HILTON HEAD, BLUFFTON HAVE ALWAYS BEEN GOOD PLACES TO DO BUSINESS
EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of Monthly’s yearlong 30th anniversary celebration, we are highlighting 30 years of different industries in each issue. This month, we feature the retail experts that helped shape Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and the surrounding Lowcountry.
If the surging population growth on Hilton Head Island and Bluffton over the decades has cast an economic shadow, then the retail industry has been the shade-loving flower that bloomed alongside it. Of course, the construction and tourism industries have been robust for the most part, too, but residents need to shop, tourists need to shop, and retail stores need to employ staff to provide the goods, services and customer-friendly smiles.
About 60 years ago, between 300 and 1,100 people called Hilton Head home. There were no bridges, no stores, no stoplights, a dirt road and not much of anything else, really.
The island’s future would take a dramatic step forward in 1955 when Norris and Lois Richardson opened a small grocery store at what is now Coligny Plaza. Almost like fate, a two-lane swing bridge swung opened the next year connecting the island to the mainland — and the island would change forever.
Over time, the plaza grew and would serve not only as the beach area’s retail hub of shops and restaurants, but the entire island’s as well.
When planning visionary Charles Fraser put his innovative stamp on Sea Pines Plantation in 1969, clothier Knickers opened for business just steps away from the celebrated Harbour Town lighthouse two years later.
From 1975 to 1985, the island’s population grew nearly threefold, doubled from 17,000 to 34,000 by the year 2000, and now numbers a 40,000. More than 2.5 million tourists also spend their time and money here.
These days, Coligny and Knickers are in good retail company. Boutiques, specialty shops, jewelry stores, art galleries, gift shops, department stores and others form a hearty collection of hundreds of establishments, most of which are privately owned and independent.
Coligny Plaza paved the way for 30 retail villages and centers at Wexford, Shelter Cove Towne Centre, Park Plaza, Main Street, Sea Pines Center, Harbour Town, Festival Centre at Indigo Park, Port Royal Plaza, Fresh Market Shoppes and, in Bluffton, Tanger Outlets, Buckwalter Place, the Calhoun Street Promenade and Sheridan Park.
This year, more than 11,600 retail employees in the greater Hilton Head area, according to the South Carolina Department of Employment & Workforce, will be instrumental in pushing retail sales well above the $1 billion mark. In 2012, local retail sales totaled $930.9 million, according to CLRChoice, and in 2007, $736 million.
A handful of locally owned retail stores and centers have surfed the steady climb for many years and are still here to tell about it. Their longevity reflects loyal customer service, adaptability to the changing times and client preferences, good business management, quality merchandise, good location and good luck.
COLIGNY PLAZA | SINCE 1955
NORTH FOREST BEACH DRIVE
Anyone who has ever been to the beach or driven around Hilton Head Island knows and probably has shopped or eaten at this iconic group of more than 60 shops and restaurants adjacent to the Coligny traffic circle.
Little did the Richardsons know 60 years ago that their Forest Beach Supermarket, the little grocery store they operated at the same location as today’s plaza, would grow into the retail giant it has become. Indeed, it has held a special place in the hearts of residents and vacationers for generations.
The Richardsons knew that their location would attract merchants and customers, so they began building one building at a time. Today, their son and daughter — JR Richardson and Mary Toomer — have taken the reins of the plaza, which is home to a plethora of cafes and delis, services and shops selling shells, minerals, toys, flags, gifts, T-shirts and everything under the Lowcountry sun. And then there’s historic Coligny Theatre, our local “art house.”
Prior to the 60th anniversary birthday party held in September at the plaza, JR said, “It’s not just a celebration of how far we’ve come, really; it’s a celebration of Hilton Head Island. Since we’ve been Hilton Head Island’s downtown, this is everyone’s party.
“There was just a single lane of dirt road on this island when my father, Norris Richardson, arrived with an eye to build the island’s first grocery store. One of our first customers was Charles Fraser, a young man who was at that time building this place he called Sea Pines.”
Said his mother, Lois, “It’s humbling to have been part of this special place that has called the island home for 60 years.”
KNICKERS | SINCE 1971
Dick Close was Ralph Lauren’s first traveling salesman. After years on the road, he wanted to settle down, found Hilton Head on a visit here, and opened this premier clothier with Mary Hunter 44 years ago.
“In the beginning, we were a typical men’s clothing store; resort oriented, fun resort wear, but back then they did suits and sport coats, dress clothing and all that,” said Jock Miller, current store manager who began working at Knickers in 1984, left, and came back. Of course, they sold Ralph Lauren, and Miller believes Knickers was the largest privately owned store selling his line.
After two bankruptcies and changes in ownership, Knickers changed, especially in the 1990s.
“People stopped wearing sport coats out to dinner and it was much more casual,” Miller said. “So we changed with the times. Every time there was a change, we changed with it.”
