By Neil Johnson The Janesville Gazette, Wis.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A new local sourcing initiative at Bon-Ton Stores which owns and operates more than 260 retail locations in 25 states is focusing on regional craft items. The line is being called "Close to Home".
The "shop local" phenomenon has hit a national stage for one major retailer with a location in Janesville.
At Boston Store, shoppers can buy major-brand goods along with items made by Wisconsin artisans.
Think handmade, scented, felted soap balls from a Madison soap maker, handmade spoons with wood-burned designs or handcrafted cutting boards made of wood and stone by a Richland Center craftsman.
Those are some of the items sold in a special section of Boston Store at the Janesville Mall through a new local sourcing initiative. Parent company Bon-Ton Stores is calling it the "Close to Home" line.
Bon-Ton began operating 45 Close to Home shops in fall 2016--typically in small sections of its stores where the items are marked as having a more "hometown" feel compared to the mass-market retail sections of the stores, the company said in a news release.
Janesville's Boston Store was one of the first locations for the new shops.
All the products in the new line are made by Wisconsinites. Bon-Ton forged retail partnerships with about 100 small businesses that might otherwise have sold their hand-crafted items at small gift shops--or in some cases only online or through regional craft fairs.
Bon-Ton, which owns and operates more than 260 retail locations in 25 states, including Boston Store, Elder-Beerman, Carson's, Herberger and Younkers stores, says the shops are performing so well that the company plans a major expansion soon to 150 of its stores.
Christine Hojnacki, a vice president of marketing with Bon-Ton, said the new shops' sales over the 2016 holiday shopping season doubled company projections.
Bon-Ton now is conducting an all-call for local artisans and entrepreneurs on its website through late March. The company is trying to find more established businesses that hand-make items to bolster the new line.
That means Janesville-area merchants could vie for a chance to have their items sold at Boston Stores and other Bon-Ton stores.
Madison resident Janet Gangler owns Janet Marie Felted Goods. She makes a line of scented, cured soaps wrapped in brightly colored, hand-spun wool felt. The soaps are intended to be decorative or used as an innovative way to wash hands.
Gangler and her son, Luke Gangler, 20, have been making and selling the soaps for several years, typically marketing the products at small gift shops throughout Wisconsin.
Gangler said a Bon-Ton merchandising expert was canvassing gift shops for locally made products with a hometown feel before launching Close to Home, and the merchandiser spotted her soaps.
"They basically called and said, 'We're Bon-Ton, and we're calling you about your felted soaps. Do you want to try selling them through a larger retailer?'"
Gangler now produces felt dryer balls that can be infused with essential oils. They're "eco-friendly" substitutes for dryer sheets, she said. She launched that product line at Bon-Ton's request after the company saw how fast her felted soaps were selling.
As Gangler's company has found its niche in the major leagues of retail, she's had new experiences that have varied from employee growth to supply.
At one point, Bon-Ton was marketing her products in New York, which required her to get wool felt from local producers in New York to fit the company's "locally sourced" agreements.
Gangler has hired five new employees to handle the bigger demand for her felted goods.
Amilee Wear, an assistant manager at Janesville Boston Store, said the store has placed signs next to the local items that tell customers where they were made. The signs also give a backstory about the artisans who make them.
It's a more personalized form of in-store marketing that's similar to small gift shops.
"The stories behind some of these products are actually really neat," Wear said. "One of the women whose handmade jewelry we sell in the shop uses her profits to help pay for her daughter's dance classes. I think people see that, and it really means something to them."
Gangler said she's had a positive experience partnering with a large retailer. She's also able to continue working with local gift shops that she has partnered with for years.
She said there has been tension at times--much of it stemming from her own production logistics and how they play out in a marketplace that includes both small shops and a major retailer.
Gangler's soaps must cure for two months before she can sell them. Over the holiday shopping season, Bon-Ton stores quickly began to sell out of her soaps. Gangler even got one phone call from an Illinois shopper just before the holidays.
The shopper demanded to know the exact day when more of Gangler's soaps would be shipped to the Janesville Boston Store.
That's when Gangler began hiring a few more staffers.
"I've had to learn to separate some of comments that might be a little jealousy of what I'm doing with Bon-Ton," she said.
"Because there's actual concern from some, like, can the local gift shop you work with still get a steady supply of your products?"