April 14, 2020 • Sarah Schwartz
This Little Bubble
A retail expansion helps a Texas maker understand, interact with and design for her audience
Belle & Union Founder and Creative Director Meg Sutton first became captivated by letterpressed cards while working in a gift store during college — but assembling trade show selling spaces for her wholesale range was when she first became enchanted with retail.
“I loved exhibiting at trade shows, and creating my own space from the ground up to showcase our beautiful products,” the 40 Under 40 Winner described. “Having a retail space was the ultimate version of this, allowing my visual merchandising and styling skills to flourish, really bringing people into a complete transformative space beyond simple amazing products themselves.”
>>ALSO SEE: Quick Q & A with Meg Sutton
For Sutton, another joy of retail arises from the customer connections, and the insights she gains from them. “The retail space allows me this little bubble to have one-on-one interactions with my customers. I find out what they are looking for and what they are drawn to, where there are holes in the market. It has created such a further depth to my understanding and knowledge about having a wholesale line, and I’m forever grateful for that.”
PATH TO RETAIL
Sutton’s store opened its doors in the summer of 2018 — but this destination was born in a roundabout way. She debuted her Southern-accented range of letterpress cards (with a few tea towels created on a whim) at National Stationery Show in May 2012, and first added e-commerce to her site in Fall 2014, effectively expanding into retail.
From the start, Sutton was very intentional about how her brand was positioned and sold. “I didn’t want to rely on a website like Etsy to build my retail audience; I wanted control,” she explained. “So we struck out on our own, deciding that if we were going to sell online, it would be (on) our own.”
In Spring 2015, Sutton expanded her Made-in-America range heavily into gift, specifically kitchen, which was a logical progression thematically speaking, Sutton noted. “Much of our line in the beginning took on a bit of a foodie twist, with our cards featuring food puns or tea towels with food patterns. It was a natural extension to continue down that road since we had carved out this niche for ourselves. It was a wonderful way to expose the line to stores that may not have carried us otherwise if we had been simply stationery.”
Initially, Sutton imagined that her retail space would offset wholesale costs. “At the time it seemed like a logical progression forward, with the goal of retail covering expenses such as rent and payroll to allow wholesale to continue operating at no additional overhead. It didn’t work out quite that simply, but I don’t regret my decision despite the difficulties we have faced.”
The Belle & Union flagship is north of downtown San Antonio in a development called The Quarry. The selling space is small, just 700 square feet. The entire 2300 square feet of space houses a wholesale studio space, workshop space and print shop.
“I’m surrounded by big retailers — Kendra Scott, Pottery Barn, Trader Joe’s — so I’m definitely the only small business on the block,” Sutton observed. “But I put the brand in an established space to give us a fighting chance within such a competitive market. Part of me wonders if a different location would have been more successful, but I could constantly play the ‘what if’ game. I’m choosing to make the most of what I have.”
The staff is also streamlined, comprised of Sutton, one full-time shop manager — “my right hand gal, Lo, who I could not do this without” — and two part-timers who function as both retail and wholesale staff. Presses are displayed so they’re visible from the sidewalk and inside the shop, and shoppers see them in action if Sutton happens to be printing. “I think it allows for a deeper understanding of how a card is made and creates a greater sense of appreciation,” she detailed.
Because Belle & Union is made in the U.S., so is everything the shop stocks. “It was important to me to keep this continuity,” she noted, adding that there’s roughly a 50-50 split between Belle & Union and other artisans and makers. “We have five main categories: stationery, home, kitchen, gift and vintage. Overall we have less than 50 vendors at any given time. We are a small shop, but there is still a lot to see!”
Prices run from $1 for a blank pencil to $150 for sets of custom letterpressed stationery. “(Whether) a customer needs a simple $20 gift, or something more special, we have something for both,” Sutton underscored.
PIECES AND PARTS
Sutton finds that the shop has shaped Belle & Union’s wholesale evolution. “The shop has changed me as a designer, and even how I approach wholesale. I’ve tried to shift to a ‘retailer-focused mindset,’ thinking about specifics that will make it easier for our shops to be able to sell our products and sell them well. I just released our first collection that I think really defines this new transition, getting back to the heart of making and why I really love what I do: creating pieces that people can truly connect with and want to give and share. It’s a different direction than anything we’ve done in the past, shedding that Southern and foodie persona we had become known for, but I couldn’t be more proud.”
Just as a wholesale collection is often themed, so too is the shop monthly. Once a theme is found, specific items to complement Belle & Union offerings are brainstormed. “Then we really dive in to find it!” Sutton laughed. “I travel down the Instagram rabbit hole often, and have made some great finds that way. Other shopkeep friends around the country and I often share up and coming makers. It’s a constant process that is ever evolving, but having that variety is what makes our store so interesting and unique. People regularly comment about how they have never seen anything like it, and that’s exactly what we are hoping for.”
Workshops are a huge draw, having garnered a Best of the City award for two years. “Typically we host workshops every Saturday morning, from calligraphy to cookie decorating and everything in between,” Sutton detailed. “It allows us to partner with local artists and makers to share their crafts, and bring people to the shop that might not have found us otherwise.”
Someday, Sutton wants to own her own space with dedicated areas for retail and wholesale — as well as space for other artisans to work. But for now, she is content to create work that’s meaningful to her and her clientele. Her latest collection emphasizes the beauty found in imperfections, and all of us. That reminder will serve her well as Sutton continues to find creative ways to stay on top of any challenges she encounters.