Basalt retailer digging deep to survive | AspenTimes.com

Basalt retailer digging deep to survive

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

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Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of an occasional series looking at how residents of the Roaring Fork Valley are coping with the recession.

BASALT -Black Friday – when retailers theoretically see their financial ledgers finally go into the black after nearly 11 months of toil – will be a bit more gray this year.It’s tough enough for long-established retailers to turn a profit in this recession. Michelle Lowe has faced the added disadvantage of establishing a business with a concept that is new in the Roaring Fork Valley. She opened Corky Woods, a department store with environmentally-friendly products, on Sept. 20, 2008, right before the recession struck with its full force.Lowe is a model practitioner of positive thinking. She’s determined to make it through the tough times and make her fledgling store work, but she admits the last 14 months haven’t been easy.”Obviously it’s been a huge challenge,” she said. “People say it is one of the most difficult years in retail.”It’s been well-documented that consumers crawled into a shell after being battered this year. Consumer spending is down and saving is up. That’s a challenge facing every retailer. Corky Woods is also dealing with exposure issues. The store is located in the Willits Town Center in West Basalt, the midvalley’s latest mix of restaurants, shops and lofts.If all had gone as planned, the place would really be hopping right now. Whole Foods Market, the giant of the natural foods industry, had planned to open a supermarket in Willits late this year or early 2010. The project stalled in 2008 when developer Joseph Freed & Associates couldn’t get financing. The developer and grocer are negotiating for a smaller space.Lowe said the opening of Whole Foods would have helped her business because there is so much cross-over between the audiences. Shoppers who would be attracted to the natural foods store would likely be interested in her shop, which features everything from environmentally-friendly cleaning products to clothing made with sustainable methods.Lowe doesn’t dwell too much on what could have been if Whole Foods had opened on time. She views consumer spending as the biggest challenge.”We could have a thousand people walking the streets and we could physically drag them in, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to spend,” she said.She was working on a plan to increase her exposure with unique signage and special brackets for solar panels on the outside of the store. However, her contractor went bankrupt and her sizable investment disappeared. Lowe has little hope of recovering the money.She has taken several steps to cut her expenses. There used to be four to five workers, including herself. Now it’s down to her and Lisa Thacher, who has been with the store since the start. Lowe took over her bookkeeping, marketing and numerous other duties.She’s cut back on her advertising budget and is steadily making progress on using a website and various social media tools to spur sales.Corky Woods is also adding Perky Woods, a coffee bar designed to create an environment where people can hang out and learn more about the store’s vision. Lowe always intended to bring in speakers on environmental issues and have book signings and similar types of events. The time required for the daily grind hasn’t allowed her to concentrate as much on that side of the business.A big part of her plan was to provide products for new construction and remodeling projects, but building has slowed to a trickle. She’s also tinkered with her inventory as she learns what shoppers want. Lowe and Thacher haven’t lost their sense of humor. They recently added colorful organic underwear for men, one pair featuring a banana and another a stallion.She bought 3,300 square feet of space for her store. The real estate will pay dividends as the business matures, but right now it is a big part of her significant fixed costs.One thing Lowe won’t compromise is the concept of Corky Woods. She believes the idea of a green department store is solid and one that will click with shoppers as time goes on. “It’s not just a retail store. There’s an idea behind it,” she said.Lowe started Corky Woods because she feels consumers have to put more thinking into their purchases – from avoiding toxic chemicals which dominate typical cleaning products and cosmetics to using recycled materials for kitchen countertops to buying clothes that aren’t produced in sweat shops.Getting shoppers to think that way isn’t going to happen overnight, especially not during a recession, Lowe said.In the short term, Lowe is optimistic about the holidays because people tend to be generous in gift giving even if they aren’t spending on themselves. In the long term she retains the optimism vital for an entrepreneur. She invested so much of her time, money and spirit into the store that she’s determined to make it work.”It’s not just a business. It’s a dream, a vision,” Lowe said.scondon@aspentimes.com