The best part of Ellen Zibell’s day is in the early morning hours when she steps into her two side-by-side stores, the Perennial Gardener and Sense of Place. “I feel like I’m entering a whole different world,” she says. “It engages all my senses, from my sight to my smell. I just love coming in.”

The Perennial Gardener, a gardening and nature-inspired gift shop, and Sense of Place, focused on home decor, span 5,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space in historic downtown Fort Collins, Colorado. Zibell says her stores are best known for their “abundance of choice,” which also creates her biggest ongoing challenge—managing the inventory.

“We are wide,” says Zibell, who purchases from more than 750 suppliers. “I want the stores to look abundant. I don’t ever want any customers to come in here and think, ‘Wow, I wonder if they’re doing OK.’ I want this to be an escape. An entertaining experience and just a really feel-good place.”

Zibell opened The Perennial Gardener in 1995, and she recalls days of stacking boxes 5 feet high in the courtyard behind the store, covering them with a tarp overnight to protect from the elements. Eventually, she was able to purchase the building next door, a move she highly recommends.

“I’ve never been so excited to have a basement; it was like Nirvana,” says Zibell, who also uses an off-site warehouse now. “Retail is so unpredictable. If you can control your rent by owning your building, and also having that extra revenue stream coming in versus going out, it can be really key to your success.”

The purchase also left her with a big decision: Should she expand The Perennial Gardener or diversify with a second business? She chose the latter, opening Sense of Place in 1999 with hopes of widening her customer base to bolster both stores. And it worked. The courtyard that once held inventory overflow is now a backyard garden space perfect for displaying bird baths, fountains, pots and outdoor wall decor. Inside, guests peruse hats, scarves, jewelry, gardening tools, gargoyles, bird feeders, birdhouses and more.

“Both of the stores have really evolved over the years,” says Zibell. “We are all about creating an amazing experience for our customers.”

Teamwork and Mentorship

Before Zibell embarked on store ownership, she was the director of the Fort Collins Downtown Business Association. For Zibell, whose only prior retail experience was working summers at The Limited in college, the experience of collaborating as a team with local retailers proved highly influential when she set out on her own. She’d visit the proprietors of garden stores and gift shops in Denver, some 65 miles south, and ask to pick their brains.

“I’d just call them and say, ‘Would you just sit down and talk with me? I’m not in your marketplace, and if I ask you any question that’s uncomfortable, feel free to tell me you don’t want to answer it,’  ” she recalls. “And people were so open and giving, it was extraordinarily helpful.”

Zibell continues to call on her peers when she needs guidance, some 18 years later, and she’s sure to pay it forward by sharing her hard-earned knowledge with fledgling shopkeeps. “Getting information from people who are in the trenches is just invaluable,” she says.

Zibell also relies on the expertise of others when it comes to purchasing. “I really try to utilize our sales reps at market,” she says, “because they hear such amazing things that I won’t ever hear. I’ve picked up several really good lines really early on because I’ve talked with reps about what they’re experiencing out there.”

Attending the Alanta show in January is a priority for Zibell. There, she does the bulk of her Christmas buying and then freshens both of her stores for spring. In the summer, she alternates between the Dallas and Las Vegas markets, where she tends to be a “little bit more laid back” and her mind “more open to what’s out there.” Additionally, Zibell heads down to the Denver Mart every month, partially to stay abreast of new product lines and partially to keep in close personal contact with her sales reps. She buys in volume as much as possible to keep her margins strong in hopes of surprising shoppers with quality merchandise at lower-than-expected prices.

“I think a lot of times, because we’re a specialty store, they think the merchandise is going to be expensive,” says Zibell. “Our job is to get them engaged, to pick it up and look at the price and go, ‘Wow, that is such a great value.’ To get them excited.”

Zibell’s number-one strategy here is carefully designed visual displays, positioned “kind of like a pinball machine” to avoid aisles that simply point shoppers down the store and then back out the front again. Tables are placed so that customers are constantly changing direction, which encourages a meandering flow and a slower shopping experience.

