Living the American Dream - How One Illinois Retailer Is Bringing Success Back Home
Jenny Rose Lara
For former fashion designer and professional actor
Deborah Leydig, opening a 2,200-square-foot retail store carrying
strictly American-made goods wasn’t just smart business; it was a leap
of faith for a cause she believes in. Now celebrating its sixth year in
Barrington, Ill., Norton’s U.S.A. is doing better than ever. The secret
to her success? Building community the old-fashioned way. And that can
Jenny Rose Lara: How would you describe Norton’s U.S.A.? Is it a general store, a gift shop, or something completely different?
Deborah Leydig: It’s a real general store. We have food, hardware,
tools, clothing, toys, garden supplies, soaps and lotions, stationery,
books—you name it. I based it on a regular department store like Sears
or Walmart, and I went to those stores to see what they carried. If I
had more room, I would be able to fill a pretty big store right now.
Lara: You named your store after your beloved dog. Tell me a bit about the original Norton.
Leydig: I got him from a shelter. I already had an 85-pound boxer named
Ralph, and I needed my other half of “The Honeymooners.” So I went
looking for a beat up old guy, and here was this scared little dog. He
had a tail that came
off his left hip, and he was always off-kilter. But he was the most
loyal dog, and he was very unique. My store’s tagline is, “A uniquely
American general store.” So, the name “Norton’s U.S.A.” was very
Lara: Who are your customers? Are they locals as well as people coming from out of town to see your shop?
Leydig: We have a wonderful local base of shoppers, and we also have
people driving from as far as Madison, Wis. We’ve sort of become a
destination. We even have a few people who have bought online, and when
they’re in town, they’ll make a trip out to the store.
Then there are people who come in every week for their fresh eggs, and
in the summer we team up with a farmer, so we’ll have seasonal
vegetables available for customers who sign up in advance. We carry
local honey, pickles, fresh frozen pies—we try to get as much locally as
we can. People love to see what’s made right around the corner.
Lara: Take us on a stroll through your store. What do customers see when they walk through the door?
Leydig: Our counter is right there so we can always be welcoming to
whoever walks in. They’ll see our candy by the cash register and our
wrapping paper, which I hand-screen in the store. Ahead, you’ll go into
our housewares section, which I’m very proud of: We can outfit almost
any kitchen with everything you would want. We’re very excited about our
new gift registry, which we’ll be launching in the next two months.
We’ve become that place where kids can say, “We’re going to Norton’s,”
get on their bikes, and come on over. Their parents know me, they know
it’s safe, and they know we tell them to look both ways when they leave
the store. It’s something I grew up with, and now I can offer it to the
kids in the neighborhood.
We’re about six blocks from downtown and off the beaten path. It was
zoned light manufacturing, and the building is actually an old livery
Lara: Why did you choose that building?
Leydig: Well, I’ve always loved barns and old buildings.I looked at it
10 years before I bought it, and luckily the gentleman who got it really
fixed it up. When he decided to sell, I just couldn’t resist anymore.
Lara: Was there an “a-ha” moment when you realized you were going to open a store?
Leydig: The moment was when I drove by that building. As an actor, I was
getting tired of traveling. And, when you get older as an actress there
aren’t that many parts for you anymore, so you really do have to travel
a lot. I wanted to be at home; I wanted to spend a little time with my
husband. So, I was already thinking about it. I had even changed the
store’s name a few times. And when I saw the building, that was the
combination that made me say, “I’m ready.” There was already a contract
on it, but it fell through and I got it.
Lara: You were a professional actor for more than 20 years. Before you
decided to open your store, you played the role of Barbara Ehrenreich in
the stage adaptation of her best-selling book, Nickel & Dimed: On
(Not) Getting By in America. Did that experience have a hand in your
Leydig: It really did. You know, I’ve always believed in the American
manufacturer and the American worker and in the idea we can do anything
in this country. As I researched for the play I realized the “race to
the bottom”—the low wages, the cheap goods—was really affecting the
nation, almost to the point where we can’t turn back.
