By Melissa Johnson Warnke
Manager of Communications and Engagement
Retail is the backbone of Alabama communities. In fact, 1 in 4 people in our state work in retail – it’s the largest private-sector employer. Our more than 4,100 members sell everything from food to clothing, furniture, and other general merchandise items. This week, I hit the road to visit some of our members in North Alabama, specifically Huntsville and Cullman. It’s part of a series I’ve begun called “Alabama Retail on the Road,” and I hope to visit member businesses throughout the state to tell the story of retail in Alabama. It’s an industry that strengthens communities by creating jobs and supporting their local economy.
The first stop on my road trip was 1892 East Restaurant and Tavern in Huntsville’s Historic Five Points neighborhood. Executive Chef Steve Bunner and his staff met me before the restaurant opened to explain their “food-farmer-neighbor” approach. They are committed to buying locally grown food to support and build their community. Bunner says food that begins with farm fresh ingredients “just tastes better,” and his customers agree.
From there, I totally switched gears for a stop at Salon Allure Huntsville. Paula Lecher and Michelle McGough, who co-own the full-service beauty salon, were named Alabama Retailers of the Year in 2012, receiving GOLD in their category. When I stopped by, Paula was working with a customer, who graciously let me photograph her and Paula during her haircut. As I talked with Paula, she remarked about how meaningful it was to build relationships with her clients, often getting to assist in milestones in their lives, like weddings and proms. Meanwhile, Michelle showed me around their salon and retail area, all while working to train new staff members. I thought both of them perfectly represented what their business is all about – customer service and building up the next generation of salon professionals.
Also in Huntsville, I had the chance to check in on the progress of a soon-to-open business. Longtime member the Pants Store, which already has four locations in Alabama, will open their fifth location in Huntsville’s Twickenham Square development in the coming days. Lining the walls of the space were beautiful pieces of reclaimed wood. It’s going to be an eye-catching display once their products are in place; it’s the last piece of the puzzle before they’re ready to open. Pants Store offers casual lifestyle clothing and shoes for men, women and children and brands like Southern Marsh, Ugg, Columbia Sportswear and more.
I rounded out my Huntsville trip with media interviews with WHNT 19 News and WAFF 48 News. The holiday shopping season is upon us, and we discussed Alabama Retail’s recently released 2015 Holiday Shopping Forecast for Alabama. I also had the chance to meet with Ken Smith, director of research of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. Ken is a huge supporter of our Retailer of the Year Awards program, and many of the businesses he’s nominated go on to win in their respective categories. We look forward to continuing our relationship with the chamber there, as many of our members are also chamber members.
I have the preface this next section by explaining that Cullman is my hometown. I grew up there, graduated from Cullman High School, and my family still lives in Cullman. While my home is now Montgomery, Cullman and its retailers have a special place in my heart. I started my day with a stop at Monograms Plus in Cullman’s Warehouse District.
Owner Margaret Hamm was holding the door open for me when I arrived. No matter how many times I walk inside the store, I’m always amazed at its size. What started as a 1,200-square-foot space has grown to more than 9,000 square feet during the store’s 16 years in business. Over the years, the store has also expanded its selection from embroidered products to a huge array of national brands all represented under one roof. It’s the kind of store you can find a gift for any occasion, whether it’s for a male or female, for a baby or wedding shower, or graduation.
I also had to share this photo of Margaret holding a piece of fabric she embroidered back in 1965. She was taught to embroider by her grandmother at the age of 5, never imagining that she would one day make her living with commercial embroidery equipment!
The final stop on my road trip was just a couple miles down the road at Werner’s Trading Company. This second generation family-owned business opened in 1951 as an army surplus business. Over the years, it evolved into a hardware store then general merchandise. Now, it is known as a gathering place for families, offering outdoor and sporting equipment, a huge selection of wine and craft beer, grilling supplies, as well as men’s, women’s and children’s clothing. The business is owned by Rob Werner and his wife Mary Ellen, but the family dog, Mazzie, is just as much a face of the business as they are. The Werners are huge supporters of the Cullman business community, helping to recruit new businesses to the city and supporting several local projects and non-profits. Werner’s Trading Company was recently spotlighted by the National Retail Federation as business owned by families with retailing roots.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be putting together long format feature stories for these member businesses, including individual print stories and video. Each of these retailers have a unique story to tell, but they all have one thing in common – their commitment to their respective communities. It’s truly the backbone of what retail represents.
We’d love to have you! Since 1943, we’ve been promoting what is best for the retailing industry in our state. Want to join the Alabama Retail Association or learn more about the value of membership in our association? Click here to find out more!