but initially it was a little too green for the town we live in. About six months into it, I realized we were going to have to be a little more flexible if we were going to survive.

Feeney: I hope you’ve begun to see some movement toward customers wanting more green choices. Organic and green products have become much more commonplace.

Pague: Yes, except for food, I don’t feel it really drives people as much as I would like to see.

Feeney: So what do shoppers find when they visit your store? Could you take us on a virtual shopping stroll?

Pague: Sure! The first thing you’ll see is our windows. We have four large windows, and we change our window displays every two weeks. We get to use the windows for whatever we want, and sometimes we use them to support a community event. If the elementary school is going on a whale watch and want to raffle off a bicycle, we can put a bicycle in the window to promote the whale watch. And people do pay attention to our windows.

When people come in, they are always greeted and welcomed, and often the first thing they notice is the scent.

Feeney: The scent?

Pague: Yes, there is a scent in the store that I no longer smell but customers love. We don’t burn incense or light scented candles or anything—it’s just an accumulation of the smells in the store. People will even say, “When I bring that sweater home, I never want to clean it because I love the smell.” So we have this aroma that is identified as from our store. I couldn’t tell you what it is!

Feeney: It’s your own aromatherapy!

Pague: Yes, we should bottle it! So, when customers come in, and we have music playing. We play a lot of Putumayo CDs or local music—we mix it up. You might hear jazz, you might hear folk, you might hear a kid’s song, or you might hear a chant song.

The store is a real bazaar of colors and collections. We have product displayed on our walls, from the ceiling, at eye level, and in baskets. We are creative about merchandising! The store is very colorful, very eclectic, and we change the floor around fairly frequently.

Feeney: What are some of the ways you try to make customers feel welcomed when they come in?

Pague: We have benches in the front of the store for people to sit on. We pay attention when we see somebody who might need a chair. We don’t really have a lounge area, but we can pull out a chair if somebody wants to sit down while their partner shops. Sometimes we’ll serve treats or hand out hot cider, if the time of year is right. It’s a welcoming feeling when people come into the store. And, there’s just a lot to look at.

Feeney: And what will they find in each side of your store?

Pague: The Winter Sun side is changing all the time. That’s where they’ll find clothing, jewelry, and handcraft. On the Summer Moon side, it would be personal-care products, yoga tools, CDs, and stationery.

Feeney: How are your clothing sales?

Pague: We sell a lot of clothing. I personally have zero interest in fashion, and I think in some ways that has worked for us because our focus is to feel good in what you’re wearing, to wear things that are comfortable, things that look nice on you. We don’t follow fashion, but do we have some things that are trendy? Sure. When ponchos were happening, we had ponchos in here, or when fringy bags were happening, we had those in here.

Something I think makes a difference in our clothing sales is we have some affordable clothing and we also have expensive clothing. I like for a schoolteacher to be able to come in here and buy something she likes and not feel she broke the bank. But, do I like selling that $128 top to somebody? Sure. If that feels good to them and they like the top, great! I like that people can come in here and get a little extra something that makes them happy. Retail therapy does work!

Feeney: It sounds as if you know your audience and you know what you like, and that works really well for you.

Pague: It does. I know that some of my customers want fitted clothing and some want looser clothing. You have to really listen to what they’re asking for. That is where I’ve learned to become a little more flexible.

Feeney: Who are your regular customers?

Pague: We’re lucky because we have strong support from the local community. I like to say that people who come in here range in age from eight to 88. And, we’ve been here long enough now that we’re starting to see customers in their 20s—men and women who came in here with their parents as little kids. They have fond memories, and they continue to shop here.

Feeney: How do you keep your customers up to date on what’s happening in your store?

Pague: We do email blasts. We use the SnapRetail platform for our email lists—we love working with it. It’s very easy, and it ties into all the social media. We do Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. My daughter Lorrie is responsible for all the social media activity, and people do come in because of it. I just came back from Guatemala, and my daughter put a picture on Facebook of a couple of the bags I bought for the store. Within an hour, a woman came in and said her daughter in Florida saw the post. She picked up two of them for her!

Feeney: Wow, that’s great!

Pague: I think the other reason social media works for us is we make a real point not to make it all about us. We share news of the community on our Facebook page. Oliver Kita, a shop in our town, just won a big award for being one of the 10 best chocolatiers in the U.S. We acknowledged that on our Facebook page. If there’s an event happening at the Omega Institute, we’ll post that, or sometimes we’ll just put happy thoughts out there, inspirational thoughts. For us it’s been important that our social media is not always about us selling you things. That’s true when customers come in the store, too.

Feeney: How do you set that tone in your store?

Pague: I think people know they are welcome to come in and look around or just sit and visit for a few minutes. They don’t have to buy something every time; they know they’re always welcome. Maybe they come in a few times and don’t buy anything, but the next time they do. We try to pay attention to our customers. Of course, sales are important to us—we need the sales—but my attitude is just to pay attention and offer the best customer service we can.

Feeney: I know that’s how I feel when I go shopping. I love to be greeted, I love to feel I will be helped, but I also love to just browse and enjoy my shopping experience.

