Though she faces tough competition from big-box stores, Mary Behrens has established a competitive edge at her Crystal Lake store by winning over customers with price and selection.
Mary Behrens knew she wanted to start a business after her five daughters grew up, but the former full-time mom wasn’t sure what direction to go. So, she started asking around.
“We consulted a few of the authorities in Downtown Crystal Lake, and we noted that people really missed having a kitchen store here,” says Behrens. “There used to be one downtown years ago, so that inspired me. I love to cook, I love kitchen gadgets, and I loved going into that store that was down the street.”
More than three years after launching her own business, Behrens’ Kitchen Outfitters, 64B N. Williams St., is a beloved staple in Crystal Lake’s busy downtown. Specializing in kitchen gadgets and related small electronics, the colorful store includes displays of coffee and tea-related items, adult beverage products, and tools for grilling and cooking, in addition to coffees, sauces and spices.
“I would say at least a quarter, or maybe a third, of what we have here has been requested by a customer,” says Behrens. “We really try to listen to the customer. If someone asks for a certain type of egg poacher, then I’ll try to find it and if I can get it, I will. And it turns out lots of other people are looking for this egg poacher, too.”
Behrens can speak from experience when answering customer questions. She’s tried pretty much every item in the store, as has her sister, Colleen, who works here.
Behrens tries to keep up with the latest foodie talk on television and in magazines. It’s a tactic that often helps her to stay on top of consumer trends.
“Alton Brown, who’s a TV chef, did a show about potato rice, and he recommended this really specific ricer that I happened to carry,” recalls Behrens. “Within an hour of that show airing – and I didn’t know this episode was airing – customers came in and I sold out – all because of Alton Brown.”
Product knowledge and dedicated service are important to the way Behrens differentiates her store from big-box competitors, but they’re not her only competitive advantages.
Some high-quality brands distribute exclusively to local, independent retailers like Kitchen Outfitters. Other brands, like Oxo, are found at big-box retailers but distribute a higher-grade product line to independent retailers.
Keenly aware of what’s available at big-box stores, Behrens puts careful thought into pricing goods competitively – even compared with online outfits.
“It’s funny, because I’ll have people take pictures of something, and I’ll ask, ‘Are you taking that to see if it’s cheaper on Amazon?’” Behrens says. “They’ll turn red, and I’m like, ‘It’s OK. I can promise you my price is similar to Amazon on this product.’”
Prior to launching Kitchen Outfitters in 2013, Behrens had experienced retail only through some high school jobs and a stint as a barista. Though she’d also worked as a legal secretary and in college human resources before raising her family, Behrens has learned plenty of new tricks on the job. She also credits her suppliers for coaching her, in the early days. Sales reps provided Behrens with many strategies for successful retail, she says.
Behrens’ husband, John, a local architect, did his part in transforming the downtown storefront from an empty box into a warm and inviting store, with red walls, warm wood flooring and white hanging racks. Through his connections, the Behrenses found help building a second-story loft and installing warm pendant lights.
Behrens learned pretty quickly that owning a business can be just as consuming as parenting.
“Now that we’re at three years, I’m learning I have to leave the store here and there, to take a day off,” she says. “Recently, I took a week off and went out west to visit one of my daughters. That’s something I didn’t expect at first, was the long hours and bringing things home to work on, and keeping up with the inventory. And the bookkeeping – that’s hard work.”
Behrens finds she can also rely on her children for consumer insights, new tricks, and keeping up on small things. After all, her family members work alongside her at the store.
“One of my New Year’s resolutions for next year is to make monthly visits and updates to my website,” Behrens says. “It’s so hard to do because it’s part of that time crunch. I’ve gotten better with Facebook and Instagram. I may hire one of my daughters to help, though. They’re great for that. It’s just so hard to find the time to do it all.”
Whenever she lands in unfamiliar territory, Behrens finds she can rely on a ready network of other downtown business owners. She’s made good friends with retailers like Lori McConville, who owns Marvin’s Toy Store next door, Stephanie Ormsby, who owns Wear Did U Get That boutique next door, and Mary Batson, who owns Out of the Box, a gift shop across the street.
“I couldn’t be sandwiched between better people,” says Behrens. “Lori opened just before we did, and she’s been great. We’re about the same age, she works with her daughter, and I have my daughter and sister here. Honest to goodness, it’s a bonus I never expected.”
The tight relationships she’s developed come back to the store in other ways, too. She’s quick to recommend other downtown merchants when possible, and she’ll occasionally team up with complementary businesses. On weekends, you can see Behrens demonstrating cooking products and handing out tasty samples.
“The Olive Tap occasionally gives me cooking oil, and then I’ll give them something to use,” she says. “I can demo the oils here, they do something there, and we send customers back and forth.”
The past three years have brought plenty of learning opportunities for Behrens, and she’s pleased with how much the store has grown and evolved during that time. She’s pleased to see the store is maturing, but she’s not satisfied with settling in. She plans to attend a housewares convention in Atlanta this winter, in pursuit of new ideas.
“I’ll be able to get together with other kitchen store owners from around the country and go to seminars with them,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to that, because at three years, I want to make sure we keep things alive and looking vibrant, always changing and moving upwards.”
Customers often ask whether that means a second store, but Behrens isn’t so sure. For now, she’s satisfied growing right here.
“It’s a lot of work to grow,” she says. “We do have some space upstairs that our landlord has saved for a possible expansion, because we are busting at the seams right now. It’ll be nice to expand a little bit.”
Behrens is finding that with a maturing business comes a new perspective on business ownership. Whenever newcomers join the block, she’s quick to coach them on the power of persistence and a positive attitude.
“If you talk to some of the people who’ve been down here for years and years, they’re great examples of get-up-and-go,” says Behrens. “Some of them withstood a lot during the recession, and it’s given me plenty of motivation and experience.”
Of course, it also helps to have a little fun.
“It’s been a blast. This is my haven,” says Behrens, who’s in the store six days a week. “I’ve never gotten up in the morning, in three years, and said, ‘Ugh, I have to go to work.’ It’s always: ‘I get to go to the store today.’ I don’t have any problems coming into work in the mornings – and I’ve never had a job like that.”