Kiddie Kastle, a 67-year-old Louisville retailer of children’s furniture, has been fighting the battle of all other independent mom-and-pop retailers for some time – fending off the intrusions of the big-boxes and category killers.
The big-boxes are the familiar warehouse superstores like Walmart, Target, Sears, Kmart, Costco and Sam’s Club that began flourishing in the early 1980s by undercutting prices on all product categories across the board.
Category killers came about in the late 1970s, superstores that specialized in one sector of product – think Barnes & Noble, Circuit City, CompUSA, Sports Authority, Toys R Us – beating the independents on both inventory selection and price.
Kiddie Kastle was able to survive by providing quality merchandise and superior customer service and also by the emotions that come with those first babies. People don’t want to sacrifice quality at a time like that. And, perhaps more than that, parents who made that significant purchase for their own children at Kiddie Kastle want to keep the daisy chain going for their grandchildren, a gift that keeps on giving from generation to generation.
But Kiddie Kastle owner Pam Thelle has been facing an even newer challenge that is affecting big chains and independent stores alike: shopping on the Internet. (You’ll notice many of those big-boxes referenced earlier – like Kmart, Sears, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Circuit City, CompUSA, Toys R Us – are either gone or sliding into the abyss.)
“I’ve had people come in here, spend an hour looking at and discussing our merchandise with us, and then say, ‘Thanks, but I’m going to go online and buy it, I just wanted to decide which items I wanted to order.’
“Some are so brazen,” Thelle says, “that they’ll be browsing on their smart phones even as they’re talking to us. And then they’ll say, ‘Look, I can get it cheaper online, can you match that price?’ They think we’re overcharging them anyway, making crazy profits on everything we sell.”
However, Thelle has been a survivor ever since she bought the business from founders Bonny and Bernard Shaikun in 2005 after a nearly 20-year career with UPS.
“I remember thinking, ‘How hard could it be? Just treat people right and run a fair and honest business,’ ” she recalls. “A month later, Katrina hit and took two container ships out to sea carrying several of my orders from China.
“I had no idea what to do, I’d never owned a business before, I was just getting to know my reps.”
Then the economy tanked in 2008 and 2009. And in 2011, she was forced to uproot from the business’ old location in Shelbyville Road Plaza in St. Matthews, moving across the shopping center to make room for the new Trader Joe’s.
But all of today’s economic, cultural and technological changes are dwarfing those previous challenges. “Young people are disposable buyers now,” says Thelle, echoing the thoughts of retailers who sell everything from apparel and furniture to electronics and appliances. “They think nothing of buying anything they want, from clothes to TVs, for the lowest prices. And if it lasts just two or three years and then falls apart, that’s all right, they’ll go out and buy another one.”
Thelle says she’s also fighting the constant battle of youngsters who come in and try to negotiate, encouraged by TV consultants who urge them “never to pay full price for anything.”
“Do you think they go into Walmart or Target and ask, ‘Is that the best you can do on this?’ I kind of think not.”
But Thelle counts on the superior quality of her merchandise to buck those trends. Also the emotional component and loyalty of her customer base. Thelle herself bought the baby furniture for her three children at Kiddie Kastle around 20 years ago.
Local business consultant Ben Jackson is typical of Kiddie Kastle’s third-generation customers. Jackson and his wife, Linda, bought baby furniture at Kiddie Kastle for their son Jordan 30 years ago. And Jordan Jackson just bought a set of furniture there for his newborn son, Wyatt.
“I would say 25 percent of our orders are paid for, or at least supplemented, by the grandparents,” Thelle says. “They know our stuff is the best, and they insist on nothing but the best for their grandchildren, especially the first ones.”
And Kiddie Kastle, with its exclusive lines of furniture from prestige brands like Bivona, Smart Stuff, Dutailier, Child Craft and Million Dollar Baby, sells the best. Its well-made, durable hardwood furniture gives it an edge in the quality department over furniture made of pine and other less-durable types of wood.
Thelle has also successfully tapped into the local market with lines of UK and U of L logoed items.
“Jeff Walz (the University of Louisville women’s basketball coach) and his wife bought their newborn baby’s furniture from us,” she says, “and I threw in a U of L-logo highchair.”
She also recently sold a folding Cardinal highchair to Kelsey Petrino-Scott and her husband, L.D. Scott, a coach on his father-in-law’s Louisville football team.
“Kelsey is executive director of the Petrino Family Foundation and is in charge of the tailgate party before every football game,” says Thelle. “She said she’d be using the highchair every week before the game. That’s great promotion for us – all those young people asking her where she got that.”
However, the challenges never stop coming for small independent retailers. Thelle says she just found out her lease won’t be renewed as of spring 2016, meaning she’ll have to find yet another new home. And in a business where the mantra is “location, location, location,” she has to choose a place that will become as familiar to people as Shelbyville Road Plaza has been.
“My biggest challenge has been people not knowing where we are,” she says.
And, since baby furniture is not a regular shopping destination, that has to depend on people who value quality and service. Which means good word of mouth, positive prior experiences – and especially satisfied grandparents.