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Big retail, local artisans sound off on the benefits of partnership

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West Elm LOCAL in Hoboken.
West Elm LOCAL in Hoboken. - ()

When Trisha Bailey started her soap business four years ago, she never expected to see her product on the shelves of a brick and mortar store — much less a national chain like West Elm.

“They found me!” Bailey said of the Brooklyn-based décor store. “They said they found me through Etsy, that they liked what they saw, and asked me if I would be interested in featuring my products in their stores. I was super excited.”

Bailey’s company Mindful Soap Co. is one of 11 New Jersey-based companies gracing the shelves at the West Elm’s newly-opened Hoboken store. Beside her product sits a variety of New Jersey themed décor items: throw pillows from Somerset’s Dirtsa Studios and Madison’s Ice Cream Social Shoppe; black and white photos from Hoboken’s Victoria Miritello Photography; and hand-blown glass wine stoppers from Lawrenceville’s Scott Staats Glass, to name a few.

The company introduced West Elm LOCAL, a program which focuses on highlighting makers and designers from the surrounding area, to a handful of pilot stores in 2013. Fast forward three years, and it was in every single one, domestically.

“The idea is to help connect our customers to their local creative community and further connect the local creative community to each other and additional growth opportunities,” said Mo Mullen, director of West Elm LOCAL.

So, why would a profitable national chain partner up with lesser-known local sellers?

“Our relationship with the artists in our LOCAL program is symbiotic — they help us provide our customers with unique local product offerings and experiences that build community and we help them by giving them a sustainable growth partnership where we can work with them based on their appetite for growth,” said Mullen.

“We’re in it for the long-term, so we’ve created a variety of different ways of working together with creatives that start in one store, can grow to an online partnership and even become a brand level design collaboration where they design and we produce the good with our global artisan network of production partners.”

Mullen told NJBIZ that West Elm’s store team members are empowered to discover local makers and make connections with local people. Bailey, for instance, was discovered through Etsy. But that doesn’t mean artists can’t give themselves a leg up — when Victoria Miritello started cold emailing West Elm’s buyer, she had only been doing professional photography full-time for about two years.

“It only took a week or two for them to respond. The West Elm in Hoboken was just coming to fruition, and I had already been selling in local Hoboken stores,” said Miritello.

Recognizing that her offerings would be a niche product for West Elm, she used that to leverage a deal. “I was basically just like, ‘Listen. I noticed that you don’t have a lot of black and white abstract photography, and mine speaks to a lot of people in a lot of different areas. I think your customers would be interested.’”

West Elm bought what she was selling. They decided that her abstract, Hoboken-focused photography worked for the product assortment they were trying to display.

Rather than run the LOCAL program like a pop-up shop, where artisans sell their own inventory, West Elm buys the products outright from artists.

“We believe this was an important part of truly supporting the small businesses,” said Mullen.

With over 7,000 LOCAL SKUs throughout West Elms 90-plus domestic stores, Mullen says that the value of localizing their brand is about connecting people to each other in their local community and connecting them to places their products come from. The store’s Maker Tool Kit, available on their blog Front + Main, provides additional tools and resources geared toward helping support the growth of small businesses like the ones featured in LOCAL.

As far as the partnership’s benefit to Mindful Soap Co. goes, Bailey said it’s helped her business twofold.

“When I can say West Elm sells my product … yes, I’m still local, yes, I’m still home based. But it adds credibility. It’s also just expanded my ability to advertise within more locations within the state,” she said. Her products have actually been featured by West Elm LOCAL for two years: First in the Paramus store, followed by locations in Princeton, Red Bank, and Hoboken most recently.

Additionally, Bailey believes the exposure has driven more traffic to her online store, increasing her revenue even outside of West Elm’s brick and mortar boundaries.

“Overall,” said Bailey, “It’s just been a real honor.”

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Gabrielle Saulsbery

Gabrielle Saulsbery

Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

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