Reprinted from the December Cedar Valley Business Monthly magazine.
CEDAR FALLS — Kris Boettger thrives when surrounded by people.
As a small business owner, this quality suits her well. At her store, Barn Happy, she creates an inviting space where customers browse products from 100 Iowa vendors, sip specialty coffees or linger over lunch.
Boettger’s vast array of distinctly Iowa fare includes crafts, clothing, food and more. The store’s second floor offers antiques and collectibles. Barn Happy also serves lunch as well as desserts, coffee and other hot drinks.
In the late 1990s, she began to consider work options that would allow her to be home for her children. Her husband, Tim, suggested she tackle a business concept she’d mentioned frequently: provide the widest possible variety of Iowa-based products. They set to work outfitting their barn as a retail space.
“It’s a dream come true,” Boettger said. “It’s a real God thing.”
Today, Barn Happy sees a steady stream of bus tours, day trippers and even area workers taking lunch breaks. Boettger draws energy interacting with customers, whether it’s whipping up a specialty coffee drink or helping someone find the perfect Iowa-based gift.
Online sales and marketing is another matter. While she appreciates the necessity of giving Barn Happy a digital presence, it’s tough to generate enthusiasm for it.
“Managing the digital side of things takes me away from (the physical retail space), which is where I like to be,” Boettger explained. “Online is me, by myself, in front of my computer. It’s about quality of life; there’s a fine line I walk between running a business and enjoying it.”
Boettger is among many business owners who employ online sales and marketing tools to ensure their bricks-and-mortar locations remain competitive. For Boettger’s part, she has used her website, www.BarnHappy.net, to drive phone and online sales of Iowa foods. She also employs a Facebook page for the business, where she posts information about events and specials.
It’s easy for consumers to develop incorrect notions about the state of bricks-and-mortar retail, according to Entrepreneur magazine.
After all, the world is more tech-driven than ever. Closings of large department store chains and stories of struggling retail giants are viewed as a harbinger of a “retail apocalypse.”
In reality, consumers split their shopping evenly, noted Entrepreneur, with 51 percent opting for e-commerce and 49 percent heading for the store. Meanwhile, two-thirds of millennials prefer web shopping to offline.
Across the retail industry, foot traffic at physical store locations has experienced only a nominal decline of less than 3.5 percent, according to the National Retail Federation.
NRF is the largest global retail trade association, serving department stores, internet, restaurants, grocery stores and catalog companies. It views the shuttering of some large retail chains as a market correction — a tough but necessary transformation.
Conversely, NRF asserts “nimble” companies embrace new ways of doing business. This includes re-engineering connections to customers through a blend of physical and digital experiences — from alternative payment options to “divergent thinking about logistics.”
Music to his ears
Local bricks-and-mortar businesses harness their agility by blending customer service, community-oriented values and the ease technology affords, explained Keith Sieren, store manager of West Music in Cedar Falls.
“West Music has a very large online presence; we sell nationally and internationally through our website,” Sieren explained.
“People ask, ‘Is retail dead? Is the bricks-and-mortar store dead? The old style and the old way of doing retail is dead, yes,” he added. “But doing business as a bricks-and-mortar store with an online presence is very much alive. It requires community involvement and making personal connections with customers.”
Some may assume the music business affords better access to consumers who choose stores over websites, said Sieren. However, consumers interested in musical instruments, repair and even lessons have shifted to online retailers, according to Ad Week. In particular, the magazine noted that local retailers have struggled to compete as consumers use their showrooms to browse before making their final purchase online.
Reinvention has been the key to West Music’s continued success, said Sieren. Over the years, the company has adapted to meet growing consumer needs and interests. This includes diversifying across several different sales channels, based on consumer habits and needs.
Diversity is born from innovation, which is central to West Music’s roots, said Sieren.
In 1941, Pearl West and Chris P. Peterson founded Peterson-West Music Company in Iowa City. The retail music and instrument repair shop went through many changes during World War II. The partnership dissolved. At the close of the war, West established West Music Company in an Iowa City storefront.
The company expanded in its services and products over the years and grew to include multiple locations. In 2014, West Music merged with Kephart Music, adding stores in Decorah and Dubuque. The current retail location total is seven, with Cedar Rapids/Marion, Coralville, Des Moines and Moline, Ill., rounding out the list.
As West Music’s online sales have increased, its traditional catalog has remained popular. Dedicated staff regularly attend annual music fairs and trade shows where they visit with longtime, repeat customers. The showroom floor offer access to sales and repair staff, most of whom are musicians themselves.
Part of the company’s use of online sales and marketing is to complement these areas of continued strength while finding new customer bases, said Sieren. Customers can browse online, research products, sign up for events, submit questions and more.
“Retailers need to embrace technology, not view it as an enemy — not view it as an obstacle,” he explained. “It’s about combining it with all the things you do well.”
Removing fear of technology provides perspective, Sieren added. For example, he has noticed that while online shopping is easy and fast, it also can be overwhelming. Customers looking for a specific, obscure item — sheet music in a certain key or a rare instrument — are better served by a personal connection in a store.
To manage a large retail space in a tech-driven age, Sieren finds confidence in West Music’s mission: “Play now. Play for life.”
“We’re able to provide so much information and help people,” he explained. “If someone comes to us just for that and ends up making a purchase elsewhere, OK. That’s great. We want that person to make music. We’re passionate about that.”
That passion is the ultimate differentiator, said Sieren.
“People like to do business with people they know; they still want a relationship,” he said.
“Music touches people personally. … Here, we watch kids grow up. We sell them their first instrument, then help them find the one they’ll play as adults. We sell them music. We talk to them when the come in for lessons. We watch them become musicians.”
At Epic Finds, Greg Brown hopes to foster a lifelong passion, too. As a self-described “finder” his goal is to instill a love of all things “mid-century modern.”
The term describes a design aesthetic developed from 1945 to 1969, referring to distinct features found in architecture, furniture, accessories and other items from the period.
Mid-century modern has experienced heightened popularity in recent years, perhaps thanks in part to the internet, said Brown. However, the truth is it’s never really out of style. The term applies includes anything from light fixtures and dining tables to artwork and vintage musical instruments.
Epic Finds sells it all. Brown began with online sales and eventually displayed his wares in a pop-up shop in downtown Waterloo. He currently has a permanent store, located at West Fourth and Jefferson streets.
However, he’s as likely to sell something to a customer in Baltimore as he is to one in the Cedar Valley.
The majority of Epic Finds customers are on the East and West coasts. They find the store online and sometimes make Epic Finds a road trip destination. Often, Brown’s distinctive furniture items are quickly snatched up on Chairish.com, Etsy and Ebay. He also receives inquiries through his highly popular Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Why, then, does Brown spring for the highly visible downtown Waterloo storefront? In part, because the items are meant to be seen, touched, experienced and showed off.
“I want this stuff to stay in Iowa,” Brown explained. “I want people around here to love mid-century modern as much as I do. I’m here so people see these unique pieces of history and connect them to something in their past.”
For all his online success, he knows much of his new customer base will come from direct interaction with the style. Epic Finds showroom has floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor space to display chairs and other items to entice passersby. When children accompany their parents, Brown attempts to make them mid-century modern converts.
“I love it when someone finds their way into the store and starts connecting with mid-century modern for the first time,” said Brown.
“They develop a love for it, and then it’s all about finding those perfect, unique pieces to put into their space.”