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Carol Schroeder: Retail brilliance

(page 2 of 2)

Reading, writing, retailing

Schroeder has continued to spread the gospel through 350 weekly blogs, more than 85 bimonthly columns for Gifts and Decorative Accessories, and at national and international events. In addition to operational and merchandising advice, she’s also talked people out of going into the retail business. They either don’t have the required capital to get their inventory up to speed, or the right temperament to handle the inevitable ups and downs, or they mistakenly think their job skills (cooking) translate into running a related business (restaurant).

“I’ve had had people thank me because they didn’t realize how difficult retailing can be,” Schroeder says. “So going into it with your eyes open, asking what your challenges are going to be, and what the financial aspects of it are — those really help people decide if they’re cut out for retailing. Not everyone is.”

One person that is cut out for retailing sent a representative on a special trip all the way from India to Madison. He recently greeted Schroeder during the Monroe Street Festival. “His brother from Mumbai (formerly Bombay) has a shop and is a big fan of my blog, and wanted his brother to come and meet me and thank me,” she marvels. “He had me sign a copy of the book and he took of picture of me that he sent back to his brother. I just love the idea that somebody in Mumbai has felt that his business is better because of something I’ve done.”

If that gives Schroeder, an In Business Executive Hall of Famer, a sort of “rock star” status, it doesn’t really show. Schroeder isn’t resting on her laurels; in fact, she’s planning yet another edition of the book, but with the publishing industry struggling her previous publisher will not be part of the next project. She’s looking into self-publishing an eBook, perhaps as early as next year.

In the next edition, she will include more information about using social media in a more impactful way and competing with online retailers, as well as respond to feedback she receives from readers of the most recent edition. “I want to hear from younger retailers,” she states. “I know that young people going into business obviously have different viewpoints than I do. It’s important to incorporate that.”

Models of consistency

Under Schroeder’s direction, Orange Tree Imports operates under an innovative management style called “participative democracy,” which she believes has reduced turnover and inspired other retail stores to offer employees a more meaningful role in the business. “It has a lot to do with why we have low turnover and employees who have been here over 35 years,” she notes. “Otherwise, the turnover rate in retail is extremely high and that’s in part because people don’t feel involved, and they don’t feel their work is necessarily appreciated.”

According to Kennedy, Schroeder understands that a retail business can’t succeed alone. In addition to loyal and talented help, it needs other retail businesses to be successful and to work together as a community, which is one of the reasons Schroeder co-founded the Monroe Street Merchant’s Association.

Barbara Conley, senior vice president of First Business Bank, is a long-time friend of Schroeder. Their association dates back to 1976, when they first worked together on the Monroe Street Festival. Conley marvels at the way Carol and Dean have remained disciplined and focused with both their management and retail models.

“As you look around the community, the county, the state, and the country, how many closely held retail operations can say that?” Conley asks. “The leadership of the store and the participatory approach to management certainly are unique. It’s just a great story.”

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