I can’t tell you how many people said I was crazy to open this store—I
was even called a protectionist. And I said to myself, this might be a
little more political than I thought! But it’s because nothing is made
here anymore that stores are flooding in cheap goods, and in order to
switch that around, we have to start making things again. People have to
be paid fairly, we have to make good products, and maybe we don’t need
four dozen pairs of shoes. As consumers, we need to try not to be such a
throwaway society. And that’s how I felt: how can I do something to
support the manufacturers that have stayed in America? They have really
suffered and worked hard to keep their companies here. And, luckily, now
some offshore manufacturers are coming back.
Lara: Is it difficult to find the products you want for your store?
Leydig: It’s really hard. I’ve been researching for about 10 years now.
When I opened I had 20 companies; now I have about 425. I could, if I
had the money and the space, probably have well over 700. The trouble is
there isn’t competition for individual products. We have one, maybe
two, dinner plate companies in the United States. We have one can opener
in America and very little clothing. Shoes are practically impossible —
you can get flip flops and a few work boots. We just don’t have the
competition to keep prices down. Still, the prices aren’t bad. When
people come into our store, they are really surprised. Clothing does
cost more because fabrics are more expensive and your workers are more
expensive. We’ve lost a lot of garment makers.
But we still make paper, and we still make plastic. In my opinion,
anyone who prints a book or a card in China really hasn’t done the
research. There is just no reason to; you can do all of that here in
Lara: Most retailers rely on imported goods to stay ahead. But you’ve
set off in the opposite direction. How do you keep it profitable?
Leydig: Well, I’m still a young business. But part of it is that, like
any other business, I’m reinvesting. When you’re starting out with 20
companies, you haven’t invested much money. But to get up to 425
companies, each with at least a $200 minimum, it takes a lot of capital.
So you keep putting that money back in.
There is so much more awareness for American-made products. People just
want it. I tell my customers this: When you shop at Norton’s, you can
feel good about yourself because you are helping to keep America working
— and you really are.
Lara: Let’s talk about the big picture. Is this a business model that
could work for the average general store or is it a niche market?
Leydig: I think it still is a niche market. First, you have to work
really hard to find the product, especially seasonal. Ninety-eight
percent of all seasonal gift items are made in China. So we work very
hard to find American-made products for the holidays. In one sense, it
makes it easy: When I’m shopping a gift show I get to go through a lot
of booths very quickly. “Anything made in America? No? Next!” But then
when there is something, I really stop and take the time. And I have to
consider the price.
Any store can have a very high-priced, American-made product:
one-of-a-kind clothing, for example, or shoes. We make beautiful shoes
in this country, although they are very expensive, $300 to $400 a pair. I
think it’s great, but that’s not who I’m trying to sell to. I want to
sell to the average person who comes in and wants a $45 pair of jeans.
And for some people, even that’s high.
For me, the whole goal is to help the American worker, so more stores
carrying these products means more people can buy them and more
companies can stay in business. And I think for anyone offering an
American-made product, you’re going to have someone buying that product.
Lara: Do you have any tricks of the trade? What’s worked for you, and what hasn’t?
Leydig: One thing I learned really quickly is you need to have
fully-stocked shelves all the time. I used to think if you didn’t always
have a full stock it was a good thing—it looked like you were selling.
But it actually makes it look like no one’s buying. Everything needs to
look new and fresh. We have so much merchandise right now that my fear
is shoppers won’t have enough time to see everything. That’s the
challenge this year: to make sure, with 425 different manufacturers in
2,200 square feet, everything gets shown.
Our customer service, our store greetings, and our events have made us
part of the community. We work really hard with other stores.
Competition is a good thing. Obviously, I don’t want someone across town
selling the same product I’m selling, but the more businesses you have,
the more people will come to your town and shop. And then your town
does well, your schools are better, your roads are better. It’s a big
thing we’ve lost and, luckily, it’s coming back with “shop small” and
“shop local.” People realize how important it is.
Another good thing is to hook up with a local charity and when you do
events, you can promote that 10 percent of sales are going to that
organization. People love it! It’s a win-win for everybody.
