A simple premise

The small, picture-postcard town of Peninsula isn’t exactly the sort of place your garden-variety retailer would choose to set up shop.

There are no shopping plazas with big box anchors, no malls inhabited by retail chains, not even a bustling town square. The only store of considerable size on Main Street is Booties of Peninsula, a purveyor of fine tableware, gifts, home accessories and furnishings.

Proprietor and Peninsula native Chris Hixson calls it a “home goods emporium,” a place that sells everything from greeting cards and candles to $4,000 sofas. During its 29 years in business, the store has moved from its original 500-square-foot space in Peninsula’s former post office and overtaken 4,500 square feet in its current location down the street in what was once a general store.

More than 600 manufacturers are represented in the stock, which makes the establishment popular with upper-crust brides registering for wedding gifts. Although Hixson is vague about sales figures, he notes that his company, Summerfall Cos. Inc., placed 25th on last year’s Weatherhead 100, a list of Northeast Ohio’s 100 fastest-growing businesses compiled by the Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management.

“Most of our gross (revenue) comes from Booties because Booties is the biggest part of the company,” he says.

Booties’ remote location provokes a question that Hixson has answered over and over again: Why are people willing to drive the 30 minutes he estimates the average customer travels to get there?

“For me, it seems kind of simple,” he replies. “When you go to the mall, you go to the mall to buy something. When you come to Booties, it’s about the experience as much as it is about the product that you end up taking home.”

The experience is browsing among unusual, high-end items not found in any mall without hunting all over for them or enduring traffic jams, full parking lots and surly salespeople.

Creating a unique shopping experience, however, was not the goal Hixson had in mind when he bought the business (then known as Booties Dry Goods Store) in 1996 from co-founder and owner Robert Hunker, who was retiring. His main concern at the time was to ensure the foot traffic necessary to sustain his own Main Street craft galleries, Among Friends and Modo.

“Booties, because of the size and how long it had been here, was the main draw for shoppers in the village,” Hixson explains. “And I’ve always loved the store, ever since I was a teen-ager. I always thought it was a neat place.”

That doesn’t mean that Hixson didn’t see room for improvement. Under Hunker’s ownership, the original stock, predominantly homespun-looking linens and fabrics, had expanded to include collectibles — “china figurines and things like that,” Hixson says. During his tenure as owner, Hixson has tried to add items to which Booties has exclusive dibs. For example, the store is the only retailer in the Akron area selling glassware by Simon Pearce, an Irish glassblower with stores on New York City’s tony Park Avenue and in its hip Soho district.

“The emphasis that we’ve taken over the last several years is to add more and more European products to the mix,” he says.

The selection of china, flatware and crystal patterns by makers such as Waterford, Lenox and Spode has been augmented with French and Italian imports produced by manufacturers such as Gien and Philippe DeShoulieres. And when Booties began stocking linens again last year, they were fine linens made in France.

“Most gift shops in our area do a lot of their buying at the Columbus Gift Show,” he says. “We don’t because we know that all the other gift shops are buying there. We go to New York, we go to High Point, (N.C.). I go on buying trips to Europe. That pretty much guarantees my customer that they’re not going to see these things all over. It’s very rare for us to get a return with a customer saying, ‘Oh, I got three of these for my wedding.'”

That ability to provide the atypical has provided Booties with another valued group of customers — businesses looking for corporate gifts that haven’t been given before.

“We meet with them and come up with really interesting things,” says Hixson. “I don’t have a salesperson with a catalog of stuff.”

Recent creations include an Italian ceramic pasta bowl accompanied by a basket containing pestos, crackers, cocktail napkins and a Tuscan cookbook, and a collection of leather-bound photo albums that came with a disposable camera to help fill them.

Hixson believes the attention paid to how items are displayed also has played a part in creating the Booties experience. In fact, he says Booties began stocking a limited amount of handcrafted furniture simply because it was more effective in creating a certain mood or look than the row after row of shelves so many stores use.

He also employs a full-time display manager who accompanies him on buying trips and makes notes on what items are purchased and how they can be used together.

Old-fashioned service is as much a part of the Booties shopping experience as the stock. Hixson is proud of the fact that he has only one recent hire on his staff of 15; everyone else has been at the store at least five years, some for as long as two decades.

“When you ask them a question, they’re going to know the answer, no matter what it’s about,” he boasts. “If they don’t, they’re going to go out of their way to find it for you.”

Telephones are answered by the second ring, and regular customers are greeted by name. Salespeople remember which items brides and grooms have registered for, what their guests bought, even the details of their weddings.

Hixson will pick up an item or take pictures of it with his digital camera and e-mail them to the store simply because he thinks a particular customer will like it. He’s even ordered a customer’s Christmas gift for his wife — a set of collectible plates — without the man’s knowledge after watching him charge into the store three days before Christmas for two years straight, order a set of collectible plates, and ask to have them shipped overnight.

“If we see a need they might have, even if they haven’t told us they have the need, we’ll try to fill it,” he says.

Hixson admits he hasn’t been able to keep everyone happy. He bluntly tells callers he can’t match prices for china, flatware and crystal offered by national mail-order discount companies.

“If somebody calls and says, ‘I saw this for $12,’ I’m honest with them,” he says. “I say, ‘You know, we pay more than $12 for it.'”

And not everyone likes the fact that the store isn’t open at night, although an employee will stick around if a customer isn’t finished shopping or isn’t able to pick something up until after closing time. The owner has found that one drawback to Booties’ location is that people don’t beat a path to his door after dark.

The flip side, however, is that Booties employees get their rest.

“I can’t offer the level of service we do if I have people working here at 9 or 10 o’clock at night,” he says. How to reach: Booties of Peninsula, (330) 657-2535

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.