It's one of the oldest retailers in Columbus, having opened its doors downtown in 1936 before various moves to the malls, Main Street Village on the north side, and its current location in the Bradley Park shopping area.
So there had to be at least a little pressure when Tiffany Yarbrough made a decision to buy the Rollins Way store in January, less than six months after longtime owner Rick McKnight had sold it to another party, a move that did not work out.
"I would say there's definitely pressure," Yarbrough, 29, said during a recent visit to her store. "People want to see the Kiddie Shoppe around and I think people want to see it succeed. I certainly do."
The Hatchechubbee, Ala., native and Columbus resident draws some of her business sense from one side of her family that operated a lumber company for years, and another that put roofs on houses, with residential property management in the mix as well.
Yarbrough also had worked with Kelly's Kids, a Tupperware-like children's clothing business with home parties, for five years. That experience gave her a good feel for her world now at the Kiddie Shoppe.
That has included shopping months ahead of seasons at a "mart" in Atlanta, with Yarbrough returning not long from buying clothing she will sell next spring and summer. And that with the autumn leaves not having begun to turn yet.
She has help from her six part-time staffers and husband, Josh, a commercial lending officer at CB&T of East Alabama, who jumps in whenever possible to ease the load on his wife, who also happens to be a mother of two young children, ages 5 and 2.
"Poor thing," she says of Josh, chuckling. "He's a commercial lending officer by day and a Kiddie Shoppe employee by night. He goes to the mart with me when he can get off work. And even at lunchtime, he comes to help. It's a family event."
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Yarbrough about her job, its challenges and fun aspects, as well as the prospect of keeping a business launched in 1936 by a local couple named Philip and Ada Pomerance not only surviving, but thriving. McKnight had owned it since 1991.
This interview is edited for length and clarity, with an expanded version available at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
Would you say you're trying to gain momentum?
We're still trying to get (the store) back where it's supposed to be. I don't know exactly what happened. It just hasn't been the Kiddie Shoppe that people expected it to be in the last year or so. I think it was probably just a change of owners. That and you have to set up all of the accounts with the vendors and everything else, and I think that can hurt things a little bit.
Rick had a certain zeal for the business and a connection with customers?
Exactly. It's just having to build those relationships back up. They have no clue who I am. Thankfully, just in the last eight months, we've gone from customers not having a clue who I was to them calling and saying: Pick out an outfit for my child, or pick two outfits and I'll come in and choose between them. They have that trust now, knowing I'm not going to pick out something crazy.
Or some of our older customers who can't make it into the store will call every now and then to order a gift without actually coming in the store to shop. They just say: I want to spend 60 bucks, pick out a baby gift and wrap it for me.
You do that personally?
We all do it. I'm here everyday. The only time I'm out of here is if I'm sick or have an event with one of my children, or at the market. But I'm here everyday, all day.
Did you have any other retail experience before this?
It was just the Kelly's Kids. I know that this sounds crazy, but that did prepare me for the seasonal stuff. That's because I think a normal person coming into retail wouldn't have a clue about certain things, like the fact that we are just coming back from market buying for next spring, and fall (merchandise) is just now hitting our floor.
You've already bought the holiday stuff?
Yeah. And we just went this past week to buy for spring and summer. It's like, wait a minute, we're picking out bathing suits, while we're now letting bathing suits go below cost because it's clearance. It doesn't make any sense in your head.
But being a Kelly's Kids rep prepared me for that because we were prepping a season ahead already. Like in January, we were selling summer clothes.
But, otherwise, I didn't have any experience. Mr. Rick has been just amazing. I can call him or text him at any time ... Thankfully, he did this long enough that he's willing and able to give me the advice I need to continue doing it the way it should be done here.
So Rick's your unofficial consultant?
I would even call him official (consultant). He's great. Honestly, I couldn't have done this without him ... His daughter actually went to the first market with me. It wasn't apparel. (It was toys).
That's one thing we've done. The (previous) owner had taken out all of the toys and gifts. That was one of our first moves, bring all of that back in here. And I think that's been a good move. I think people like being able to come in and pick out a birthday gift and have it wrapped and ready to go out the door. And I think the kids enjoy it, too, being able to play with stuff when they come in here.
The previous owner made some significant changes?
She took out the toys and she also brought in maternity clothes. We also did away with those. They did well. There is a maternity market (in Columbus). But there's only so much room in here and I chose toys over maternity.
How are things going in your first summer?
I've been amazed since the beginning of August how crazy it was with going back to school. We do all of the shoes for St. Luke, the white uniform shoes. Rick and I went at the end of April and measured for the shoes.
If they want to, (customers) have a form to fill out so they can pre-order the shoes. They don't have to pay and we have the shoes here in stock for them before school. We had probably 100 pairs of shoes pre-ordered and those have already gone out the door.
