How a Rhode Island store owner is riding the monsoon wave

in work from homeIn the Shop Talk series, we talk with home furnishing store owners across the country to hear about their hard-earned lessons and challenges, big and small. This week, we spoke with Kaitlin Smith, who opened a Highpoint Home store in the beach town of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, a little more than a decade ago. Contrary to a typical career path, she started in the retail path with her aspirations eventually to launch her own interior design company. In the future, Smith is open to nailing this transition, repeat customer, and expansion potential.

What was your professional background prior to opening Highpoint Home?
I worked in the fashion business in New York, on the wholesale side, and work for some major department stores. Then I ended up leaving town because I got married and my husband was from Connecticut, and our commute wasn’t to work. I decided to go back to school for interior design, so I started a program and opened this shop at the same time. It looks like they will go hand in hand. Watch Hill is a seasonal forum, so it felt like a commitment, but also like, “Okay, I’ll give it a try for one season.” I thought I could build an interior design business out of the shop. I’ve worked in stores – I actually worked at Watch Hill growing up – and I understand retail, so it sounded fun to try. Eleven years later, I’m still in the same place.

“Palm Beach Meets New England” is the vibe at Highpoint Home Courtesy of Highpoint Home

What is the character of your store?
Palm Beach meets New England. Lots of colour, lots of patterns, but also lots of classic New England elements. I love antique furniture. Most of what I carry is antique, whether it is wicker or wicker that I will paint. Any kind of interesting furniture can be reimagined, whether it’s painted or refurbished – that’s what sets my shop apart from the rest. What you find here, you won’t find in supermarkets.

Who is your typical customer?
locals. That’s an aspect of this seasonal business that I love – it’s a lot of faces returning every summer, people who have homes here. They want to come over every summer, maybe just to freshen up their house a bit and get new pillows or a new lamp. There are a lot of parties here in the summer, so I see a lot of local customers who will come for a hostess gift or a wedding gift. However, Watch Hill is definitely a destination now, and I have a lot of day hikers on it. Everyone who loves color is my customer!

There are a lot of customers who want a little guidance. They may not be looking for an interior designer, but I’d be happy to help if they came and said, “Hey, take a look in my living room. I just bought a new sofa. What pillows do you think would work?” Design their entire home, but they want more than just the internet to find out what they want.

And your company went out of business?
I had no experience working for a great interior designer. It was the opposite: going out on my own and making my own mistakes. At first, a lot of local customers would come and say, “Hey, can you come help me with a rug?” I [went from] Starting small, with just a few projects, to make renovations, and then eventually whole new building projects. Like many things, it has grown with experience.

Do you have a favorite seller or seller relationship you’d like to shout about?
There are a lot of great fonts in the store. I do a lot with furnishings and love Maatouk. I love the fact that it is locally made in New England. I try to use as many local vendors as possible. This is another aspect of a small business that makes it look special and unique – something very different from a big box store.

How about one of your favorite items in the store, the one that makes you smile whenever you pass it?
Cushions are constantly changing and brightening up the store. It’s something I’ve had in the store since the beginning and it sells really well.

That was my next question: What flies out the door?
Fabric trash cans. People love them because it’s a beautiful thing that could be utilitarian otherwise. They add a little something to the powder room. These sell really well. And again, the pillows. People love seeing the combos you’ve come up with. Many of these homes have been in families for generations, and you look at the same thing over and over again every summer, and pillows can change the look of a room.

How a Rhode Island store owner is riding the monsoon wave

Smith is looking to target a very seasonal audience – many of her clients are in town for only a few months.Courtesy of Highpoint Home

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to opening day?
Since the season is so short here, it feels intimidating. It’s this constant balancing act to make sure the store is really full, but you don’t want to be left at the end of the season with too much stock. Over the years, I’ve learned that you definitely need inventory to make a sale. This balance is something I walked away from early on; I wasn’t willing to reorder or keep that much product here.

Otherwise, how do you deal with seasonality? You live in Connecticut most of the year, and then you live in Watch Hill for the summer, right?
Yes exactly. I live in Connecticut, but not far. My family has lived in Rhode Island for a long time and has always lived here in the summer. My husband and I met at Watch Hill, and his summer family is here too. Business here is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day – many shops have no heating. It’s really a seasonal business and it has its challenges, but it feels fresh every year. When I open Memorial Day weekend, my local customers are eager to come in to see: What does the store look like? What is the weather for this season? Not to say that I reinvent myself every season, but there has to be a novelty. During the off season, I travel a lot with my mom to get furniture, especially antique furniture.

What is the biggest challenge you face every day?
I try to be everywhere. I love being in the shop and want to be here and help clients, but it’s a challenge because I also run my own interior design business, and I have three kids. My aunt helps out in the shop when I’m not here, and it’s heartening to know the shop is in good hands when I’m wandering around finding new pieces, working with clients, or being a mom at the beach.

What about the biggest existential challenge?
space. My shop is very small, about 600 square feet. I like the fact that everything is full here and that I am constantly able to move inventory, but there is always the question – do I want more space? Would I like something that might be closer to a showroom, to have more furniture? This is something that is always in the back of my head, whether or not I want to expand. Early on, I felt very scared. Now, 11 years later, I have more confidence in the business. In general, bricks and mortars have evolved a lot. I think people want to shop on a small scale and have that curated experience.

How a Rhode Island store owner is riding the monsoon wave

Smith is looking to fill her store with things people can’t find online. Courtesy of Highpoint Home

How do you convey to customers that what you offer is more worthwhile than the cheap stuff on the Internet?
One of the biggest reasons the store works is that what they see they can’t easily find online. The majority of the product is customized. You can not find pillows on the Internet. I have cloth ice buckets that a company makes for me. Another reason the seasonal side is so effective is that when you’re on vacation, you want to bring something home with you. For people who are day travellers or people who are renting a house, I think this is a big aspect: “I bought something at Watch Hill and I’m taking it back to my other home.” I have a lot of clients who come back every summer and say to me, “Five years ago, I bought this hurricane from you and I use it in my Florida home and just love it.” They don’t buy in nickel and dread what they buy here.

Are there Watch Hill challenges? There is seasonality, but are there other aspects of the city that feel unique?
Like many beach communities, parking is always an issue. There is never enough. As Watch Hill grows into more of a destination, it brings in more people, which is good for business, but infrastructure is a challenge. What sets it apart from a place like the Hamptons is that it feels like a much smaller community. Most of the shops here are run independently, many by the same family for a long time. You don’t drive into town and see these big brands. And most of the stores are owner-operated – in this day and age, this is unique to resale.

What’s a great day as a shopkeeper?
It’s great to be insanely busy, but I think a flat day is the best day, because you’re already able to connect with your customers. Don’t feel like you’re running around trying to check people out. When the situation is flat and lots of familiar faces walk through the door, it’s a great day.

Homepage image: Courtesy of Highpoint Home

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