The retail wizards who put Coeur d’Alene’s three best-named businesses under one roof are beginning to think about the next horizon.
For Brett and Susan Sommer, it looks something like this:
• At some point, they’ll sell Figpickels Toy Emporium, Mrs. Honeypeeps Sweet Shop and Pappilon Paper Emporium. With Figpickels’ recent move, all three stores now reside in the Plaza Shops on Sherman Avenue. The Sommers also landed additional space in Plaza Shops for an office, for shipping and receiving, and for storing inventory that supplies all three of their shops. That gives them four strong footprints in one of the region’s best retail locations.
• Then: Consult, consult, consult. Oh, and find a little more time for each other and for their two sons, one of whom has been teaching in Turkey on a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship.
To the former bullet point, Brett Sommer, 53, acknowledges business is booming.
“We have three successful stores,” Brett said in the tone of a man declaring that he’d just eaten toast for breakfast. If you’re looking for boastfulness, you’ve got the wrong guy.
But building success for the long haul exacts a painful price in the short one.
“For us,” said Susan, 55, “having successful stores is just as stressful as having a store that’s struggling.”
Success for the Sommers is stressful because they’ve been working 14-hour days, seven days a week for some time now. Part of their investment in stress equity was mandated by moving Figpickels this spring from its location a block east on Sherman Avenue while continuing to keep Honeypeeps and Papillon percolating.
The Figpickels move hasn’t just been a success; it’s been almost overwhelming. An estimated 1,200 customers came calling the day of the new location’s grand opening, which set off a prolific stream of shoppers that has surged even more with the seasonal tourist tide. Its new home gives Figpickels 40 percent more space, Brett said, and well over 40 percent more business.
Now, about that second bullet point, and how it ties in with the first.
Perhaps the Sommers’ two greatest secrets to success are these: Look. And listen.
“What some people in the Northwest fail to do is adequate research,” Brett said. “You need to look: What isn’t there? In our case there wasn’t a toy store. There wasn’t a candy store. Well, there was one (the Penny Candy Store) and people really missed it.”
When you look and listen well and you have a creative engine like Susan’s brain — “I wake up at night with ideas, and sometimes it’s another store,” she said — good things happen.
They happened with Figpickels when the Sommers moved to Coeur d’Alene from New York City. The couple thoroughly researched what appeared to be a glaring need in the region — a fabulous, fun yet affordable toy store — but before making the investment leap, they dug even deeper. Susan flew to London and to Nuremberg, Germany, taking in two of the largest toy conventions on the planet. Armed with contacts and contracts that gave their store the European flavor they’d sought, the Sommers opened Figpickels in December 2005.
Brett and Susan don’t buckle under pressure for video games or cheaper, trendy products.
“A lot of people make the mistake of letting sales reps tell them what to buy,” said Susan. “I early on adopted the philosophy, ‘If everybody has it, I don’t want it.’ I want to stay true to my business model.”
Good things happened a couple years later, when customers clamored about how frustrated they were because nobody in downtown Coeur d’Alene sold gift cards.
“Well, that’s a clue,” said Brett. “Someone wants some cards here.” Papillon Paper Emporium was born and has been putting great cards and other quality gifts in customers’ hands since August 2008.
And good things happened again on a Friday the 13th — May 13, 2011 — when the Sommers hatched Mrs. Honeypeeps Sweet Shop directly across the Plaza Shops hall from Papillon. As so often happens to hard workers, fate fetched a friendly hand.
“Jerry [Jaeger of The Hagadone Corp., owner of the Plaza Shops] came to us and said, ‘We have an open space — do you have another idea?” said Susan. And it just so happened she did.
The site had been a candy store, but as Brett put it, the store was as short on imagination as it was tall on sugar.
“Everything was painted chocolate brown,” he said. “I didn’t want to go in there. I felt like I was being buried alive. It needed to be fun.”
The Sommers took over the space and made it fun. Even before customers walk through the Honeypeeps door, they’re greeted by a machine that whips up cotton candy for a mere two bucks.
Thorough research is imperative to launching a successful business, they agree, but their business instincts and the toolbox of business tools they’ve accumulated over the years have served them particularly well. Yet another of their many assets is perspective.
Brett and Susan have seen the penthouse of prosperity from poverty’s basement — and now, many years later, they still appreciate the view.
“You need to be really, really poor once in your life — or be homeless,” said Brett, “because when it happens to you, you never, ever forget it.”
That perspective sustains long-term motivation, the Sommers agree, and the appreciation of working hard and reaping rewards also helps in a host of other ways. Because they were so poor early in their marriage — they lived in Brett’s music studio, sans bathroom or virtually any other creature comfort — they treat their 15 employees better and continue to be committed to the best possible customer service.
For a place like Figpickels, customer service is dramatically different from an online source like Amazon.com — or many other toy stores, for that matter.
“With us, it involves demonstrations and touch,” Brett said. “It’s hands on — it gives customers an experience of having good fun with a product. And then next thing is, they buy it.
“You can’t get a demonstration at Amazon or most stores and ask a person there questions like where was it made and how does it work, or even, what’s cool?”
One of the principles that has made Figpickels and the Sommers’ other stores so cool to local shoppers is because that was a big focus of the couple in setting up shop here.
“We’re one of the few downtown businesses that’s built for locals,” said Susan. “I constantly shop [for product line] with my local economy in mind. I love the tourists — they’re the gravy — but I can’t imagine where we’d be without the locals.”
“We have high-end things,” added Brett, “but that doesn’t mean we’re expensive. We make it very affordable for our local customers because we understand how the economy impacts them.”
For instance, the Sommers describe a family with four children coming into the store to buy presents for someone’s birthday party.
“For $25 total, I can send all four kids to the birthday party with separate gifts they’ll be happy to give,” Susan said.
When the Sommers do reach the next horizon in their professional lives as business consultants, they hope to take Coeur d’Alene retail to the next level: Creating an enthralling variety of unique shops that would make the region a marketer’s dream. It’s the kind of dream that keeps creative businesspeople up at night.
Well, I’ll be figged
According to Susan Sommer, the name “Figpickels” came from a Southern cookbook she inherited from her grandmother. The cookbook misspelled the “pickle” part of the word but the Sommers stuck with the name anyway. “Makes a better toy store name than culinary dish,” quips Brett Sommer.
Figpickels — er, figpickles — are pickled figs. And no, you won’t find pickled figs on the shelves at Figpickels.
The music man
The Sommers actually own four businesses; three inside the Plaza Shops and one in New York City. When they lived in the Big Apple years ago, Brett started a music technology business whose most high profile invention is a keyboard contraption that he says “makes the 18-person orchestra in Lion King sound like 30 or 40 or 100 musicians.” That’s of enormous importance when a production like Lion King, Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera — all users of Brett’s brilliance — plays off Broadway in places like Spokane.
Whether it’s selling high-tech audio or good old-fashioned toys, the Sommers have held true to their most basic business principle: “Finding a business need and filling it.”
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