And then the normal tennis shoes that the kids have to wear, or Mary Janes or whatever, that has been crazy just with school starting back.
The school business has to be a nice thing for you?
We can't force them, of course, to buy from us. But we're the only store in town that offers the white ones and it's guaranteed we have them in stock. So unless they go to the Internet, there's really nowhere else that they can get them here.
In essence, you're mirroring the way Rick did things?
Rick and I, of course, are different, so there are some things that I do completely different than he did. But, for the most part, I think he did a great job with the store. He was obviously extremely successful for 20-plus years with it. So why not follow the leader?
How is the job different for you?
I do have to balance being a mom and being a store owner. That's probably the toughest part of this, is figuring out what to give 100 percent and when, because your kids need you, and that's obviously more important than this.
But this business is like another baby. You have to give it time and nurture it ... That's something I don't think (Rick) had to deal with as much as I do, at this point at least. I'm sure he might have at one time.
Juggling mom and businesswoman is a big deal?
That's definitely it. Thankfully, my husband and I have two sets of parents here in town and they are extremely supportive. We can call them at any time and ask, can you pick up the kids. Most of the time they call us by Wednesday and they're like, which one has them this weekend. They're really good with my kids, my two babies. I can't ask for more. If I didn't have that support, I don't know what I would do.
Do the kids spend time in the store?
And help you with merchandise choices?
Maybe a little bit. My little boy loves the tractor stuff. That was Mr. Rick's idea, to bring in the John Deere tractor items. Thatch loves that, so I do let him look at the catalog. The things that he likes we kind of lean toward. Of course, you try to hit that sweet spot on pricing, too, so some of the stuff he points out we can't get.
And my little girl, she just has a certain idea of what she wants to wear and it may or may not be the popular thing, so I can't listen to her. But she does like to model. She thinks she's the official Kiddie Shoppe model.
She likes to try on things?
She does. Honestly, that is a great help. I know it sounds so silly to us. But just taking pictures of the clothes on a hanger don't do them justice. When you take them on a person, it's a huge difference. So she's actually helped us a lot by doing that. We will take the pictures and stick them on Facebook. People see it on somebody and an outfit that's been sitting on the rack starts selling?
It's safe to say social media works?
It does work ... A lady came in just this morning and bought a pair of Keds. She said, 'I saw one of the going back to school pictures on Kiddie Shoppe, and I didn't know that y'all were even here.
But now I know and I came in and bought them' ... We do Facebook, but I know now there's also Instagram and Twitter and Tumblr.
Newer parents today are more web savvy, so you have to stay connected there?
Yes. But Facebook, too, can be a double-edged sword. Just this week, my cousin commented on a picture for another boutique (away from Columbus) with a little outfit, and she said: 'Sold in a 4T.' I messaged her and said I have that outfit in the Kiddie Shoppe, what are you doing? She said, 'I'm sorry, I didn't think about it.'
I think it's that instant gratification thing. You see it and you want it, so you get it, whereas we didn't have the picture posted at that time. So she's sitting at home with a newborn baby scrolling on Facebook and sees an outfit and goes, oh, I want to buy that, and doesn't even think to check to see if we have it. So I told her to cancel that and buy it from me. (laughs)
So it can be a double-edged sword, because now there are so many of these companies that don't even have a brick-and-mortar store. It's only on Facebook and they're trying to undercut you every way they can. It's hard to compete with that.
So you are aware of the competition. Are you ready to take it on?
I hope so ... I still think people want to feel the clothes, to try them on and see how it looks, Like I said before, seeing them on a hanger and seeing them on a person are two completely different things. And even then, seeing them on my child versus your own child is a totally different thing. They have different complexions, different builds. Being able to touch it and feel the texture and try it on is a huge thing.
That goes for shoes as well?
So many people these days have no clue what size shoes their kids wear. We have some come in and when we measure the shoes for them, they need to be in an 11 and they'll have their foot crammed in a 9 or in a 3.
They're either way too big or way too small, and they're just buying them for what they think fits, what the kid says. You can't go by what a kid says with their feet. That's important. It stays with them for life. If you don't have good shoes, you're not going to have good posture.
What's a typical day like for you?
Both of my kids are at Glenwood. Thankfully, they have a 2-year-old program, so both of them can be together all day, and they have an after-care program where they can stay until my husband picks them up.
So I drop them off and come straight here, about 8:30 or 8:45 most mornings, and usually do all of the stuff that we didn't do the day before, because at the end of the day I'm ready to get home to my babies. So I'll go back straighten the shoes, take inventory and order fill-ins.
Ten o'clock comes very fast and that's when the doors open. It stays pretty steady and it's usually me and at least one other person throughout the day. We're receiving orders, having to get those input into the system and out onto the floor. And, of course, doing the everyday meeting with the customers and being on the floor to help them.