You have to open yourself up to the community: to customers, to other
stores, to the village president. We have a merchant meeting every
month, and I meet with the Chamber of Commerce. It’s really important to
stay abreast of what’s happening so we can all make it work the best
for everyone. Just be involved.
Lara: Do you think your location helps you to be successful?
Leydig: I would say no. Since it’s off the beaten path, it’s possible I
spend more money marketing. If you’re located downtown, or in a mall,
you would obviously get more people seeing your store. Even people in
Barrington still don’t know I’m here, and I’m about to celebrate my
sixth anniversary. That’s one reason we opened the online store. On the
other hand, here I get to have my yard, my dogs can be outside by the
door; there are things at my stage in life I need. But I would love to
open a store on Michigan Avenue, and hopefully I can see that in my
future. I think the company could go anywhere.
The online store is growing. It really expanded over the holidays and
helped our bottom line a great deal. But our brick-and-mortar store
still does better. Because of the generation of many people who shop
here, they like to feel the product, hold it, and see it, and they don’t
shop on the Internet.
Lara: Do you have any advice for retailers who want to explore bringing American-made goods into their stores?
Leydig: I think everyone should do it. Start by thinking of gift items,
like tablecloths or baby clothes. Take a look at your greeting cards:
you can make a nice profit on cards because you can fit a lot into a
small space in your store. Just look and see if they’re printed in
America—it’s a little area where you can really make a big difference.
If you have a patriotic corner, make sure everything there is
American-made, whether it’s pins or flags, paper goods or stickers. You
can get great stickers made here, and you don’t have to buy the ones
from China. You just have to do the legwork to find them.
I’m really grateful to those customers who come in and say, “Here’s a
great product, you need to carry it.” They help me so much. And your
customers will be really happy you’re trying to make a difference.
There’s been a lot of talk about American-made, on both sides of the
political spectrum. I have very conservative people come into my shop
and I have very progressive people. They just see the importance of it.
Though we try not to get political—that’s never good!
Lara: Do you do anything special with your displays? How do you tell the story of your products?
Leydig: We greet each person as they walk in the door. We welcome them
and ask if they’ve been in before. Then we tell them a little about
ourselves and ask if they have any questions. So you educate and you
enjoy. You’re not just talking about the product, you’re talking about
where it came from, and people get excited about it.
Lara: Your business has been up every year since you opened. How do you
keep your customers coming in? Do you use social media, traditional
advertising, or both?
Leydig: One thing that really helped in the beginning was radio. I
advertised on a progressive station here in the Chicago area, and it got
the word out, even to people just driving through. The first day it
opened I had 50 people at my store when I got to work—it was really
exciting. Now I advertise with that station three times each year.
Mostly it’s our own marketing—our email list and the postcards we send out—that truly brings in a lot of people.
Our village also spends a lot of money on marketing for local events we
participate in. Events can be great. I really don’t get much response
with Facebook or blogging.
Lara: What’s in the future for your store, and for you?
Leydig: I’m not sure I want to franchise, but I would really love to open a few
stores—one in San Francisco, where my son lives—that mimic my shop here,
and make it a really profitable business. There is so much potential. I
love what I’m doing, and I know I need a lot to keep me busy. And there
is so much I want to say about this issue that to sit in my one little
store doesn’t do it for me: I want to shout it from the rooftops.
Lara: Any last words for readers?
Leydig: I think one of the most difficult things for any store right now
is all the stuff you’re supposed to take care of: the social media,
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. It’s really hard to try to use everything
and not get bogged down. There is a very fine line between that and
staying happy, keeping your staff up, and not overwhelming them with
everything they need to do until it becomes drudgery. My only advice is
to keep the atmosphere in the store as happy and healthy as possible,
for yourself, your employees, and your customers. And then I think you
can’t not make money.
Jenny Rose Lara is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to
Pacific Northwest publications on topics from ecology to business and
style. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photography courtesy of
Liz Luby and Norton’s U.S.A