“That is gorgeous. It’ll go,” Amy says, watching a young girl shimmy into a full-length white prom dress. The bodice is shimmery, the bottom pushing out with fluff, the girl grinning.
Amy Baird is the owner of 360°, a consignment shop in Kalamazoo. She wears sparkling earrings, brown hair falling straight just past her shoulders, a nude and white lace shirt over dark cuffed jeans, sitting on a plump chair in the back of her shop. 360°, which dominates much of Kalamazoo’s consignment market, sells to both women and men. Consignment stores work off a seller- buyer relationship, at 360° a seller gets fifty percent of the final price and the business gets fifty percent, an even split for both.
360°, which is located in the Westwood Plaza on West Main, throws together styles for women and men, the stores display window stacked with the latest styles. Today, it’s there’s a striped full length dresses, a crisp white blazer paired with a huge necklace. Inside the store, shelves are carefully lined with colorful beaded heels, nude flats, Frye boots, display women continue to model the styles Baird finds each day. Baird remembers a woman who once came in, bought everything from the mannequins, and while Baird was redressing them, she left, and then came back in to buy the newly displayed outfits.
“We made rent our first month,” Baird claims proudly about the store, which opened in 2000. “Not anything more.” For a small business owner, breaking even in the first couple months is crucial. This was an immediate indicator of success for Baird, who says her father put aside money for rent at the beginning, which she never needed to ask for.
Baird is the sole owner, her husband originally pushed the idea for the store hard, after only one year of marriage. She studied Apparel, Merchandising and Textiles at the University of Kentucky, then moved into the corporate world, which was not for her: “Well, I had a boss, which I didn’t like. There was no real personal communication with people,” she says. 360° grew quickly at the beginning, since it’s opening they now have over 14,000 names in the computer, both sellers and buyers. “I am the buyer and I am the merchandiser. I am everything in this job,” she says.
She describes her college-self as a shopaholic. “I did everything everybody else did. I spent a lot of money on clothes,” she admits. After moving west to Denver, she came back to her hometown of Kalamazoo to help run Second Childhood, a consignment shop for kids: “I was helping her run that small business at the age of 23. I had all the freedom in the world,” Baird explained.
She opened 360° soon after that. She remembers her husband saying: “We have no money, we have nothing. That’s the perfect time to start it, we have nothing to lose.” The plaza where 360° is located was her ideal location, near the big colleges and in an area people frequented for shopping. Baird says she knew she wanted to own the store solo, describing her independence and desire for creative control: “I know how I want things done. I was afraid if I did it with somebody else, it would get in the way. I didn’t know what it would do to a friendship.”
Baird does work alongside two other women: Katie, who works two days a week, and Kristen Cooley, who has been with the store for three and a half years. Cooley laughs easily, a new mom to eight-month-old Bryson, and is wearing skinny Forever 21 jeans, a pink and white striped oversized t-shirt, tan pumps, and a turquoise necklace, bubbles of color layered upon each other. She and Amy sort through a handful of clothes thrown across the white counter. Fifteen seconds later, they’ve successfully picked out half the items to sell: a couple frilly summer tops, a dress, and begin the process of labeling, entering into the computer, pricing and then organizing each item.
Baird sees each and every item that comes in. Today, she has four racks of clothes to sort through, and unprecedented number of items came in on Saturday. She holds up shirt and says: “Shirt, yellow, teal, white pullover tunic, Trina Turk, Banana Republic,” and then picks the price: $22.95, explaining: “There are a couple things I look for. The brand, how new it is, you know, how current, even if it didn’t have a tag, and how well I think it’ll sell.”
Cooley describes Baird’s relationship with the store frankly: “People ask for her by name, people call it Amy’s store.” Cooley works the business hours of the store, 10 to 6, and contrasts her own relationship to the store with Baird’s: “For her, she is a bigger part of it; it’s always on her mind, the anxiety. If a customer has a problem, it’s her business.” She is quick to note the influence the store has on Baird’s family life: “Her kids are getting older, and they’re doing things. I don’t want to step between there, because I know she wants to be a huge part of the business, but I’d be there anytime she wants to go to her daughters dance recital.”
Baird herself describes being a mom and business owner frankly: “It’s awful, it’s really hard. It’s very stressful to be a woman, who’s a business owner, the breadwinner, and a mother. You wear every hat,” she says. Her kids say, “Look Mommy’s famous” when they go out and people recognize her. She remembers when the CEO of Yahoo was critiqued for taking two weeks off after pregnancy, and recounts taking one week off, explaining that’s what a single business owner does. Her kids are 10 and 6 and her husband works part time at FedEx, mostly for the benefits. Baird laughs at the thought of having hobbies, hoping that when her kids get older she’ll have time to do things for herself again. “I don’t know if I’ll hand this business down to my daughter, because it’s so stressful,” she says.
Baird says the businesswoman aspect of her job isn’t the hardest one, when the economy dipped in 2007, 360° felt the impacts. She recounts: “People were like ‘God your business must be great because it’s used clothing’ and I’m like ‘you know, not really.’ Because if nobody’s buying anything new, I’m not getting anything in, and then I have nothing. It’s a vicious circle.” Plato’s Closet, a nationwide chain specializing in clothes for “teen and twenty something guys and girls”, opened across town in 2007, forcing a contest in the Kalamazoo consignment scene for the first time in Amy’s ownership of 360°. “I had anxiety every single day. I’d been coasting along for 7 years, and all of a sudden I had competition,” Baird recalls. Plato’s Closet, she says, dominated the tween market, and she shifted to a slightly older focus group, 22-45. 360° got a better selection, carrying slightly more upscale brands like Banana Republic and JCrew.
One of the biggest challenges these days, Baird says, is the ability of customers to post bad experiences online: “You have a bad experience at a small business, people take it to heart, you know, it really affects your sales. I don’t think a lot of people think about that. It’s really hard to be a small business in this day, because most people will go where the best deal is. I have lots of loyal customers, but even people you thought were loyal are not. And it’s hard to not take it personally.” Being engrained in the community is difficult as well, “You gotta go and try to make everybody happy, and it’s stressful. And we live in the community. The community of 360° does have it benefits though, and a 13-year relationship with customers is a long time. “That’s 13 years they’ve been coming. I’ve seen them get married. They change their name and I forget their new name,” she says.
Baird is now sorting through a new rack of clothes, when a mother and daughter come in, looking for a full-length nude dress, a young bridesmaids dress, in a children size. 360° doesn’t carry children’s clothes, but Baird, Cooley and a random customer quickly list six or seven other stores they could try, pulling out iPhones and helping the women brainstorm. The customer recommends Rent the Runway, telling about how the girl could get a dress for just a short time and then send it back, renting an outfit for the wedding. Cooley says this is one of the strengths a small business has: “We all have communication, so if a customer has a problem or there’s a unique customer, we kind of all know what’s going on.” The woman and her daughter leave clearly pleased with the visit, despite having purchased nothing.
For the upcoming summer, and the three racks of items still waiting to be sorted, Baird says the store can be unpredictable. On the first sunny days, people are often outside, they don’t come into the store: “they’re on walks, they’re eating outside, they’re exercising,” she explains, then after a couple of nice days, they come to get their new things. She recites her motto for the store: “I’d rather have somebody come in and buy five things at a less expensive price than just one. That way five sellers make profit.” Cooley tops it off, “There must not be a place like this anywhere else. People say, they move to New York, and they send their stuff home, and they move to Chicago, and they still send their stuff here.”
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Target: The Kalamazoo Gazette