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SSCS Success Story: Wittenberg Shell (Part 2)

Creating a Destination C-store by Building a Fun, Cool Shopping Experience

Julie Stewart keeps customers coming back again and again to her C-store boutique, no matter what the season, by carrying the kinds of items she likes.

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If you haven’t read Part 1 of this story, you can find it here. This post picks up right where that one left off.

Howard found it even harder to tear himself away from the boutique when the store opened and the experiment almost immediately began to drive a surge in store traffic that, sure enough, resulted in an uptick in the sales of the C-store’s traditional items. With virtually no marketing effort, a steady stream of customers made their way to the very special corner of the store to examine merchandise, ask for accessorizing advice, and use the fitting room, a converted wheelchair-accessible restroom with full length mirrors, clothing hooks, and complementary furnishings.

The success of the boutique from the start was no doubt aided by the fact that it arrived just as Christmas shopping season was taking off, but it soon became apparent that there would be no steep drop off in the early months of 2015—often a fallow time for retailers—thanks, in part, to waves of holiday themed items for Valentine’s Day, Easter, and so on. Smaller gift options, like cards and pocket items, proved consistently strong sellers no matter what month it was. Julie changed the boutique’s inventory with regularity, giving people a reason to return to the store again and again. Word got around about the wonderful C-store that sold some of the best gift items in the area. Momentum grew. The next thing Julie knew she had a destination location on her hands.

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“One great side effect was the positive energy the boutique generated,” Julie states. “People described the shopping experience with words like ‘fun’ and ‘cool’, which was exactly the reaction we were looking for. Men, who normally wouldn’t be caught dead in a gift store, couldn’t resist buying something when they found themselves standing in the middle of one. I can’t count the times I’ve tried on a shirt for a guy with a wife or girlfriend that’s ‘approximately my size.’ They may not like shopping, but convenient shopping . . . well that’s not so bad.”

purses_on_standHow does Julie decide what to carry? The answer is simple: she carries what appeals to her. “Now that we’re building up some sales history, I obviously pay attention to what moves, but I really do stock what I like,” she says. “I go online to check my three to four favorite supplier sites and figure out what will work and what won’t. Some of it is common sense, too. Like we’re an hour away from Green Bay, so we carry a lot of football-related stuff. In fact, there was a Packer game last night and business was crazy. We just finished our first summer season and I have very little left over that I have to pack away until next year or put on sale. I feel pretty good about that.”

Julie admits that the concept probably wouldn’t work in most of Howard’s other stores. Even though the population of Wittenberg is only about 1,000, and most locals frequent the other Wagner store that Julie manages—a “quieter” store a mere two blocks away—there’s something about being right off the freeway that drives the kind of business that is interested in boutique type items in an area where there are not a lot of options for finding them. Plus there is no question that being located in a brand new showcase store that carries a lot of high end food items—such as nationally-known Nueske’s applewood smoked meats, a favorite of Wisconsinites with headquarters just down the road—dovetails nicely with the boutique’s appeal.

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With no end of success in sight, the future looks bright for Julie’s groundbreaking enterprise. It might seem that her increased workload could be a downside, but the entrepreneur isn’t fazed at all.

“I’m a high energy individual by nature, the kind of person that really doesn’t mind doing the books because it helps me to figure out what’s really happening in my stores,” she says. “Sure I’m busier than ever, but I can do a lot of the ordering, scheduling, and whatever at home. The flexibility of managing a C-store has always appealed to me, and it really helped as I raised my five children—I could always be there to see them get on the school bus. My work and personal life ended up being a pretty good combination, about as good as C-stores and boutiques, now that I think about it.”

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