The Art of Success

A Chicago store tailors its offerings to the talents of the owners and local artists, creating a unique experience customers love.
by : 

Megy Karydes

March 1, 2012

The noise outside Wolfbait & B-Girls in Chicago, Ill., is loud—cars whizzing by, bicyclists trying to avoid getting run over, diners enjoying a meal in the nearby restaurant. Come on a Sunday during the summer and you have the Farmer’s Market shoppers to contend with. But walk inside this small shop and the noise evaporates. In fact, you may hear another type of noise—the steady sound of a sewing machine, since it’s not unusual to find either of the co-owners working on one of their designs.

Shirley Kienitz and Jenny Stadler met several years ago during an artist co-op event. The two hit it off, and while each had their own successful apparel collections (Stadler also creates accessories such as belts), they wanted to open a retail boutique that could double as their studio. One day, as Stadler looked out her window, across the street new construction was underway which included a retail space she thought was ideal for what they envisioned.

She knew the area was changing for the better and it would be a good investment, so she contacted Kienitz, and they bought the building. They now use their retail space as both a studio where they continue to design and create their own labels, Bruiser (Kienitz) and Brazen Judy (Stadler), and as a shop where local artisans can sell their wares on consignment.

“We wanted to provide a place where people can buy things that are handmade and created locally,” says Kienitz. And “local” isn’t a marketing buzzword here. All of the items in the shop—including the owners’ apparel collections and those from other artists, accessories such as hats and belts, jewelry, books, stationery, and gifts—are handmade by local artists. Most are within blocks of the shop, which reinforces the community feeling.

Kienitz explains most artists learn about them through word of mouth or having come into the store and telling them about their designs. Currently, they manage collections from more than 170 artists, and that number fluctuates throughout the year.

Having fun is a requirement

The shop opened its doors on April Fools’ Day 2006, which seems fitting once you learn more about this dynamic duo. Among the ways they market their shop are email newsletters in which they offer 20 percent off any item in the shop if you do something to earn it, such as sing “I’ll Tumble for You” during checkout. Asked whether customers actually do that, both owners say, “Absolutely.”

Even the shop’s name, Wolfbait & B-Girls, was devised with the unexpected in mind. To hear Kienitz tell it, Wolfbait is the name of a chapter from a 1950’s Chicago guidebook which defined wolfbait as the term men would use for the young women who moved from the farms to the city looking for success. B-Girls is a play on their respective lines, Bruiser and Brazen Judy. Additionally, Stadler says they didn’t want to be a one-syllable shop name. They wanted something more lively and imaginative.

Fun is a recurring theme with this team and has been from the beginning. The two insisted that if they were going to run a shop, they wanted to have a good time doing it. They enjoy one another’s company, and you’ll often find them finishing each other’s sentences. They joke that they often find themselves getting along with each other more than with their husband or fiancé. “Sometimes we have to push the other out the door because we don’t want to leave,” Stadler says.

While they have finally hired two more people to help with the shop, they are adamant that in order to be successful, you have to be in your business. “You can’t trust someone else to run your business,” Kienitz says.

And Stadler agrees: “We are the business. We want to be here. I don’t know how people can just open up a place and let others run their business.”

Turning unknowns into teasers

Regardless of the fun image the shop works hard to create, it’s not without its challenges. Working with so many artists on consignment can be difficult, since the owners never know what they’ll be getting in the shop, and they have to constantly think of different ways to merchandise it. Or, some items just don’t sell, despite being moved to different locations within the shop or creatively displayed in various ways. If an artist doesn’t come back right away to pick up her merchandise, the owners have to find places to store it until she does come.

But not knowing what they are going to get is part of the excitement for Stadler and Kienitz, as well as the creative process of merchandising their new inventory.

On the day of my visit, Stadler had just finished creating a new display using a bike tire. She suspended the tire from the ceiling, and the spokes served as hooks for the earrings, also made using tire rubber as part of the design.

Many of their displays are built from wood scraps and objects found through thrift shops (or even picked up in alleys) that are repurposed. A wooden board served as the backdrop for tagua jewelry. Stadler and Kienitz built the cash wrap/studio counter from scratch using old doors. These women know their way around a toolbox and love to build things, whether it’s a large display or creating a pattern for a new blouse design. Their customers enjoy it, too, and that interaction with customers is what fuels them.

“They will come in and see us sewing or working with our patterns and get excited,” says Stadler.

“Or they’ll see a new bolt of fabric we just bought and wonder what it will become,” adds Kienitz. “A few weeks later, they’ll see the final design hanging on the rack.”

Seeing that creativity in action is part of the shop’s appeal, and knowing each purchase supports the arts and an artist is the cornerstone of the “shop local, shop independent” movement that the neighborhood merchants work hard to create.

