Cashing in on Country
Susie's Bittersweet Treasures
The Ragged Fence
On a recent afternoon, a customer of Country Cottage dropped in to check out the shop’s selection of seasonal decor. That loyal customer bought enough to decorate her entire home for the holidays—and set a new per-customer sales record at the Billings, MT, store.
“I had a $1,000 sale,” says store co-owner Patti Kowalczyk, who credits her shop’s layout with helping attract customers who happily fork over cash for her products.
At Country Cottage, items are set up “vignette” style, meaning product lines from the same company generally are all placed together. Themes such as “lodge,” “seasonal,” “children’s” and “primitive” also determine the various sections of the shop.
“We’re really, really seriously vignetted, and it’s all beautifully done,” says Kowalczyk, who owns the store with her husband, Ken. “Our store is so big. It’s 5,000 square feet, so when you deal with that amount of space, if you don’t put everything of a certain company together, it gets lost and it gets confusing.”
“Every little area lends itself to its own decor, but everything kind of evolves around country, which is not a style. It’s a feeling,” she says.
Located in Rimrock Mall, Country Cottage carries an assortment of gifts and collectibles, including quilts, wall hangings, table runners, specialty coffees, Boyd’s Bears and Heritage Lace.
Staying extremely customer-focused is critical, says Kowalczyk, who keeps her shop open seven days a week. “Every person who walks through our door is a godsend and we treat them as such,” she says. “Everyone gets a beautiful greeting. We never, ever say, ‘May I help you?’ because they could say, ‘No, I’m just looking.’ We say, ‘We are so happy to have you here today, what can we do to make your day better?’ And if they say, ‘I’m just looking,’ I say, ‘Oh, I am so glad you are here, because we have so much to look at.'”
In recent years, Kowalczyk says, “country” gifts have evolved to become more contemporary.
“It used to be frills and ruffles and checks and blue and white,” she said. “It’s definitely not that—it’s a more sleek, nice, comfortable look.”
For all its changes, country style will always be a passion for Kowalczyk, who initially ran her shop out of a 400-square-foot building in the small Montana town of Judith Gap. She purchased the store from a friend in the late 1990s, running it while owning and operating the town’s mercantile with Ken.
In 2000, the folks from Rimrock Mall came calling, asking if the Kowalczyks would be interested in relocating their store some 200 miles away, in Billings. “We just did a lifestyle change,” says Kowalczyk, the mother of two grown children. “We sold our grocery store, we came to Billings, we built a new store. We moved in January and opened that March. It was crazy.”
They’ve never looked back. Seven years later, the store is going strong, employing 10 people and attracting customers from all over. The couple likens the store to being “a small-town atmosphere in a big city.”
“The challenge,” she says, “is keeping your cost competitive with the big-box stores and offering the wonderful customer service—the wonderful little things that keep people coming back to you.”
Kowalczyk says retail has been extremely rewarding. “I’m so positive and so aggressive—you have to be aggressive. I have a monster passion,” she says.