“We are in the entertainment business, and I think most people in retail really need to look at it that way,” says Zibell. “I think the store is an escape. Customers really feel like when they come in, they’re entering a whole new world.”

Reaching Out

Zibell limits customer events to four each year to preserve their perceived value. “People know that when we have an event, it’s real,” she says. “Real discounts, real savings. They know we’re going to have an incredible selection for them when they come in, and they’re going to have a good time.”

Zibell uses ValPak direct mail to alert customers to her events, a marketing strategy she says is so effective that she’s used it for a decade now.

Internet technology remains an untapped resource for the stores, although Zibell recently hired a new employee dedicated to managing social media, joined the ranks of Facebook and has high hopes for Pinterest. Website construction is also underway, but she plans to use it as an information hub rather than for soliciting sales.

She isn’t in any rush to use technology just for technology’s sake. “I don’t want to do it just to do it. I want to do it because it either provides a value to our customer or it makes money for us,” she says. “I really want to keep our focus here on our current customers and building that base.”

And at a time when many retailers have endured their most challenging years, The Perennial Gardener and Sense of Place just experienced their best Christmas season to date. Zibell credits this success to staying the course. “When the economy is soft, fear is really strong,” she says. “Retailers pull back and don’t buy as much, then talk about how sales aren’t as good. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

On the advice of a fellow successful retailer in town (yet another mentor for Zibell), she implemented profit sharing for her staff of 18–20 people. It was an unusual move in a small-business retail setting but a tremendously successful one. Not only are there tax advantages, but the sense of ownership and motivation it instills in her employees translates to higher sales. “It’s a great benefit for staff, but it’s a really great benefit for the owner as well,” says Zibell, who encourages other retailers to think outside the box. “Don’t think, because I’m a small business, I can’t get into some of these areas. Because you can.”

5 Fun Questions

What is your most unusual display piece or prop?
“We had an old elevator from the early 1900s from an upscale department store in Kansas City. It was really cool. When Sense of Place first opened, we sold coffee out of it and called it the Java Lift. Now, we have several coffee shops in town, and I’m not

going to compete with them. So, we used the elevator for display space, but finally I thought, ‘This is just taking up so much space; I know we can get a better return on that square footage by doing other things.’ So, I took it out, and now it’s at my home.”

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently in your business?
“Gosh, so many things. But, there are so many things that had to happen to learn the ropes. I wish I’d tapped into my sales reps more. They have such a vast knowledge of the retail business. I didn’t use them enough as a resource. I feel like they’re this wealth of information, and you don’t have to pay for it. They can be a partner with your store. And I just didn’t look at them that way or take advantage of that at all.”

What fun things do you do for your employees?
“Last year, I kind of got a wild hair and decided to have an outing at a place called Fort Fun. It’s a local game place. They have arcade games and mini golf, and we ate pizza and—my favorite part—played laser tag. When you get a bunch of 30- to 60-year-old women playing laser tag, you connect on a whole different level.”

What one item were you unsure of when you ordered, but then it sold much better than expected?
“One of my trusted reps called me and said, ‘I have these Redneck Wine Glasses. I think you need to carry them.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’ I told her to e-mail me a picture, and when she did, I said, ‘I’m still not getting it.’ She said, ‘These are the hottest things, trust me, just buy them.’ So, I think I did like 24. I really went out on a limb. And then we started ordering in 72s and 96s. It was just crazy. People pick these up and start laughing and telling us the best stories about how they’re going to use them. Some people are even using them for wedding parties, while going horseback riding or camping. It was just great. So, that was a fun item where I went in where they had to drag me, but it turned out well.”

Have you ever had a celebrity in your store?
“Last year, we had Vicki Lawrence. That was really fun. I think one of her kids is at Colorado State University, so she said ‘I’ll be back!’ It’s funny because you think, ‘I don’t want to dote over you because you probably get that all the time, but yet I don’t want you to feel like you’re not special.’ But she was very kind.”

Photography by Kelly Mulhern