Customer interaction is priceless for the owners and the artists they represent in the shop as they eschew traditional advertising and marketing methods in favor of personal interaction.

“We socialize with our neighbors, we see them when we get coffee or at various events around the community,” Kienitz says. “There is a lot of community pride here, and we enjoy that camaraderie with our neighbors and customers.”

Events engage community

To help drive traffic to the store and to introduce the shop to new customers, the owners regularly host events where the artists are encouraged to come and teach classes on various topics such as bookbinding, fabric printing, knitting, or how to make resin jewelry. The store hosts trunk shows, as well, with varying degrees of success.

“The events themselves aren’t money-makers, since we split the revenue from the event with the artist,” says Stadler. “But people read about the events and come in not only from the neighborhood but the suburbs, too, and many of them shop while they are here, so that helps with sales.”

Local charity involvement, donations, and gift certificates to fundraisers also provide a deeper connection to the community, helping build traffic, since winners have to come to the store to redeem their gift certificate.

Consignment woos and woes

The owners admit this business strategy may prove challenging for some business owners, but it’s a decision that works for them. They’ve ironed out some of the kinks they had when they first started out, and now they offer all their artists the same contract, and payment is made every 60 days to make bookkeeping easier. Also, the contract reviews what each party expects from the other, so there aren’t any misunderstandings.

“It’s harder to put things on sale if they aren’t moving [because they’re on consignment],” Kienitz says. This doesn’t mean no discounts are possible with consignment items. The store’s monthly email newsletter does allow for 20 percent off any item in the store, which is included in the contract, helping keep both customers and artists happy.

“We really get to know our artists,” says Kienitz. “We know their stories, know what makes their products interesting and unique and, in turn, we share feedback with them based on what we hear from customers to make their products better.”

An example is a screen-printed T-shirt line from Megan Lee Designs. Originally, the artist’s designs included elements that didn’t sell as well. With constructive criticism from Kienitz and Stadler, as well as customer feedback, the artist’s designs evolved into more whimsical screenprints and now represent Wolfbait & B-Girls’ best-selling line.

Marketing that works

Email newsletters are a great way to get the word out about new artists or events. And, with the new staff in place, the women are hoping to amplify their use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which they admit has not been a focus until recently.

“We’ll update Facebook with pictures but, other than that, we don’t have too much time to dedicate to it,” says Kienitz. “We’re wearing too many hats between working with artists, customers, and still producing our own lines.” That’s part of the reason they hired a team to help them, so they can delegate some of this type of work to them, allowing Kienitz and Stadler to concentrate on running the business and exercising their own creativity.

However, they do keep an eye on their Yelp feedback (www.yelp.com), knowing it is a direct reflection of customers’ experience when visiting the store. They place high currency on providing great customer service.

“Since it’s either Shirley or me in the store at all times, those [Yelp] reviews reflect how we treated those customers,” Stadler says. They greet each customer who walks in and ensure an enjoyable shopping experience, providing gift recommendations or background information on the products or artists who created the pieces.

Their focus on personal service has paid off, says Kienitz. “Our customers are our best advertisements.”


Crafting a Consignment Program

The owners of Wolfbait & B-Girls have learned through experience what works best for them when it comes to contracting with artists and selling consignment merchandise, and they generously agreed to share their recommendations. While you should obviously tailor your standard contract to the needs of your business, consider the following guidelines when developing a consignment program in your store:

  • Maintain a flat percentage fee to make it easier for everyone involved: 50/50 percentage split for all apparel, accessories, stationery, giftware, etc., and 70/30 percentage split for photographs, paintings, and other featured fine art that costs more than $200 (70 percent goes to the artist).
  • As the shop owner, reserve the right to edit all products for the store depending on quality, style, and price point and specify that at no time is the store obligated to carry any artisan’s products.
  • Require that inventory be delivered tagged with the retail price and designer number (which you should provide), ready for merchandising.
  • Cut checks to artists every 60 days for items that have sold.
  • Specify that if products continue to sell well, you will continue to carry the line, reviewing it every 60 days.
  • Invite artists to bring in inventory to replenish purchased items and maintain a nice look for the collection overall.

Profile

Store name: Wolfbait & B-Girls
Owners: Shirley Kienitz and Jenny Stadler
Address: 3131 W. Logan Blvd, Chicago, IL 60647
Phone: 312/698-8685
Website: www.wolfbaitchicago.com
Date opened: April 1, 2006
Store hours: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Employees: 2 owners, 2 employees
Square footage of store: 760
Best-selling products: Varies by season, but “right now, anything leather and feather is very strong.”
Favorite wholesalers: Local artists (consignment).

Megy Karydes is a professional freelance writer who has written for dozens of publications on topics ranging from business to fair trade. She’s always on the look-out for good stories. Reach her at megy@karydesconsulting.com.