Vantage Point: Retail success may be in the blood

Vantage Point: Retail success may be in the blood

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Does anyone remember when merino wool became a “thing”? For years this fabric appeared in high-end sweaters and socks, but within the past decade, it exploded into other categories. It became big in technical and performance athletic wear and we’ve now even got merino wool shoes. A North Bay company led the way. But the saga of its rise and fall shows how difficult the retail marketplace can be.

This Sonoma-based company, named “Qor,” started up a half-dozen years ago and quickly established itself as a leader in merino wool in high-end athletic and athleisure wear for men. Joe Teno, former CEO of the women’s line Athleta created the company with a couple of colleagues. Qor was aiming for a “more sophisticated look” for men, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. It also established a women’s line.

Qor’s website and print catalogs were well-done, the product lines expanded, and once a year held a great sale that attracted thousands of avid shoppers. Yet Qor quietly disappeared in mid-2019. No announcement, no final sales, no corporate takeover. Just failure. So here we had quick success and a stunning collapse within just a few years.

But, just 30 minutes away from Qor and within a year of its founding, we had the opening of a similarly innovative fashion outfit. This time it was a shoe company, Samuel Hubbard. Who knew we needed a new luxury shoe brand? Apparently Bruce Katz, a member of a century-old New England shoe making family, did.

Katz had formerly owned the shoe company Rockport; he sold it and became a world sailor. The story is that in 2013 his young daughter asked him about selling shoes again; after all, it had been the family business. So, with his savings, he started Samuel Hubbard (a made-up name) headquartered in Marin with a factory in Portugal.

He told me, “I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what it cost” to manufacture and sell his shoes. His emphasis was on European crafted quality, as opposed to the major existing shoe companies that produce them in China and southeast Asia.

In his first six months in 2015, he sold 123 pairs. Then he wrote a check for $200,000 for advertisements in The New York Times. Business started to pour in, via an attractive website and print catalogs.

Katz emphasizes quality customer service; every phone call is answered “live” here in California, and I know from my own experience that his phone reps are authorized to be generous in how they handle customer concerns.

Both athleisure and shoes are brutally competitive billion dollar markets. Why did Qor fail and Samuel Hubbard succeed? Perhaps a combination of financing (or the lack thereof), customer service and marketing. And establishing a strong identity that resonates with a customer base. Also, maybe a secret ingredient.

Here in St. Helena in 2019 we saw a couple of retail successes that tell a refreshingly bright story within the doom and gloom tales of local marketing. One success is AF Jewelers, which after eight years in St. Helena this year moved to a new and expanded location on Main Street. Carlo Antonini, who owns the store with his wife Kiki, couldn’t be more pleased.

In August, AF moved down Main Street to a “bigger store, almost three times larger,” says Antonini. It seems that Carlo and Kiki have been quickly rewarded by their investment in the new store. He says business “almost doubled” in the past six months, compared to last year. And AF’s holiday sales were “very good.” Plus, he likes his “great, high-end neighborhood” with stores like Acres and Pearl.

Carlo and Kiki are from jeweler families and Bruck Katz is from a line of shoemakers. Perhaps that is a secret to their success. This theme can be carried forward with Naomi Chamblin, the savior of St. Helena’s bookstore, now reinvigorated as Main Street Bookmine. Naomi’s father owns a bookstore in Florida and she grew up among its shelves.

She says after four weeks here, “It’s been great! It’s been a really busy month on the high end of my expectations.” Going forward, Naomi says St. Helenans can look forward to Bookmine-hosted events at the St. Helena Public Library.

Overall, after six years with now three stores, she says, “we’re doing well.” Naomi’s approach to business is to do things “very frugally,” such as moving carefully to selling new books. That will be the emphasis here in St. Helena.

There’s a British saying, “blood will out.” It means that our character is shaped by family background. That may be the secret ingredient in thriving in the tough world of retail marketing.

Mark G. Epstein moved to St. Helena from the East Coast early this century after a career in international business.

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