Old Town retailers use curation, personal touch to thrive against web competitors

In a world where Amazon and other e-retailers allow people to peruse in their pajamas and pick up the latest items at their doorsteps each morning, you would think these are perilous times for small retailers around mid-Michigan.

You would be wrong, judging by businesses in Lansing’s Old Town, which are using the techniques of curated retailing and good, old-fashioned personal service to grow their trade and burnish Old Town’s reputation as a shopping destination for residents and out-of-towners alike.

The secret, says a retailing expert at Michigan State University, is to not think about sales, but stories.

“People are looking for items that really speak to them, that have a story behind them,” says Brenda Sternquist, an MSU professor who studies retailing and marketing. “What these retailers are doing well, like Love Betti, is that they are unique. They are selling goods found nowhere else. Every time I go to Old Town I find something to buy.”

Kristin Olson, owner of Love Betti, a vintage emporium at the corner of Grand River and Washington in Old Town, says she’s done a bit of “seat of the pants” flying since opening her store in 2011, but that reliance on continuous research on what’s up-and-coming in vintage preferences and adaptability keep paying off.

“I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I know mid-century modern will fall out at some point, so I’m introducing ‘80s stuff right now and trying different styles,” she says.

This consistent commitment to giving customers an experience, not just an item, is the key to curated retailing (link: http://www.trendwatching.com/trends/curated_consumption.htm) MSU’s Sternquist says.

“Right now, all the department stores offer the same thing. That’s boring,” she says. “Curation is a concept of consumption that is relatively new … What (local retailers) are doing is that you have this specific customer in mind for an item. In Love Betti’s case, she has a warehouse, so even if there isn’t an item in the store at your visit, she may have something for you to consider.”

Sternquist adds that success in vintage retailing is about imperfections: “You want good quality at the price, but there’s the idea that these items have patina. Scratches on silverware or cracks in leather to many people are more valuable than if an item were new. Authenticity is a big factor.”

Such was the case recently for Love Betti’s Olsen when a woman walked into the store and gravitated to a huge couch covered with a bold peacock print fabric. The customer actually lived in Miami, Fla., and was moving to Chicago. She happened to be visiting the area, walked in and, voila, a match was made.

Around the corner at Lambs’ Gate Antiques, manager Ashley Lamb also focuses on the unique customer experience as she presents the wide variety of consignment items they feature.

“That’s the key -- the experience of it,” says Lamb, who, with her mother-in-law, opened the Lansing Lambs’ Gate outlet nearly four years ago. “We spend so much time in front of computer screens. Old Town generally and our store specifically offer an experience.”

Newcomers Leopold Bloom & Co. and Bradly’s Home & Garden, both located on Grand River Avenue, are joining the fray with a similar strategy.

“We have found that many people like to discover new places to shop while experiencing the cultural benefits of an area outside their computer screens and the bleak chaos of the mall,” says Bloom co-owner Tony Sump. “Areas like Lansing's Old Town are communities that are being copied by larger developments looking to achieve what has naturally manifested here.

“Just look at the design model and development of shopping centers like Eastwood Town Center. They are trying really hard to capture the soul and feeling of places like Old Town,” adds Sump, who opened Bloom & Co. this fall with Doug Meeks.

Kristen Fine, who moved to Lansing in 2011, is a convert to Old Town's charms.

"I love the feel of Old Town in that there are stores which are completely unique to area and focus on the demographic of Lansing," Fine says. "I love the new specialty stores that cater to the alternative person's needs. Old Town seems to create a sense of culture that is found in larger cities like Denver and LA; it seems that Lansing is becoming more hip."

While Bloom & Co. is mixing vintage items with select lines of new pieces, the approach at Bradly's, which opened this year, is to guide patrons through the array of available new home goods, while offering handcrafted items made by local artisans.

"There are many people, including young folks, who prefer live shopping," says Brad Rakowski, who co-owns Home & Garden with his husband, Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope. "I believe that this tradition is not disappearing like so many other traditional business models. Many people consider shopping entertainment and prefer to be out of their homes browsing."

Love Betti’s Olson takes a more-the-merrier approach to the newcomers.

“Old Town has become a shopping destination and a great place for local residents to bring out-of-town guests, because it has an edge, but is still nice,” she says.

Over at Lambs’ Gate, Ashley Lamb is equally upbeat about Old Town’s prospects, while cognizant of the challenges that any small business district faces in Michigan cities these days.

“(The challenge of getting Old Town ‘over the hump’) is never going to change,” Lamb says. “There’s always a future ideal of what you want Old Town to be based on what we have seen elsewhere. I feel like if area residents want us to be around to show their cool brother from Chicago, for example, they need to visit more than once a year. Even if they don’t buy anything, it’s good to have people come into the store and speak with us; it’s about relationships.”


Derek Melot is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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