Pague: Yes, I spend a lot of time here, and I really want it to be a nice place, not a place of stress. I want the people who work here to enjoy themselves. The best way you can do that is to treat your clientele the way you would want to be treated—be as nice as possible, as accommodating as possible, show them attention and be honest when you help them. If somebody tries on a dress and it doesn’t look good, be honest with them. If you don’t have anything else in your store that works for them, that’s okay, because they will appreciate your honesty and come back. There’s nothing worse than a shopkeeper saying, “Oh my god, you’ve gotta have it; it’s you.” Ugh!

Feeney: Agreed! Do you host classes in your store?

Pague: We do. We host classes about once a month, and they are often free, or there’s a minimal charge when the person teaching the class needs to charge; the monies go directly to the teacher.

Everything on the Winter Sun side of the store is super, super easy to move, so for classes we can just push everything to the back of the store, and the whole storefront becomes a place to practice Qigong, for example. We do this for a couple reasons. One, it brings an energy to the store that’s not all about shopping; it’s about healthy living and making good choices for yourself. And two, most of the people that teach these classes are local, and it turns people on to who they are and what they’re teaching and where they teach.

Feeney: I see. So the classes in your store help give them exposure to people that haven’t been to their own studios.

Pague: Yes.

Feeney: How many employees do you have?

Pague: We have five full-time and two part-time, and there’s me and my husband.

Feeney: Are most of your people hired through word-of-mouth or do you have success with help-wanted ads?

Pague: I’ve tried putting out help-wanted ads, but it’s really hard. So, it’s been a combination. My employee Cassandra, who’s been with us about five years now, just came in and applied off the street, and the timing was perfect. That was true with Margaret, too. She came in and applied, and she’s been with us a couple years. We’re very fortunate—everybody has been here, at minimum, two years. Lindsay, a sales associate and Dr. Haushka esthetician, has been with us for four years, so we’re able to offer customers her wonderful facial treatments, too.

Feeney: That’s fantastic! You’ve mentioned your focus on the community a few times. Are you involved in any community events?

Pague: Yes, we are very community oriented. We support other organizations in town and pay attention to what happens in our community. There’s one big community event during the holidays called Sinterklaas, and we’re key supporters in making that happen.

Feeney: That sounds interesting. What is Sinterklaas?

Pague: Sinterklaas is an event that goes on for about a month and culminates in one big festival day. One of the key fundraisers for the Sinterklaas event is the sale of beautiful paper stars. If you go online to SinterklaasRhinebeck.com, you can get the whole story, but we sell these beautiful paper stars that we order from an orphanage in India. Several stores in Rhinebeck sell these stars, but we sell a lot and heavily promote them. We also use our storefront as a drop-off point for art supplies or brochures or whatever people need for Sinterklaas, and we make ourselves very knowledgeable about all the events that are happening so people can come here and say, “What time does this start? Where do I go if I want to be in the parade?”

Feeney: It sounds as if you’re a hub for the things happening in your community.

Pague: Yes, it’s very important to us. The Taste of Rhinebeck is another community event we’re involved in. It’s a big fundraiser for the hospital here, and it’s focused on the restaurants serving food. I realized the Rhinebeck Farmers’ Market wasn’t being included, because it’s only a once-a-week market without its own storefront, so I invited them to set up in front of our store, and now they are participating in the Taste of Rhinebeck. And, it’s a huge hit—everybody loves the Farmers’ Market!

Feeney: What a brilliant idea!

Pague: It worked out really well, because it triggered people to invite other restaurants to set up in front of their stores and made a bigger and better event for the hospital and the community.

Feeney: Are you involved in a business association?

Pague: Yes. The Rhinebeck-area Chamber of Commerce is a great organization, but two other women and I realized there were some really big advertising campaigns we would like to participate in, but individually we couldn’t afford. So, we pooled together with other stores and restaurants and were able to put an ad in a great brochure the Duchess County Board of Tourism puts out to promote Rhinebeck. We thought if we promote Rhinebeck, then people will come here and find all of us, because the whole town is only four blocks long! We’ve been doing that for seven years and we have 63 members now. It’s basically cooperative advertising. We pool our money to do these very important ads, print up 40,000 brochures, and serve the whole community. If you go to EnjoyRhinebeck.com, you’ll see our website.

Feeney: I’m noticing a pattern here. When you get together with a group of women, you come up with amazing ideas!

Pague: It’s pretty cool! Working together serves all of us so much better.

Feeney: Are there any trends you pay attention to? Are any useful in running your business?

Pague: You do need to stay aware of trends and know what part of a trend you can participate in, but you can’t let trends drive your business. One of the most important things I’ve learned in retail is knowing where to be flexible and change, knowing when to follow a trend and what trend will work for you, or how to pad a trend so it can work for you.

Feeney: What is the most challenging aspect of running your store?

Pague: The most challenging part is knowing how to stay fresh and current and picking out the right things, but also keeping up with the increase in rent and all the other expenses and learning how to juggle and stay ahead. It’s really tricky for small businesses. We are so fortunate we’re in the area we’re in and have the support we have.

Feeney: What do you like most about owning your store?

Pague: Being in community. No question. And being around the people who come in to shop and the people I work with. I often say that retail is retail, but having a retail store in a small community like Rhinebeck gives me the opportunity to be in community in a way I wouldn’t normally be able to. It really allows me to participate in community, and that makes what I do worth doing. Otherwise, it’s just a job.

Feeney: Well said, Lila! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your retail story.

Maggie Feeney is Editor in Chief of Retailing Insight.