Are your batteries run down at the end of the day, although at age 29 you should have plenty of energy?
Oh, gosh, with two kids and this? (laughs) Two weeks ago, we were here 'til 1 o'clock in the morning changing displays and then had to come back in Saturday for a sale that day. We're open until 5 on Saturday and our last customer walked out the door at 6. And then Sunday we came in to set up a new shelf and a customer knocked on the door. So we let them in.
It's hard to turn them away?
Exactly. If I'm here, I certainly don't mind helping somebody. She was a military wife and they had just moved here and had two kids and needed shoes for school. So we fit them and got them taken care of.
Is it difficult keeping up with trends? Rick was good at that?
I've kind of stuck with the same name brands that he did, and the classic stuff. Columbus is still very traditional, in my opinion. They still like the very classic styles; they may change a little bit, but they're the same things -- some of them are -- that I wore when I was little.
The shoes are probably my worst thing to keep up with style-wise. I'm not a tennis shoe fan yet because my kids are so little ... There are just so many crazy colors and it's so hard to keep up with what the kids want, what's cool and in style.
Is clothing the lion's share of what goes out the door?
No, shoes, most definitely. That probably was one of the biggest surprises for me. I always knew this was the only place to get shoes because both of my kids come here to get theirs. But I didn't realize how much of a shoe business Mr. Rick did.
We do the baby walking shoe .. and we stock them in four different widths and several different sizes. Just the width thing makes such a huge difference on a baby's foot because very rarely do you have a baby come in with just a medium foot; that's going to be your typical shoe at a big-box store. You need all of those widths.
Describe what the mart process involves.
They have shows in several different cities, in New York, Atlanta, Dallas. But right now we're able to do everything in Atlanta. You go up almost a full year before you need the stuff and you meet with all of your vendors and write orders.
Is it hectic?
It is. It's a huge building. It's 13 floors, and all of the children's stuff is on the 13th floor. They also have what they call temporaries, which are new businesses that haven't established themselves to the point where they can afford to get their own showroom. They are set up on the first and second floors, and we do take time and walk through those and check out some of the new name brands.
But we set up appointments and run from one to another all day. It took me two-and-a-half full days this time just to get orders written for fall, and that was just for apparel. We'll have to go back for shoes, which is done in a hotel.
And then we go back for gifts, and gift market is probably worse than apparel because it is so spread out. It's not all on one floor. I had never been to gift mart. It's like literally everything from spoons and knives that you use in your kitchen to toys -- like the dress-up costumes we have -- are sold there. Who would think that it's all bought in the same place? But obviously these vendors have to go somewhere.
Thankfully, we know the stores that we are going to hit. We have appointments with them and I try to line them up by floors ... We keep going down until we're done and that way we don't have to go up and down on the elevators.
You have to be organized or you can be overwhelmed?
It's still overwhelming. I haven't left the mart yet without a headache. It's not my fun thing at all.
Why do you think the Kiddie Shoppe, after all this time, is still around?
There's not enough of these places anymore.
We even have customers drive down here from Atlanta, which blows my mind because I'm thinking: You live in Atlanta. You have like six malls to go to. Why would you drive to the Kiddie Shoppe?
But people don't want to go to the mall anymore.
They like this hometown feeling of the boutique where you know the owner and we know your child's name.
I like that connection that we have with the customers ... I think that there's something special about that connection.
It's the personal interaction with customers that you enjoy the most about your job?
Definitely ... I love just being in the store and seeing the customers. I'm amazed, just since January, how many friends that I've made being here. I'm not going to say we're best friends or anything like that, but we have a connection just because I'm in the store and I see these people.
I'm already seeing their kids grow up.
You don't see it in a 12-year-old. But in a baby that came in here in January versus August, you see a huge difference. Now they're walking. It's awesome to be able to see that.
I did that with Kelly's Kids, too. There were kids that I dressed from the time they were born until they were 5 years old. It's so neat to watch them grow and change.
Name: Tiffany Yarbrough
Hometown: Hatchechubbee, Ala., in Russell County
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 2003 graduate of Glenwood School; attended Chattahoochee Valley Community College and graduated from Troy University in Phenix City with a bachelor's degree in business administration
Previous jobs: Representative for Kelly's Kids; and managed managed family real estate
Family: Husband, Josh, a commercial lender with CB&T of East Alabama; and children, Elsie, 5, and Thatcher, 2Leisure time: Enjoys traveling, especially to the beach, and spending time with family and friends
Of note: She and Josh started a new "family tradition" this year of taking a road trip summer vacation. This year they traveled to Southwest Harbor, Maine, to visit family, making stops in Washington D.C., Lancaster, Pa., New York City and Boston along the way. "It was quite an adventure with our two little ones," she said, "but we made lots of memories that will last a lifetime."