in the business of the house‘s Shop Talk series, we chat with home furnishing store owners across the country to learn about their hard-earned lessons and challenges, big and small. This week we spoke to Kaitlin Smith, who opened the home goods store Highpoint Home in the beach town of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, just over a decade ago. In a reversal of the typical career arc, she began the retail path with aspirations of eventually starting her own interior design firm. Ahead, Smith opened up about this transition, regular customers and the possibility of expansion.
What was your professional background prior to opening Highpoint Home?
I worked in New York in the wholesale fashion industry and managed a few department stores. Then I finally left town because I got married and my husband was from Connecticut and our commute wouldn’t work. I decided to go back to interior design school, so I started a program and opened this shop at the same time. It seemed like they went hand in hand. Watch Hill is a seasonal community, so it felt like a commitment, but also like, “Okay, I’ll try it out for a season.” I thought I could grow the interior design business out of the business. I had worked in stores – I actually worked in Watch Hill growing up – and I understand retail so it just seemed like a fun thing to try. Eleven years later, I’m still in the same room.
Courtesy of Highpoint Home
How is the mood in your store?
Palm Beach meets New England. Lots of colour, lots of patterns, but also lots of classic New England elements. I love vintage furniture; Most of what I wear is vintage, whether it’s wicker or bamboo that I have varnished. Any type of interesting furniture that can be redesigned, whether it’s painted or reupholstered – that’s what sets my shop apart. What you will find here you won’t find in big box stores.
Who is your typical customer?
Local people. That’s one aspect of this seasonal business that I love – there are so many returning faces every summer, people who have a home here. They want to come every summer, maybe just to freshen up their home a bit and get new cushions or a new lamp. There are a lot of parties here in the summer, so I see a lot of local customers stopping by for a hostess gift or a wedding gift. That being said, Watch Hill is certainly a destination now, and I get a lot of day trippers. Anyone who loves color is my customer!
There are many customers who would like a little advice. They may not be looking for an interior designer, but I’m happy to help if they come in and say, “Hey, look at my living room. I just bought a new sofa. What pillows do you think would work?” It’s often the people who don’t put the full effort into redesigning their whole house, but they want more than just the internet to find out what they want.
And your company has grown out of the shop?
I’ve never had the experience of working for a great interior designer. It was the opposite: going out on my own and making my own mistakes. In the beginning, a lot of local customers would walk in and say, “Hey, can you come over and help me with a rug?” me [went from] from small beginnings with small projects to accepting renovations and finally full fledged new construction projects. Like many things, it has grown with experience.
Do you have a favorite vendor or supplier relationship that you would like to highlight?
There are so many great lines in the shop. I do a lot with bedding and I love Matouk. I love the fact that it’s made locally in New England. I try to use as many local providers as possible. This is another aspect of a small business that makes it feel special and unique – very different from a big store.
What about one of your favorite items in the store, something that makes you smile just walking past it?
The pillows are constantly changing, beautifying the store. They’re something I’ve had in the store from the start and they’re selling really, really well.
That was my next question: What’s flying out the door?
Cloth paper baskets. People love them because it’s something pretty that would otherwise be useful. They add a little something to a powder room. They’re selling really well. And again the pillows. People love seeing the combinations I can come up with. Many of these homes have been in the same family for generations and you see the same thing over and over every summer and pillows can transform the look of a room.
Courtesy of Highpoint Home
What advice would you give yourself if you could return to opening day?
Because the season is so short here, it feels intimidating. It’s that constant balance of making sure the store is really stocked, but you don’t want to be left with a ton of inventory at the end of the season. I’ve learned over the years that you certainly need the inventory to make the sale. This balance is something I shied away from early on; I wasn’t that willing to back order or keep that much product in here.
How else do you deal with seasonality? You live in Connecticut most of the year and then you’re in Watch Hill in the summer, right?
Yes, exactly. I live in Connecticut but not far. My family has lived in Rhode Island for a long time and always spent the summers up here. My husband and I met at Watch Hill and his family used to summer there. Shops here are generally open Memorial Day through Labor Day—many of the shops don’t have heat. It’s really a seasonal business and that has its challenges, but it feels very fresh every year. When I open Memorial Day weekend, my local customers really want to see: What does the store look like? What’s the mood for this season? Not to say that I reinvent myself every season, but there has to be something new. In the off-season I travel a lot with my mother in search of furniture, especially vintage furniture.
What is your biggest daily challenge?
Trying to be everywhere I love being in the business and I want to be here and help clients but it’s a challenge because I also run my interior design business and I have three kids. My aunt helps in the shop when I’m not around and it’s encouraging to know that the shop is in good hands when I’m hopping around finding new pieces, working with customers or just being a mom at the beach.
What about the biggest existential challenge?
Place. My shop is very small, about 600 square meters. I love the fact that everything is boxed up here and I can keep moving the inventory around, but it always begs the question – would I want a bigger room? Would I want something closer to a showroom to have more furniture? That’s something I always have in mind when considering expanding. At first it felt very intimidating. Now, after 11 years, I have more confidence in the business. In general, stationary trade has developed significantly. I think people want to shop small and have that curated experience.
Courtesy of Highpoint Home
How do you convey to your customers that your offer has more value than cheap goods on the Internet?
One of the main reasons the store works is that what they see is not easy to find online. Most of the product is custom. You cannot find the pillows online. I have fabric ice buckets that a company makes for me. Another reason the seasonal aspect works is because you want to take something home with you when you go on vacation. For a day tripper or house renter, I think that’s an important consideration: “I bought something in Watch Hill that I’m taking back to my other house.” I have so many clients that come back every summer and say to me, “Before I bought this Shell Hurricane from you about five years ago and I use it at my home in Florida and I just love it.” They are not nickel and diming what they are buying here.
Are there any special challenges for Watch Hill? There’s the seasonality, but are there other aspects of the city that feel unique?
As with so many beach communities, parking is always an issue. There is never enough. As Watch Hill has become more of a tourist destination, it’s attracting more people, which is good for business, but the infrastructure is a challenge. What sets it apart from a place like the Hamptons is that it feels like a much smaller community. Most of the businesses here are independently run, many of them by the same family for a long time. You don’t drive into town and see these big brands. And most of the shops are owner-operated – unique for retail in this day and age.
What’s a great day as a shopkeeper?
It’s great to be super busy, but I think a regular day is the best day because you can actually connect with your customers. You don’t feel like running around trying to get people checked out. When it’s quiet and a lot of familiar faces walk through the door, it’s a great day.
Homepage Photo: Courtesy of Highpoint Home