Retailing Insight


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 happen anywhere.

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 fitting.

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 barn.

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 career transformation?

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 America.

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 info@tinpanpress.com. Photography courtesy of Liz Luby and Norton’s U.S.A