shop talk | Oct 12, 2022 |
These former Nike executives opened their fantasy store near a Wisconsin lake

In Business of Home’s series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and challenges, big and small. This week, we spoke with Kelly Tweeden and Michael Shea, the husband-and-wife duo behind Harbour Honest Goods, a home goods store located in the small lake town of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. The pair share a combined half-century of experience in creative and concept direction, as well as product, apparel, graphic and experiential design. They spent years crisscrossing the country for corporate roles in New York; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Beaverton, Oregon; and Burlington, Vermont. After deciding to “retire” near family in Tweeden’s native Wisconsin, the couple opened the shop in March 2022. Ahead, they discuss the thrill of new creative pursuits, the process of sourcing and why they want to avoid e-commerce for a while.

These former Nike executives opened their fantasy store near a Wisconsin lake
Kelly Tweeden and Michael SheaCourtesy of Harbour Honest Goods

What were your careers like before you opened the store?
My background is in product design. I was at Tommy Hilfiger for a little while, then at Levi’s and Burton [Snowboards], and then Nike for 21 years. When I left, I was vice president, creative director of apparel and special categories. Through that journey at Nike, I grew into the idea of experience design, brand design and end design—from concept to consumer. You get a little taste of that, you want more.

Shea: My education was around communication, and that evolved into storytelling. My early to mid-career involved working for small studios, then on to really large companies. Like Kelly, I worked at Levi Strauss and Co. I worked at Esprit way back in the day doing retail design. I worked in D.C. for a while, doing interpretive museum design for the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art. Then I too found my way to Nike, and that’s where we met.

How did you get to Wisconsin?
I grew up here, and we’ve both been in big cities throughout our careers. Our son went off to college last year, so we were like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing for us to step back and just do our own thing?” At some point in your life, there’s an itch and you have to scratch it. Let’s just put a shop here, do exactly what we want, no compromises, and see what happens.

Shea: Yeah, this is our semiretirement thing. We’re never going to retire-retire. For us, retirement means doing what we’d rather be doing. A home goods store encapsulates just about everything we’ve ever done and everything we’ve ever been interested in. We love product, we love storytelling, we love retail design and presentation and marketing.

Tweeden: And we like people.

Shea: We don’t have staff. We’re the owners and the front of house and back of house. We want to keep it that way for as long as we can, because someone will ask a question about a candlestick, and we can tell them where we got it and how it’s made. We procure everything, we research everything.

As a writer, I think, “I want to open a little bookstore in Vermont one day.” How much of the idea of this store was pure fantasy, and how much of it came from your extensive backgrounds in retail? Can they be separated?

These former Nike executives opened their fantasy store near a Wisconsin lake
The storefront in Oconomowoc, WisconsinCourtesy of Harbour Honest Goods

Tweeden: Every creative person’s fantasy is to do their own little thing in their own little place, and we’re no exception. Everybody wants that freedom. OK, where do you go to get that freedom? You go to a place with a network of people that support you, seemingly in a good location, in a community that might on a map seem like a small community but actually has quite an affluent background.

Shea: The yin and the yang of the fantasy versus the practical application of our skills and experience—it’s this infinity loop. At the end of the day, we’re running a business. We need to make our margins. But I just love going to work in the morning. It’s five minutes away from our house, and we enter this little world that we’ve built 100 percent from our vision.

Tweeden: After being creatively controlled for most of our career, that is the ultimate freedom. We’ve probably never felt as individuals more creative in our entire life. It’s exhausting, but it’s exhilarating.

Shea: We’re both makers and artisans ourselves. We make sculpture, we make lighting, we make art. I’ve never had a place to put paintings, so I never painted for the past 30 years. But now I do a lot of the paintings that are in the store, and they seem to be selling.

What is the vibe of the store aesthetically?
Tweeden: One customer calls it a museum that you can shop in. We’ve worked hard to create environments even within environments. It’s a 1906 farmhouse in one half of the shop, and then we built this 1960s bunker into the other half. It kind of feels like a giant loft.

Shea: We gravitate toward creating surprising juxtapositions: a really modern table mixed with a beautiful piece of crusty driftwood. We love contrast between smooth and rough, shiny and textured, colorful and muted. I think people respond to that because it’s surprising for them, and it opens up possibilities.

Tweeden: Most people have a general lack of confidence in their ability; they don’t believe they’re creative at all. Yet everybody, through the pandemic, has wanted to do something with their house. When they come in, they’re able to work through some ideas and slowly find their own voice. It’s really satisfying.

What is your approach to sourcing? Are you doing in-person markets and shows, or e-platforms like JuniperMarket?
Tweeden: We certainly work with some wholesale vendors like Faire, and Powered by People, in Canada, to make sure we’re ethically sourcing. We’re trying to primarily stay in the United States for furniture and large objects, so we’ll do auctions or estate sales. We’re figuring out really quickly where the market has the material we need—if it’s primitives, we’ll go to certain areas in the country; if it’s midcentury modern, [we’ll go to other] areas. Then there’s our own making. Probably 85 percent of our shop is furniture, 5 percent is wholesale, and then the other 10 percent is created.

Shea: And local makers. We have a makers’ series: We’ve engaged a blacksmith who crafts these unbelievably beautiful Damascus steel knives. We’ve engaged with two ceramicists—one does a special raku-ware technique and another is wood-firing. And a local furniture maker, a retired gentleman who just walked in one day and said, “I make these things.”

Tweeden: “Hey, do you sell rocking chairs?”

Shea: He’ll make these walnut benches with paper-cord seating, just beautiful stuff. We’ve even got local foragers, and they’re beekeepers, who make their own syrups, honeys and barbecue sauces.

