The retail industry is full of challenges: razor thin margins, finding great employees, having the right location (high traffic, good parking, affordable lease) and successfully competing with big box stores, brick-and-mortar businesses and web-based behemoths like Amazon. Being a retailer in downtown Grand Rapids is basically the same, except probably double the challenges. Maybe even triple.
Without a thriving retail culture downtown and with rents more in line with service industry (financial and legal firms, restaurants, etc.), existing downtown Grand Rapids retailers need to be super resourceful, extra scrappy, extremely good with what they do -- and always find ways to have a little fun. Basically, the 6.25 Paper Studio story.
So, when 6.25 Paper Studio turned five years old last week, Abbey Fowler, owner and operator, threw a party and celebrated their success with their employees and customers. Damn right!
The business first called MoDiv, the downtown retail incubator, home for two years and then moved to its present location at 40 Monroe Center three years ago. Fowler says there has been a lot to reflect on since opening up downtown. “Overall in the past five years, retail downtown has been up and down,” she says. “Things were promising when MoDiv opened (in September 2011), but quickly took a lull for awhile. We've lost some substantial retailers (such as VanHoeks Shoes and Schuler's Books).”
Despite the ups and downs, Fowler says she feels that downtown retail is more of an up than a down now. “The best change for retailers like myself is the growth of downtown dwellers,” she says. “With the new Mortan House, 616 Properties, The Waters Center, Arena Place, The Rowe, and more in just the last couple years, we see new customers every day that recently moved downtown (often from bigger cities like Chicago) with the desire to experience the city not as a destination, but as a home and community.
“I see this shift with the upcoming plans for Arena South and the West Side, but also in the small changes like the expansion of Grand Central Market and The Apothecary, the renovations at Madcap, the rebrand of Divani -- my favorite spot, and the fact that small retailers like myself, Gina's Boutique, The Vault of Midnight, Old World Olive Press and more are still holding strong,” she continues.
Fowler says that one secret to her success has been her blending of her brick-and-mortar location (which sells a wide variety of gifts) with her fast growing wholesale line of branded greeting cards
. “The retail side allows for decent cash flow and the opportunity to hire a larger staff that can also support the wholesale business,” she explains. “But, most importantly, our retail business is what allows us to connect with the community and feel part of the local economy. If we only had a wholesale business, we would have no public presence in Grand Rapids and, in my opinion, feel isolated.”
Besides the sense of community, her storefront also serves as a working laboratory that is driving her wholesale business. “In our niche of greeting cards and gifts, having the retail store also gives us the opportunity to test our wholesale product before selling to other stores,” she Fowler says. “The wholesale side of 6.25 Paper has grown significantly since our current brand launch at the 2015 National Stationery Show. We signed on about 30 stores from that show and are now in over 100 boutiques around the world, plus a national chain. Growth of the wholesale business is the most scalable part of our company, and I'm focusing much of my own attention there.”
Fowler says she works with both local and regional designers and illustrators to create her greeting cards and currently employs four employees.
To learn more about 6.25 Paper Studio, you can visit their website here.
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor