Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=213098
Story Retrieval Date: 12/11/2013 7:26:10 PM CST
Winnetka has long been a quaint historical suburb and symbol of Chicago’s tiny North Shore. It also is home to Material Possessions, a boutique home décor store where a myriad of cultures are represented through intricate artwork and handmade designs.
Specializing in home furnishings and accessories, Material Possessions takes pride in where its pieces come from and the quality of its merchandise. With online shopping reshaping the retail industry, Material Possessions has managed to significantly grow without having to sacrifice its traditional approach to buying and selling. The store has a second location in Chicago at the corner of Wabash and Huron.
“Trunk shows have been a big part of our business and showcasing artists that we deal with. A lot of our merchandise is handmade,” said co-owner Peggy Swartchild.
Swartchild and her former partner started the business in 1977 without having a store. They actually rented out 40 feet of window space at an antique store on Gage Street in the Hubbard Woods shopping district for just $50 a month. “We said we wanted to rent the window and accessorize his antiques,” said Swartchild.
Swartchild spent the prior year researching merchandise. “We would go into showrooms and find two items out of 2,000. So our idea was to find the unique things for everybody. The prices were good, things were handmade, textiles were gorgeous and basketry was phenomenal,” recalls Swartchild.
“The most expensive thing in the store was $150 and we thought we would never sell it,” said Swartchild. It sold opening night. Those kind of prices meant Swartchild was able to turn a profit in her first few years.
“The best way we grew is we took no money out of the first year,” recalls Swartchild. With inexpensive rent, the owners were able to reinvest their profits into the company. “We were not paying ourselves and we did not have any employees.”
It was a year and a half before Swartchild started taking out money slowly and carefully. “We were both married, so we did have some security in that regard. And then it just got bigger and bigger and our merchandise got a little more expensive,” she added.
After three years Swartchild and her partner were able to open a store on Green Bay Road in the heart of the Hubbard Woods. Soon after, Material Possessions was invited to open a second location in the One Magnificent Mile building in the heart of Chicago’s shopping district. The building was looking to start a concept store similar to Henri Bendel in New York. “They asked us to come in as a home accessory and tabletop store,” said Swartchild.
“It was a way to grow the business outside of just home accessories. It became more serious in some ways too. There was rent to pay, there was staff to pay,” she said.
After a short time, it became clear the One Mag Mile store was not going to succeed. Material Possessions moved to the corner of Rush and Chestnut where it stayed for 17 years. “We grew everything at that store. It was very exciting. Times were great,” recalls Swartchild.
But eventually the building was sold, and Material Possessions made another move to its current location on Wabash and Huron. Starting from scratch, Swartchild worked with an architect to bring her vision to life.
“Our architect was Robert Klein Schmidt who is a genius. Every meeting I had with him I felt like I learned something new,” said Swartchild. “I had never heard of half the materials I was exposed to. It was just a dream. I loved that, it was total creativity for me.”
Of course, the Great Recession was a game changer. Swartchild cut back on staff and merchandise orders. She also renegotiated everything, including rent, telephones, credit card machines and UPS deliveries.
“I think we did a lot of smart things as the recession hit,” explained Swartchild. “It stayed status-quo and in the past year we have seen slow growth."
On Yelp.com, one happy customer calls Material Possessions "a must-shop-at-store" because of its "unique approach and a cool selection of stuff." But several others complain that the store's merchandise is over-priced and not that special. Overall, Material Possessions earns a Yelp rating of 3.5 stars out of a possible five stars.
Swartchild and her current partner, Carol Levy, manage to take six buying trips a year for Material Possessions, up from about four during the recession.
“We always buy in the country. We deal with trusted importers who are usually first generation and have contacts back home and work hard to find good merchandise, said Swartchild. A lot of her merchandise can be traced back to Asia and South America.
While Swartchild was happy to talk about her inventory, she declined to provide revenue numbers for the company. But a calculation using retail industry metrics indicates that Material Possession’s sales likely totaled more than $4 million last year. That is comparable to the sales per square foot generated by Macy's Inc.'s home goods division, which includes Bloomingdale’s Home Stores.
Material Possessions has a website where people can click through and buy merchandise, but the stores remain the focus of the business.
“It’s an interesting idea to sell on the Internet,” Swartchild says. “We have our hands full taking care of two stores and doing the buying for them.” Selling through a website is like having a third store.
Being around for 35 years has allowed Material Possessions to create a loyal customer base. “They trust us now and they trust our taste. I think they are pretty confident when they come into the store,” said Swartchild. Material Possessions employees are on a first-name basis with many clients.
Assistant manager Josie Lutz says the store has managed to do well “due to Peggy’s natural ability to see trends and style and be able to present and market that in an appealing way.”
Swartchild agrees: “Retail is a challenge, it’s huge. It’s customer service constantly and meeting great people.”