Do you remember what movie this is from?
It was “You’ve Got Mail”, and just change the years to 26, and there you have it.
It is with a very heavy heart that I have to share with you, my friends and customers, that I have decided to close my store.
Those are difficult words for me, and I am at a loss as to what to say next.
What do you say to people who have let you into their lives, shared their children and grandchildren with you, shared personal stories of their own, supported your dream, and become true friends through the years?
To me it was never about making a “sale”, but to build relationships that would last over time, and that has proved to be more rewarding than all the money in the world! But, unfortunately businesses don’t run on “relationships” alone. I have been watching the decline of people dressing their children in the more traditional styles. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone in my store say “They just don’t dress kids like this anymore.” Even adding the more fashion forward styles to my inventory has not reversed the trend, and I have had to separate my emotions from the fiscal reality to make this decision.
I am keeping several options open right now. There’s the possibility of keeping an online presence, selling directly from our facebook page, or perhaps even selling the store, but at this time, the plan is to close the store before the end of this year.
For those of you who are interested, here’s the full story behind Connie’s Kids, my store, and my passion.
Pregnant with my son, selling out of my home on Battlefield Blvd, 1986.
Welcome to my living room, 1986!
I had been working as an x-ray tech on the night shift at Chesapeake General Hospital, and upon leaving one morning, saw a sign in the wooded area across the street. The sign said “Shopping Center Coming Soon”. I was also teaching childbirth classes at the hospital, and knew they were getting ready to open their birthing unit. It didn’t take long for the wheels to start turning, and by the time I got home I told my husband, “Someone has to put a baby shop in that center!” My daughter Lindsay was a toddler, I was pregnant with my son Jesse at the time.
I started looking at the labels in her clothes, contacting vendors, and I started buying samples. I started with a cardboard box that I filled with clothes, taking it to the hospital every night. The doctors would take the box home, and return it the next day, with a check for what their wives bought. My inventory grew rapidly, and I soon had more than I could carry to work. I started offering home parties to my friends, that worked much like a Tupperware party, where they would invite their friends to a party to buy, and they would get free clothes for their own kids in return.
My business and inventory were growing so quickly, it soon even became impossible for me to fit all the clothing in my minivan, so I set up shop in my living room. We lived right on the main street, Battlefield Blvd, so I hung the clothes in the windows, and people would stop by and shop in my home. I remember sitting on the couch with Lindsay early one Sunday morning, all ready for church, when she looked at me and said “Mommy, why are those people peeking in our window?” It became a way of life for us to have shoppers in and out of our home for almost two years.
Selling out of my living room, and oh yes, the dining room, too! ;-)
It became apparent (at least to ME) that I needed a storefront. The shopping center was under construction, and I began negotiations on a lease. They did not want to rent a space to me, saying “95% of all new small businesses fail in the first five years”, and I was too much of a risk. I somehow persuaded them to take my money (imagine!), and nervously signed a five year lease.
Petrified, but excited beyond belief, I went to Charlotte, NC, on my first buying trip. Alone and clueless, I walked the aisles, buying style after style, from all the different vendors, and getting caught up in the thrill of it all. It was so much fun to just sit at a table, and have the reps hold up one style after another, and all I had to do was say “Yes”, or “No!” But I still walked my legs off, checking out all the hundreds of showrooms. Exhausted, I made it back to my hotel room, soaked my feet, and got down to the business of figuring out just what I had bought.
Looking at the orders, I was shocked to realize that every time I said “Yes” to a style, I would be getting a DOZEN of that item! I thought I was just going to get ONE PIECE of each! I hurriedly totaled up all my orders, realizing I had spent over $20,000 in ONE DAY! I remember the feeling of not being able to catch my breath! What had I done? I had to spend the next day, going BACK to those same vendors, retracting half my orders! Embarrassing, to say the least, when I had gone in there, acting like I had been doing this all my life! I eventually got the hang of buying, but you can say I was definitely learning the hard way!
The spring clothing I purchased would be arriving just in time for my January opening, and I pictured myself selling out before Easter. As the time went on, I realized the construction of the shopping center was falling way behind. I was ready to go, with a house full of merchandise by January 1st, BUT the store was just barely framed! I began parking in front of the store, and corralling the workers to work on my store first, if they dared to stray. I ate meals in my car, watching them, willing them to move faster! Time was ticking, and I had to start selling, if I was going to be able to pay for my inventory. I was scared beyond words that I had created quite a mess for myself!
Making sure the workers stayed on task! ;-)
Even though my store was the FIRST to open its doors in the center, (even beating Farm Fresh & Roses), I opened Connie’s Kids the day AFTER Easter! Somehow I managed to sell much of my stock out of my home, and had established a sizable customer base, so had walk-in traffic from the day I opened the doors.
