Never mind that it opened at the beginning of an economic recession. This whimsical gift store is thriving, thanks to its unique products, ideal location and loyal base of customers.
After spending much of her career in the insurance business and social services, Mary Batson decided it was time for a change. So, more than six years ago – as an economic recession was setting in – she opened a retail gift shop in downtown Crystal Lake.
Despite challenging economic conditions, Out of the Box, 71 N. Williams St., has thrived in Crystal Lake’s quaint downtown, which currently boasts a near-zero vacancy rate.
“I was a longtime downtown Crystal Lake shopper myself,” says Batson. “I’ve always believed in supporting local businesses when I could, and apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way.”
Batson’s store offers a unique selection of gifts for just about anyone on your list. Hostess gifts, teacher gifts, baby gifts, graduation gifts and items for teens and ‘tweens are just the start. Out of the Box also carries jewelry, handbags, watches, gift books, scarves, inspirational wall art, work by local artists and much more. Batson says some of the store’s most popular brands include Baggallini, Poo-Pourri, Kelly Rae Roberts, Embellish Your Story and Jellycat. Displays change often, so there’s always something new to see.
“I think what people appreciate and enjoy about our store is our selection, and the prices are affordable,” Batson says. “You can buy a nice gift for $20 to $30, or find something meaningful for $10. We provide a friendly, comfortable atmosphere that’s not at all pretentious.”
Batson’s customers agree. Many, like Mary Oswald of Crystal Lake, have been shopping at Out of the Box since its doors opened, and their loyalty has helped to generate new customers.
“I think what I like best is the uniqueness of the merchandise,” Oswald says. “The things you find there, you just can’t find anywhere else. It’s a gorgeous store, the way the displays are set up, and I recommend it to everybody.”
Bridget Messino, of Bull Valley, says it’s a quick, easy stop for many occasions, such as showers or parties that her daughters might attend.
“The store is filled with merchandise that’s different, at great prices,” says Messino, whose mother also shops there. An aunt from Arizona stops in whenever she’s in town, and sometimes orders gifts by phone.
Debbie Mink, of Crystal Lake, has been shopping at the store since it opened, and is now an employee.
“This has been my go-to store since it opened,” Mink says. “When my girls take a gift to a birthday party, everyone gets excited: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s from Out of the Box.’”
The store has so much to choose from that it can be difficult to make a decision, but Batson says her staff is always glad to help find the perfect gift. Visitors are encouraged to browse as long as they like, and free gift wrapping is always provided.
“Our signature boxes have become our trademark, and a much sought-after presentation for our unique items,” says Batson. “Everyone wants an Out of the Box box. We send people out of the store with a gift that is complete and ready to give. We want them to be happy and satisfied that they got the perfect gift.”
As a customer-turned-employee, Mink has experienced that relationship from both sides of the counter. “Mary always puts the customers first,” Mink says. “She wants them to be happy, and I’m proud to say I work there.”
Oswald says she shops there with her husband, and he often returns to buy something special for her. “They’ve always been very helpful to him,” Oswald says. “He loves Mary, and the staff, and how they take such good care of him.”
Batson says she’s always gauging customer interest, in an effort to better understand what they’re looking for.
“One thing I learned really quickly was to pay attention to my customers and what they wanted,” Batson says. “What I found is that they wanted something unique at a reasonable price. Even when people didn’t have as much disposable income, they still wanted to be able to give gifts.”
Although Batson has proven to be a successful and adept retailer, she actually started her career in a very different field.
“I was in the insurance business, then I took time out to raise my kids and did some volunteering in the community,” Batson says. Her volunteer work led her to a position with the Family Violence Coordinating Council.
“I finally decided I needed to do something just for me,” Batson says. “I needed something that was fun and fulfilling. This venture has turned out to be all that and more. It was an opportunity to do something fun and different, and completely reinvent myself.”
Out of the Box is the first business Batson has owned, and although she’s learned much in six years, she says she doesn’t much dwell on those moments, mostly because they’ve occurred naturally.
“I think you learn as you go, even if you’ve done this before,” she says. “The economy and overall business climate are different than they were just six years ago.”
Starting out, Batson sought advice from local retailers whom she knew and trusted. “Find a mentor,” she says. “It’s good to develop relationships with other business owners to be able to bounce ideas off each other.”
Perhaps Batson’s most powerful lesson has been the power of buying local, and the meaningful support of those who keep their dollars in the community. She’s noticed that the “buy local” movement first gained notice with the recession, and has grown along with the economic recovery.
“We have so many loyal customers at all of the downtown businesses, and they are very supportive of their community,” Batson says. “I feel that movement has grown, and it’s a very important part of our economy.”
The store’s location in downtown Crystal Lake has plugged Batson into a vibrant business community, something she says is fulfilling in part because there’s common support for those who take a business risk. It was, of course, no small risk for Batson to open Out of the Box in October 2008.
“We rode out the storm and now we’re enjoying what seems to be an upturn,” Batson says. “I’m happy to say we’re still here and doing well. We just have some really, really great customers.”
Batson currently supports her fellow entrepreneurs as the board president of Downtown Crystal Lake, a Main Street organization that promotes businesses and historic preservation in the city’s downtown neighborhood.
“Our downtown has great stores, great restaurants and great services,” says Batson, adding that shoppers can visit a wide variety of homegrown retailers, enjoy a good meal, get a haircut or see a show at the historic Raue Center for the Performing Arts.
“But, we have to work to keep it going,” she says. The downtown group helps to drive traffic through regular events and promotions, starting with “Slidewalk Sales” in January and ending with a number of holiday events in November and December.
Many of the business owners are involved in the organization, understanding that what’s good for one business is good for all of downtown.
“A good group of peers is valuable,” Batson says. “We do come together and network, and that’s so very important.”