These former Nike executives opened their fantasy store near a Wisconsin lake
An old walnut tree serves as the source of incense holders, according to TweedenCourtesy of Harbour Honest Goods

What is an object or a category that flies off the shelves?
Tweeden: Because we’re so focused on experience, we’ve been burning a certain scent of incense. Nine out of 10 people who come in want to buy the incense. Our friends lost a walnut tree, and this tree has been the source of incense holders Michael has been making. Those have been hard to keep up; Michael has to get his saw and sander out and keep making more.

Shea: We’ll stock 20 at a time, and they’re gone in two weeks. It’s also a good gift because our packaging is really nice.

What is the design scene like there, and who is your typical customer?
Shea: It’s 100 percent absolutely not what we expected. Oconomowoc is a town of 15,000 people, a bedroom community to Milwaukee and within two hours of Chicago. There is no rhyme or reason to the people. You’ll find a mid-60s couple pulling up in a Subaru Outback, and they’ll walk out with $4,000 worth of the craziest pieces of furniture we have because they’re building this really large estate on Oconomowoc Lake. Then you’ve got a couple in their late 20s—he’ll come in and buy a knife and his wife will buy some ceramics and a couple pieces of studio product. It’s super diverse, and 99.9 percent really welcoming and supportive.

Tweeden: I think the majority of people coming in are women, but women bring their husbands back.

Shea: We’re discovering some people are coming specifically from downtown Milwaukee because they saw something on our Instagram feed and want to buy it. We’ve had some very discerning customers because we don’t generally deliver; it’s kind of a case-by-case thing. We met this couple and walked into their home, just like, “Holy cow.” World-class art collection, amazingly curated furniture, rugs, you name it. So it runs the gamut.

You’re trying to keep it relatively small for now, but what are your plans for e-comm?
Tweeden: There was a huge learning curve for us on the mechanics of being a retailer. We quickly learned that we didn’t want to be in the business of shipping stuff. The whole economy of shipping became so crazy and expensive. It was more important for us to be in the shop making those personal connections, one-on-one.

Shea: For the first year, [we wanted] our primary focus to be on brick-and-mortar. We left the door open for e-commerce, but we wanted to really learn. We’re busy enough as it is. Our whole reason for getting into this business was not a traditional growth model. Sure, I think we could make plenty of money. I think we’d have a very distinct proposition if we had an online shop, but we don’t want to own that business. We like having that control over the whole thing, and we don’t have to manage people or payroll.

Tweeden: That doesn’t preclude someone from connecting with us. We had a gentleman from New Hampshire who really liked one of our local ceramicists and asked us if we would ship it to them, and of course we can do that. But we don’t want to be in the shipping business.

How are you handling inflation? You probably had your business plan or your P and L all in a row, and then everything has changed in the past few months.
Tweeden: We’re the worst shopkeepers when it comes to P and L. My accountant is always like, “You need to get your inventory in the system,” and I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I feel we are fortunate to be in a bit of a bubble, where the local economy has stayed pretty even-keeled, even with headwinds around us. I do think it’s a community that is more fiscally conservative in some ways, so they don’t see the extreme shifts. We’re aware of keeping our prices to a reasonable level and making sure we have enough things at different price points so people can access them.

Shea: I also think, from an inflationary standpoint, where people feel it the most around here is at the pump and the grocery store and online, because supply chain costs and shipping has gone up. So it’s not really been a major factor for us, because it’s a cash-and-carry model.

Tweeden: Certain wholesalers have raised prices; candles have gone up because the cost of glass has gone up, and shipping is more expensive for things that are heavier, fragile. Maybe there are a couple things that have snuck up in price, but we don’t buy top-of-the-line things when it comes to that. We try to keep our prices and our products achievable and fair.

These former Nike executives opened their fantasy store near a Wisconsin lake
Statement sculptural seating alongside rows of tabletop goods speak to what Shea calls ‘surprising juxtapositions’ in the shopMarina Felix for Business of Home

Given that it’s not a big city, do you have to justify your pricing? Is there sticker shock?
It’s funny—some people will say, “God, I can’t believe your prices. They’re so reasonable!” And then others will look at this really rare midcentury lamp for $300, and they’ll say one of two things: “Is that the best you can do?” as if we’re an antiques mall, and “Wow, that just seems kind of steep.” We say, “Well, I encourage you to go shop [in a big-box home store] because you’re going to find a lamp knocking this one off that costs maybe $15 to make in China, and it’s also $300.” Then we’ll remind them, if it’s a significant piece by a designer who’s well known from Denmark in the 1950s, “I can show you this piece on Chairish or 1stDibs, and you can put a one or a two in front of the price.”

Tweeden: We’re fully transparent. If we know the name of the maker, the year it was made, anybody can instantly Google that item. If it’s a Leon Rosen coffee table from the ’70s, go ahead, Google it. You’re going to see it for three times more online. I think that helps us because then people are like, “Oh, they’re not price-gouging.”

Considering you opened this year, how did your plan for the store change in the pandemic?
Shea: It’s been a fundamental paradigm shift for people, as you read in the news all the time— people are reluctant to go back into an office. There’s been this really big resurgence of investing in the home as opposed to travel and a lot of discretionary spending. “Rather than consume more and more disposable things and keep upgrading and upgrading, I’m going to save to buy something that’s more meaningful and higher-quality and lasts.” That’s worked into our favor.

Tweeden: The pandemic made everything more connected. We wanted to create an alternate reality, where things are special and you have to find them and come get them if they mean something to you. We are no saints; we’ve spent our careers making things in giant companies. Coming out of that time, we don’t want to be producers of lots of stuff shoved into a marketplace on a retail calendar dictating more and more and more. We want to be the low and slow drip of the right content for the right people in the right place.

Homepage image: Antiques mingle with modern finds in this corner of Harbour Home Goods | Marina Felix for Business of Home

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