Cris Willis of Parsons of Cumming shares her retail strategy for success

Retail Success Story: Parsons of Cumming Embraces Change to Celebrate 141 Years in Business!

by • March 10, 2017 • Merchandising + Trends, Retail NewsComments Off on Retail Success Story: Parsons of Cumming Embraces Change to Celebrate 141 Years in Business!1709

The Insider spoke to Cris Willis, co-owner of family-run gift, fashion, and home decor retail store Parsons Gifts of Cumming in Georgia to learn how she and her family have successfully navigated constant change — and thrived — for 141 years! They are busier than ever thanks to a sophisticated blend of marketing, trendspotting savvy, in-store seminars, and high-margin products.

The roots of Parsons go way back to 1876 when the “original” Mrs. Parson’s father, Alvin Alford, opened his first general store near Lawrenceville called Alford’s — which led to over a dozen additional family run shops in North Georgia.

The first namesake Parsons store in Cumming opened in 1946 as a general store carrying groceries, hardware, farming supplies, and dry goods.

In 1990, the 15,000 square foot Parsons relocated to Lakeland Plaza, GA and his since become one of the premier Gift, Home Decor, Ladies Accessories, and Seasonal stores in all of Georgia.

It’s still family owned and operated by the grandchildren of the original owners, Kate and Calvin Parsons — Gary and Cris Willis, as well as Kay and Mike Montgomery, all work in the business today.

The ASD Insider caught up with co-owner Cris Willis to learn the secrets of Parsons’ enduring retail success and why embracing change (and more affordable fashion) is the key to everything.

Parsons - a Retail Success Story in Cumming, Georgia for 141 years, thanks to their retail strategy

ASD Insider: Parsons will be celebrating 141 years in business this year — that’s amazing. How did you personally get started in the business?

Cris Willis: My grandmother was Kate Alford, met a man named Calvin Parsons — and they opened Parsons in 1925. They really didn’t want to be farmers anymore so they went into retail.

We joined the family business 23 years ago in 1993 when it was just a clothing department store and the family was in the middle of figuring out how to change things (again). They needed help modernizing their computer systems so we decided to get involved. And we fell in love with it.

“We used to sell everything you need, now we sell everything you want.” – Cris Willis, co-owner of Parsons of Cumming

AI: How did you stay open and remain successful all of these years?

CW: We had to keep changing and reinventing over the years. We actually used to be a grocery store, lumber yard, and general store. When we first got involved in 1993 we were mainly a clothing department store – but all of the malls were opening around us which started to impact our sales.

Our options at the time were either close our doors or reinvent and rethink what we were doing.

We quickly realized that margins at the time were 30% on clothing and 55% on gifts and collectibles — so we reopened as “Georgia’s Largest Gift and Collectibles Store” in 1995. We were very successful with volume and margins with our collectibles lines.

Then the Internet hit and the collectibles market died – we changed again and started going deep into Home Decor, which became our fastest growing category! When that started to slow down for us we started buying fashion and accessories again around 2001.

We’ve gone from fashion back to gifts and now back to fashion and accessories again!

Parsons website - Parson's has retail strategy has been to reinvent themselves many times over to achieve 141 years of retail success

“We have rebuilt and reinvented our stores many times over the years.”

AI: What products set you apart? What are typically the best-selling?

CW: The last few years we’ve been getting back into clothing more and more — fashion and accessories have been our big growth driver again. We’re actually taking away space from other items to fill the place up with clothing.

The fashion and accessories driving our success are baby and toddler clothes, little kids’ bathing suits, and affordable, on-trend ladies apparel. The boho and pearls look is still big in jewelry so we carry Brighton, Spartina, Pandora, and purchase the rest at the ASD trade show. Kids’ toys, especially in the 4th quarter, were big for us last year.

Seasonal items are a big driver for us. There is our 5,000 square foot “Shoppe” next door to the main store that features Garden Decor from February to August — and then it’s converted to Parsons Christmas Shoppe that opens each year in September.

Parsons Christmas Shoppe - Each year, Parsons' retail strategy includes a Christmas Decor Shop


Cris Willis’s Trends Snapshot — Affordable, High-Quality Fashion

  • Leggings
  • Flip Flops
  • Dresses — our biggest seller
  • Sequined handbags
  • more minimal pieces high-margin of jewelry purchased at ASD
  • Pants
  • Tops
  • Ponchos are still big
  • *Extra credit: high-margin decorative accessories for the home

AI: Where and how do you source new product trends?

CW: Trendspotting is definitely a full-time job. I would say magazines, blogs and networking with other store owners. The Southwest Buying Group (a collective of 75+ store owners) has been a great venue to share ideas. It’s essential for retailers to share ideas, emails, and trends with other store owners.

And of course, trade shows like ASD. I went to ASD Market Week for the first time 4 years ago and have been going ever since, ASD has become a big part of our buying process – each season there are even higher quality vendors, which is very exciting. The good thing about ASD is that once we’re armed with trends we can get the look the less while we’re there.


Parsons Spring Decorating Seminar

Get advice on retail strategy from Parsons of Cumming, Georgia in their Spring Decorating Seminar


My other piece of advice here would be to talk to your vendor reps and discuss product trends and what’s selling.

Most importantly, if you spot a trend, test it first.


Read: How to Purchase Merchandise in Multiple Categories to Supercharge Your Sales


AI: What are your best marketing channels? Can you share some retail marketing tips?

CW: We’ve been very successful with social media, direct mail, email marketing, in-store seminars, and video content. We create, post, and send a short video each week on Facebook and by email.

Our in-store spring decorating seminars and Christmas decorating seminars are also a huge hit with our customers.

We also take really good care of our best customers, our VIP customers — you’ll generate more sales from them than anyone else. We currently have about 200 people in our preferred customer program.

And we’re always picking up new tips at trade shows and conferences.

“I let the customers vote with their wallet — that’s where we’ll grow.” – Cris Willis, co-owner, Parsons of Cumming

AI: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs looking to get into retail?

CW: Retail is not for sissies — and it’s not getting any easier. The best thing to do is start small. You have to stay hungry, educated, and tech-savvy. And always embrace change and always be trendspotting. Hire what you’re not good at, and focus what you are good at. You also have to know how to juggle a lot of things.

AI: What Are Your Predictions for 2017? What’s Driving Growth?

CW: I’m cautiously optimistic about 2017 that it will be our best ever. Growth is going to come from lesser-known labels and especially from kids’, baby, and ladies’ clothing.

The one constant is that people love to shop – our customer is not only buying for themselves, but also for their children and grandchildren (a.k.a. Millennials).

Pay Parsons a Visit!

Parsons
Lakeland Plaza, 525 Lakeland Plaza, Cumming, GA 30040
http://www.parsonsgifts.com/

Finding on-trend (and affordable) fashion accessories, lifestyle, and seasonal merchandise for your shop at incredible margins is hard. ASD Market Week makes it easy. Get your free ticket here to the next ASD in Las Vegas — the largest merchandise trade show and retail education conference in the U.S.!

 

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