CONNECTING WITH CUSTOMERS: CLOTHING AND BAGEL RETAILERS HAVE SIMILAR CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
For two Eugene small businesses, Public Streetwear and Bagel Sphere, connecting with the community is as important as anything.
Article by VANESSA SALVIA
Even though Kate Reid sells clothing at Public Streetwear and Justin Freeman sells bagels at Bagel Sphere, they both face a common goal: connecting to customers. Everyone has to wear clothing and eat, but they have many choices as to what clothing to buy and whether or not a bagel is what they want when they're hungry.
Freeman recently purchased the already-established Bagel Sphere business, which opened in 1995. In the same spot on 8th and Willamette for 23 years, Bagel Sphere has one other location on West 11th in addition to Novella Café in the downtown Eugene Public Library. Reid's Public Streetwear business, on the other hand, just hit the six-month mark, with a brick-and-mortar location also on 8th and Willamette in downtown Eugene.
"I had an idea to open a boutique clothing store in Eugene focusing on the millennial and younger market because people I know said there's nowhere to shop in Eugene," Reid says. "Most other places to shop here have a very specific age demographic."
Streetwear is broadly defined as a clothing style originating from 1980s and '90s hip hop and skateboarding culture. "As an '80s baby, I connect with that," Reid says. "Streetwear has now morphed into every level of fashion. If you go to a luxury shopping mall in Las Vegas, for example, stores like Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana will have streetwear styles."
Reid took a class through the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and wrote a business plan about four years ago. She received some private funding from friends and family and a loan from the city of Eugene's federally funded Community Development Block Grant program, which allowed Reid to purchase inventory and tie the pieces of her business together well enough to open.
Though Reid wasn't sure the market in Eugene would support a more urban style of sneakers, hoodies, pants, jackets and t-shirts—they have.
"We've been incredibly successful in the months that we've been open, like, wildly successful in comparison to how a lot of new businesses do within their first six months," she says.
Reid sits on the Chamber's Local Government Affairs Council (LGAC), which meets weekly to review and take action on issues affecting the local economy. She's been involved in both the Eugene and Springfield chambers for the last decade and is on the board of the Downtown Eugene Merchants. Reid's business filled a niche, but one of her goals is to provide more support for businesses once they open, so they can enjoy continued success. "The Chamber is always there," she says. "And there is support to get open, but once you're open, it can feel like you're all alone."
Freeman purchased Bagel Sphere a couple of years ago when the founders wanted to retire. Though the business was already successful, Freeman needed to chart a path forward, which included strengthening their wholesale business. Freeman was formerly general manager of Hummingbird Wholesale for three years.
"I was able to apply some of those same skills and network connections to help drive that," he says.
The market quickly accepted these two entrepreneurs, and they've grown in part because they filled a niche and in part because of the network they found as members of the Eugene Chamber. Freeman just joined the Chamber, and says he's already made good connections and believes in the work the Chamber is trying to do. He says working with other entrepreneurs who are experiencing similar things, for instance, talking with a baker about supply chain, distribution and product mix and marketing, is one of the best forms of learning.
"Being in TrackTown, running is one of the best analogies I have," Freeman says. "Nobody runs their fastest time when they're running alone. They only perform their very best when they are running with somebody else who's helped pace them, who's helped push them."
Even though bagels are an innately popular food, Freeman still has to connect with the customer, make his shops a comfortable place to visit and make the bagels affordable and delicious. In order to make sure he's making his customers happy, he tells his employees each day that any customer who comes in could be having the worst day of their lives, but they still need to eat.
"They may have gotten a cancer diagnosis or gotten divorced," he says. "They may have had a loved one die. You don't know. And so you need to treat those people with love and with respect and make them feel welcome."
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