When the carpet man installed the carpet in my store in 1987, he said, “It’s not the best. You’ll probably have to replace it in about five years,” I thought to myself “Please God, let me still be here to HAVE that problem!” Well, I HAVE had to replace the carpet, four times to be exact, over the course of the 26 years that Connie’s Kids has been in business.
In 1987, many people had their doubts about me staying in business very long. But, I had a passion, and I had to see it through. It just happens to be my nature to do exactly what I am told I CANNOT do, so in this case it worked in my favor. (It doesn’t always!) I had never felt such a strong desire to do anything, and my best friend’s mother put it best when she said “Who lit the fire under Connie?”
Life was good. I loved the store, the kids, the clothes, and the parents. I was making new friends, and was so excited every morning when my feet hit the floor. In the meantime, I had another baby, Jesse, who was nine months old when I opened the store. I remember handing him to my customers, ringing up their purchase, and getting my baby back, in exchange for their clothes!
Lindsay 3, and Jesse 6 months, in my empty store, right before opening in 1987.
Our very first ad in the Shopper, 1987!
I was working the store alone, from 9am-9pm six day s a week. My husband would bring the kids up to the store in the evening, and watch a one inch (yes, ONE INCH!) screen TV in the back room, just so I could see them. Those were tough days, but I was in my element, so it didn’t seem like work. My store has NEVER felt like work to me. I believe the saying, “Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life.” Soon I was able to hire some part-time associates, who quickly became an extended family. Sometimes their job would be to work the store, and other times it would be to watch my kids. Somehow it worked out.
Lindsay & Jesse “back in the day”! ;-)
The store grew in popularity, and we were busier than I ever imagined. These were the 80’s, the Reagan years, and people were spending. I didn’t have “extra” money, so I hand wrote “Connie’s Kids” on each white bag we used in the store. I was told I would never be able to keep that up, but 26 years later, every bag is still hand drawn! (Like I said, if you want me to do something, just tell me I can’t!) ;-)
The internet was not even on the radar until the early 90’s, and my “computer-nerd” brother Bob tried to convince me to put my store online. I told him “I hate computers, and no one will ever buy baby clothes on a computer!” I refused to go there. We got together on a vacation in 1993, and he handed me a computer screen photo of babies holding umbrellas, falling like they were raining from the sky, saying “Here, you now have a web site”.
I had no idea how it worked, but I figured out how to put a photo of our traditional hanky bonnet on there, and added a toll-free number to the site. Within a week, I had a call from a lady in Houston, Texas, who wanted to know how she could buy the bonnet. I took her information over the phone, and mailed her the $12.99 bonnet. Right then I saw what my brother had been trying to tell me, and realized the potential for online sales. I couldn’t take photos and add them fast enough! I was hooked! There was no way to take credit cards online, so they would just have to call to place their orders. And call they did! We were busier than a one-armed paper hanger, and I had a little “visits” counter at the bottom of my page, and I would literally sit there and watch the numbers grow! I couldn’t believe people all over the country, as well as all over the WORLD could now shop at Connie’s Kids! It was truly mind-boggling. Everything was great, except for the fact that I had to admit to my brother that he was “right”! (Oh, the pain!)
Our hanky bonnet, the first item sold on our web site in 1993!
Within a few years we hired a professional web designer, and added features like a virtual cart, where we could accept credit cards online. People were still skeptical about entering confidential information online, so we still received most orders by phone. Plus, it added that personal touch to their online purchase. I was also told not to go online, because it would be so impersonal, but I quickly became friendly with many of our online customers, and they would email us photos of their children wearing our clothes. I was happy we could still maintain the personal connection that I enjoyed with our local customers.
Photo received from a customer in England around 1998! Both girls dressed by Connie’s Kids for Easter!
Within a very short time, our internet sales were doing equal to our store sales, and we kept redesigning and improving our site, trying to make it easier for people to find us, as well as shop with us online. I remember one of my first calls was from a young mom in Indiana, and she wanted to order a smocked bonnet for her baby girl. I told her I would send it out the next day. This was a first for her, and she kept saying “Are you really in Virginia, are you really going to mail this bonnet, and it’s really going to arrive at my house in Indiana?” That was 20 years go, and it seems like yesterday.
I enjoyed dressing my own children from my shop, continuing building the business, and loving every minute of it. We began to win awards, like “Best of Hampton Roads”, “Retailer of the Year”, and “Best of 757”, but the REAL rewards were the relationships I formed with my customers, who I always enjoyed visiting with when they stopped in to shop, or just to say “Hi”.