Knickers stopped selling suits and sports coats in the ‘90s, introduced Tommy Bahama on its racks in ‘94, closed its women’s boutique store, moved into that location, and moved forward as a business.
Now, in addition to its repeat customers, the 1,700-square-foot institution has attracted younger clientele with its Southern Tide and Vineyard Vines lines with Jack and Joan Shea at the helm.
Throughout the decades, Knickers has prospered with its friendly, personalized service; store personality with good vibes; and quality, trendy merchandise.
THE PORCUPINE | SINCE 1976
THE VILLAGE AT WEXFORD
This boutique women’s store is the very definition of trendy. Owner and New Englander Avis Rollison thinks trends, buys trends and sells trends … and always has.
She bought the Porcupine Craft Shop at Coligny 39 years ago, changed the name to The Porcupine, and “made it more of a trend store than a craft shop. We started shopping in Manhattan on Seventh Avenue, and we moved the whole focus of the store off of hand-crafted gifts and more of what was going on at that time, transitioning between that kind of hippie casual and more Seventh Avenue.”
She introduced fine jewelry and Native American jewelry to her customers, trendy fashionable attire for women, and capitalized on the Americana theme as the country celebrated its 200th birthday.
Back then, she patterned her inventory with what Vogue magazine was showcasing — and it paid off. Not so much the upper high-end price merchandise, “but the value.” She added shoes to complement the attire and jewelry, and also lingerie.
“We grew as Hilton Head grew,” she said.
As The Porcupine prospered, Rollison needed more space and moved to the Gallery of Shoppes in 1993, introduced swimwear, then relocated to The Village at Wexford three years later, where it is today. Once there, she dropped the swimwear, added an formal wear department and pursued a lot of custom work.
“As the trends and people’s lifestyles changed, we changed with it,” Rollison said. “I never really looked at my competitors; I always tried to watch my customer.”
Nearly four decades later, Rollison said: “We have a lot of customers that we have grown up with, generation after generation. We’ve done their Sweet 16 dress, we’ve done their wedding dress, we’ve done their christening dress. We go from basic to fabulous.”
OUTSIDE HILTON HEAD |
SHELTER COVE MARINA
This island fixture traces its roots to Vermont in the wintertime, believe it or not. Owner Mike Overton, then a college student in Burlington, was having dinner with one of his roommates and her boyfriend when the guest from “a small island in the South” began talking about windsurfing.
Overton said the visitor, who was a small businessman on Hilton Head, told him he was starting a windsurfing school and “could use somebody who knows how to windsurf.”
“I know how to windsurf,” Overton replied, and the duo decided to become business partners at 4 that morning.
That partnership didn’t quite turn out as planned, but Overton came south to Hilton Head anyway and has never left.
“I really got helped out by Charles Fraser, and we ended up opening up a little operation at South Beach Marina in Sea Pines,” Overton recalled. “I had a card table as an office, and I started teaching windsurfing and selling T-shirts.
“He knew what the water meant to the island and to the people,” Overton said. At the time, South Beach consisted of Land’s End and a general store. But, “it was a great place for sailing,” he said.
Overton soon merged with another small business, called it Island Water Sports, and was selling T-shirts and teaching windsurfing. He soon sold his interest in that enterprise, opened Windsurfing Hilton Head, which morphed into a retail surf shop.
“By the mid-‘80s, we were the largest windsurfing school in the country,” he said.
Then Overton really got serious about water and business. He moved his store to Shelter Cove in 1986, incorporated kayaking into his venture along with environmental water tours, and expanded his focus to the “general outdoors” in 1989.
In 1991, he changed his company’s name again to Outside Hilton Head, which has stuck. His retail business was booming, he purchased a chain of islands near Daufuskie Island in 1999 and began developing a leadership/team building enterprise for the corporate world; by necessity, he got into the boating business to get his clients to and from Hilton Head. Then he dove into the charter fishing, environmental tour business and has become for the past decade a “one-stop source” for arranging everything for groups, including events, transportation, outings and parties.
Now, Outside Hilton Head has five divisions with 80 passionate employees, and an additional retail location in Palmetto Bluff.
“Our goal has been to connect people to the island with its nature, history and culture,” Overton said.
FORSYTHE JEWELERS | SINCE 1981
THE SHOPS AT SEA PINES CENTER
This “family” business has been selling jewelry on the island for the past 34 years, but its three-generation bloodline stretches back to 1927 in upstate New York.
The grandparents of Debbie Forsythe Berling, daughter of Barbara and Richard Rochow who opened Forsythe Jewelers at Pineland Station here 34 years ago, opened their jewelry store of the same name nearly nine decades ago up north.
Debbie worked with her parents at the Pineland location, moved with them to The Shops at Sea Pines Center as one of the first tenants 25 years ago, and bought the store from her parents in 2000. She sold the business over the summer to Andrea Bragg, a 14-year employee.
