How One Retailer Thrives -- Even in Detroit's Worst Times

According to a conversation Mary Liz Curtin had with Portfolio, the worst of times may be behind the people of Detroit. Curtin is the owner of Leon & Lulu a 15,000-square foot retail store that sells gifts, clothing, and furniture.

All this optimism comes from a woman whose shop continues to thrive even in the darkest days of the auto industry. Her company employees 32 and has currently expanded to include a web presence.

Integral to the companies success is Curtin's unique approach to doing business.

Fun Fun Fun. The store's mascot, a dog named Spot, greets shoppers as they enter the store. That hopeful look in his eye is all about the bits of the free cookies shoppers might leave behind for him. And there are always complimentary welcoming goodies. Spot got hired during the Adoption Day hosted at the Leon & Lulu, one of the many in-store shopping experiences which creates the fun brand.

Knowing Your Customer. The edge comes from having retail in the her blood. Curtin says that she learned to walk at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago trailing behind her shopkeeper mom. Therefore she has that fundamental of knowing your customers down cold. That means accounting for how their tastes, budgets, and willingness to take risks in shopping will fluctuate, both as they and the economy change. For example, the store will stock those safe items like Frasier candles as well as more provocative designs for gifts and basics like clothing and furniture. The name of the game is to communicate through the merchandise that you have gone the distance pre-shopping for shoppers.

Giving Back. Thanks to the 15,000 square feet, Leon & Lulu is probably the first place nonprofit organizations in need of a place to do good stop. The result could be a gigantic blood drive or a fundraiser with a cool theme. Curtin even donates merchandise to silent auctions. There's no way of assessing the return on investment in the word of mouth publicity which happens and seems to have a forever shelf life. In 2009, there were 51 activities in the store on behalf of charities.

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