Retail and real-estate entrepreneurs are turning former big box stores into places where cottage industries can find customers.
It’s a physical world response to what Etsy.com has done for home-based businesses nationwide since it launched in 2005 with a focus on handmade and vintage items.
These general merchandise stores sell the same types of products and often use the old retail term “mercantile” or the more current one popularized by Amazon, “marketplace,” in their names.
When you slap a name like mercantile on a store, “you can sell virtually anything, and we do,” said Clare Freeman, general manager of the Richardson Mercantile, a 55,000-square-foot store that used to be a Whole Foods Market in Richardson, Texas. It has a sister store in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Frisco Mercantile.
It’s a growing niche retail business across the U.S. in suburbs and tourist towns, and it’s not an antique mall, if that’s what you’re thinking.
Instead, think boutique quality folk art and one-of-a-kind items made from wood, metal, glass, ceramics and fabrics. Some are for gifts and home décor. There’s vintage apparel and new items from budding retailers displaying their ability to curate merchandise.
Lone Star Mercantile, founded in 2017 by two local couples, uses bar codes and point-of-sale software that allows vendors to be absent while their customers shop and pay at a common checkout at the front of the store.
The stores represent “a chance for artisans to tell a story in a 10-by-10-foot booth, or larger, and for customers to find a one-of-a-kind item,” said retail consultant Ric Anderson during an interview at the Lone Star Mercantile in Allen.
Little Rock-based Painted Tree Marketplace has expanded into Texas and is also opening in places like Franklin, Tenn., which is a day trip from Nashville. The Painted Tree’s flagship store in Arkansas is in an old car dealership. Its North Richland Hills store is in a former Office Depot. The Painted Tree Marketplace in Highland Village was a Kroger and another one opening in Mansfield in November will fill a long-vacant Sports Authority.
“People have told us they think of the store as if Etsy.com had come to life,” said Tina Pemberton of McKinney, who co-owns and operates Lone Star Mercantile with Heather Cox of Melissa, Texas.
Many of their 200 tenants work out of their homes and garages, she said. The way it works, the tenants pay rent and keep their booths stocked. The store checks out their customers and receives a percentage of sales. Lone Star also hosts events during the year, including after-hours parties for groups.
Many people are turning hobbies into sidelines, said Richardson Mercantile’s Freeman. They’re retired or creative people who want to fund their hobbies.
More and more, they’re using advanced tools that turn out anything but homemade-looking merchandise.
A generation ago, your grandmother who liked to make things might knit you a blanket or whip up Christmas wreath for your door. Today she’s monogramming your new Yeti travel cup and designing and printing T-shirts for your family reunion with her computer and craft machine.
Michaels selling technology
That why the largest U.S. arts and craft supply store, Michaels, now has a tech section fueling the needs of advanced crafters and artisans.
Michaels isn’t ready to declare that it’s an electronics store, but the retailer is selling some expensive machines that cost up to $400 to people who like to make things.
It’s doubling the space in its 1,200 stores for DIY technology that allows crafty people to personalize anything at home, a service that smart boutiques and retailers have offered customers in recent years. Technology has made it easier for people to print party cups and fun sayings on infant onesies and make sophisticated cuts in paper, leather, wood and other materials.
Michaels sells Cricut machines and software and other tools. Cricut invented the smart die-cutting machines for home use, but there are other brands on the market, including Silhouette and Brother.
Now printing technology has taken another leap. Cricut has a new infusible ink system that Michaels will sell exclusively through Oct. 1. This system says its transfers of printed designs are permanent and don’t peel or fade in washing.
Michaels could use a hit product. While it’s the leading arts and crafts retailer, the company has struggled to increase sales and profits lately, and its stock price is down 50% from a year ago.