“It’s still a family business, but it’s a different family,” Bragg said. “We call our clients the Forsythe family. Our clients are like our family, they’re not just customers. We know their names, their children’s names, what’s going on in their lives and what’s happening with us. It’s a relationship business.”
And a successful relationship business. Since its humble roots here as a “mom and pop” operation that sold jewelry from a variety of vendors with just a few showcases, it has evolved into a high-end luxury enterprise, thanks to Debbie and Bragg’s teamwork.
“We’re a much larger store now that carries all the top jewelry designers,” Bragg said, name dropping David Yurman and Roberto Coin as examples. “We have customers that appreciate our sense of fashion and our sense of style. They’ll see here what they see in the fashion magazines. For a small island, we’re a big-city store with a small-town feel.”
PRETTY PAPERS | SINCE 1983
THE VILLAGE AT WEXFORD
This specialty shop began serving local customers in Sea Pines Center in 1983, thanks to original owner Susan Woods. Gene and Ellen Arrington became its third owner 15 years ago and moved it to The Village at Wexford, joining an eclectic mix of about 30 other merchants.
“We started out originally as a basic stationary store,” said Gene, who has been in the retail business for his entire career. “Then we evolved into a stationery gift store. We’re the only store left on the island that does wedding invitations.”
That retail niche is due to loyal repeat customers, most of whom are local residents. Their secondary market is second-home homeowners.
Today, Pretty Papers is the premier shop for wedding invitations, wedding party gifts and everyday stationery needs, with free gift wrapping.
What makes Pretty Papers the onestop shopping experience is its personal service and inventory.
“Our whole deal is customer service,” Gene said. “We chit chat with everybody and everybody is greeted when they come in the front door. It’s a personal touch. A lot of our customers have become our friends.”
Pretty Papers is not inclined to become proactive on the internet because the couple feels that the personal interaction with their clients is the key to building and maintaining relationships.
“I’m on the floor every day,” he said. “The better merchandise we put on the floor, the better response we get.
“The customer base here is a very friendly customer base — ’thank you, hello, how are you’,” he said. He likes that because he’s a self-described people-person himself.
THE BACK DOOR | SINCE 1988
THE SHOPS AT SEA PINES CENTER
Shortly after graduating from college, Joni Rosser eloped, and she and her husband headed to Hilton Head in 1977, where they’ve been ever since. He’s an architect, and she had a teaching certificate but couldn’t find a job on the island back then, so she reverted to the retailing “career” of her teenage years.
She has owned The Back Door for 20 years after teaming with partner Leisa Tram for seven years at the then jewelry store of the same name located at Harbour Town marina.
“We were a small jewelry store in Harbour Town then, with no clothing,” she said. “We started introducing clothes, little things, accessories, wraps and vests, then we outgrew the space” and moved about 18 years ago to their current location.
Now, The Back Door sells shoes, handbags, clothing, fine and costume jewelry and are well known for their merchandise’s value and quality.
“Your store ends up having a personality of its own,” she said. “We have a big mother of the bride, mother of the groom and guests of the wedding business. People know us for that.
“My inventory is for a woman who’s confident, a woman who shops for herself; I think she can be completely wardrobed in our store for any part of the day and occasion,” she said.
As the local economy and buying tendencies of the consumer have changed through the years, The Back Door adapted to the changes.
But one thing will never change, Rosser said. “There are so many more ways to get customers now, but the key thing now is the exact same thing it’s always been: good personalized customer service. Everything is different, but everything is really the same. There’s all kinds of ways to get them, but you have to keep them.”
Not only does the economy change, but new fashion trends are also constantly changing. Fashion fever has undoubtedly gone through its extremes. From skinny jeans to mini skirts, boyfriend blazers to cargo pants, flats to platforms, the fashion trends are almost as unpredictable as the economy.
And The Back Door has been there to embrace it at every turn.
HERITAGE FINE JEWELRY | SINCE 1990
SHELTER COVE TOWN CENTRE
Patti Catalano has been in the jewelry business for 40 years, and her two sons and daughter are part of the family tradition now, too.
She moved her small shop from Florida to Pineland Station in 1990 and then Shelter Cove Towne Centre in 2013.
“When I first came here as a tourist to the island, I was curious to see what other jewelers here on the island were doing…I thought, ‘Boy, I’ve got a great niche because we would be doing everything on the premises.' Within six months, I was here. I just knew it was the place for us to be.”
Then, and now, they custom design jewelry to customer preference, have the “most extensive inventory on the island” in their display cases, can turn old gold casings into exquisite new pieces, have a master goldsmith, engraver and laser welder on site, and will treat you royally.
When Heritage opened here in 1990, it outperformed their last and 12th year in sales in Florida. When Heritage opened at Shelter Cove Towne Centre a year-and-a-half ago, it had 24 customers lined up outside the door.
“Walk-in traffic is what’s it’s all about,” Patti said.
But she says she also has days when she receives multiple phone calls from around the country ordering custom-designed jewelry. Repeat customers matter.