Connie’s Kids won Chesapeake’s “Retailer of the Year” award three years in a row!
My associates grew, and also became like my extended family. Many of my employees were customers, who may have said “This would be a fun place to work”, and BOOM, they were hired. Many have been with me for close to 20 years. I cannot thank them enough for sticking with me through thick and thin. My heart overflows with gratitude for their unending support, and for always treating the shop as if it were their own. <3
The wonderful “Ladies” of Connie’s Kids!
Not everything was sunshine and rainbows, however. Through the years I have experienced deaths of many loved ones, divorce, as well as family and financial struggles. My friends and family are what sustained me, as well as my belief that God has a plan for me, and I just need to have faith.
Over the past few years, I have seen a change in our business. Our walk-in traffic has decreased, as well as our online business. We were #1 on Google for TEN YEARS for “children’s clothing”, but word got out, and all of a sudden the internet was flooded with children’s clothing stores.
I began hearing lamenting grandma’s saying “I would buy these clothes, but my daughter won’t put them on her kids.” We had always sold primarily traditional and classic styles, but began to offer a few more “trendy” items to keep the younger moms coming back. Then the economy tanked. People started shopping for “deals”, and buying items only when they were on sale. Profits went down, but we were still staying afloat. My motto was “Failure is not an option”, so I kept trying new ways to bring people in to shop.
Two sweet Connie’s Kids models, Mary Kate & Addie Head.
With the birth of social media, ie, facebook, twitter, pinterest etc, things were quickly changing again. As with the original web site, I did NOT want anything to do with it. I had enough to do, without adding any more to my list. Through Retail Alliance, I reluctantly signed up for a social media class with Guerilla Social Media. Then it happened again. Something just clicked, and I began our Connie’s Kids facebook page. I began interacting with wonderful customers all over the globe, and I think they enjoyed putting my face to a name, as much as I did in return. I found that instead of the internet making things “impersonal”, with facebook I could get very personal with my customers, and share in their lives, as well as them getting a glimpse into mine. I have not only forged new friendships this way, I have even had the pleasure of meeting many of my customers all over the states when I travel. I remember last year, flying home from a buying trip to Vegas, I was stranded in Detroit in the dead of winter, and posting my frustration on facebook of not having luggage with me to stay overnight, and not even having a coat. A Connie’s Kids facebook follower read my post, told me she lived in Detroit, and offered to BRING ME A COAT! Although I didn’t take her up on her offer, that is one act of kindness I will never forget. There are so many more, but I’m sure you get the picture.
We had a great run……..26 years of memories is nothing to sneeze at, yet I would love for it to have been 26 more.
I loved being able to dress my own children out of my shop, and I have enjoyed dressing my two beautiful granddaughters Maddie & Finley for a few years, but it makes me sad that they will never remember Nonnie’s shop.
Maddie striking a pose for Nonnie on her 1st birthday!
The greatest blessings in my life, Maddie & Finley!
Finley’s 1st Birthday!
In closing, I relate my story to the story line in the movie “You’ve Got Mail”. I lament that my story won’t end as happily as Meg Ryan’s did… her store closes, but she gets Tom Hanks and a sailboat! I dissolved in a puddle of tears every time I watched her saying goodbye to her customers, in a store she grew up in, that her mother started. (I’d hoped to be able to pass mine down to my children someday too.) When she leaves her store for the last time she envisions the memory of her mother twirling her around as a little girl in her store. I have many such memories, many with my own children, and many with yours. But when I really think about it, I will end up MUCH richer and better off than Meg. She can have Tom Hanks and his sailboat. I will have my family, a loving and supportive relationship, good friends, my home by the bay, my health, and a very happy future. I am looking forward to my next adventure. God does not shut one door without opening another. Stealing the words from the movie, because I can’t figure out a better way to say it, “After 26 years we are closing our doors. We have loved being part of your lives.”
I hope we have made a small difference in your lives. You made a HUGE difference in mine!
I sincerely thank all of you for your loyal support and genuine friendship over the years. YOU made my 26 years with Connie’s Kids so wonderful and meaningful, that I never felt like I was working! We shared laughter, tears, happy occasions, and sad, and many of you feel like family to me. That will be the most difficult part of closing the shop….not seeing you and your children anymore, and not having the enjoyment of watching them grow. I thank each and every one of you who I have met along the way.
With a heart full of gratitude and love, Connie
We had the honor of dressing the two ring bearers for the Austrian Royal Wedding last year!
Opening Day, April 19, 1987!
26 Happy, Happy Years!
Enjoying one of the over 50 buying trips made to Atlanta, this one with my mom & daughter, Lindsay.
Cheers! It’s been a great ride!