Maternity Made Easier in the Poughkeepsie Journal

Friday, March 21, 2008

Maternity made easier

Young entrepreneur's store has goods, services for moms, moms-to-be

By Carolyn Torella

For the Poughkeepsie Journal

Maternity clothes have come a long way since the stuffy, oversized big-shirts from last century. There's a trend toward fashion, fit, comfort and style in maternity apparel being led by young entrepreneurs, moms who know what they want and aren't afraid to go out and find it, create it or sell it.

When Jenn Sullivan of Poughkeepsie had her baby, Sophie, she knew exactly what she wanted - natural child-birth, stylish maternity clothing, breastfeeding and baby products that were made in the United States. She just didn't know it would eventually become her business.

Sullivan, a 1993 Lourdes graduate, is owner of Waddle n Swaddle maternity boutique in Poughkeepsie, and only one of 6.2 million women-owned firms employing 9.2 million people and generating sales of $1.15 trillion in the U.S., according to the Small Business Administration.

"I had gone back to work part time, then eventually quit because I wanted to be home. I researched natural parenting, childbirth, made in the USA products, parenting issues and that's how it started," Sullivan said. "I was the first one to have a baby in my group of friends. When my friends started having babies, they'd ask me for advice. It really built around that."

Sullivan is also a certified lactation counselor through the Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice. Counselors are required to take a 45-hour course and pass the comprehensive exam before they are certified. Once certified, they may provide breastfeeding counseling in hospitals and birthing centers, outpatient clinics, visiting nurse programs and community-based programs. Sullivan teaches breastfeeding education classes at her store.

"I had great support for breastfeeding. My mom breastfed four children, and my sister and sister-in-law both breastfed. It was second nature to me. My friends didn't have that, so I became that for them," she said.

Her 1,200-square-foot boutique carries maternity, breastfeeding and transition apparel, nursing products and pumps, baby slings, blankets, cloth diapers and organic body care products.  "Waddle n Swaddle was more of a focus on maternity clothing, baby products and carriers, but breastfeeding has always been a part of it. I just didn't think that it would be as big a piece as it's becoming," she said.

In addition to breastfeeding classes and mom support groups, Sullivan hosts childbirth education classes taught by Mavis Gewant, a childbirth educator. Sullivan hopes to eventually offer infant massage classes.  Sullivan says the reason people take education classes at her store is the intimacy of the programs.  "It's really one-on-one education. They can share their feelings, concerns, excitement, and it's a great way to meet people. It can be a whole family event for spouses, partners, siblings, grandparents; anyone in their network can attend," she said.

"A lot of people find me through researching products online. I'm listed on the manufacturers' Web sites," Sullivan said.  Her customers have come from as far as New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont to shop at her store. She recently went live with her expanded online store, trying to capture customer sales beyond the Hudson Valley.

With competition from mall chain stores, finding a solid client base can be challenging for a small independent businesses.  For more than 10 years, Mary Ann Zimmerman ran the successful Bosom Buddies store in Port Ewen, selling breastfeeding supplies and providing lactation consultation to Ulster County-area residents. She recently closed the shop to become a lactation consultant with Kingston Hospital.  "You start something because nothing's out there. I was a nursing mother myself, and I knew there were products I couldn't get a hold of. So I started with mail order out of my house. I wanted to be more visible, so I moved to the Port Ewen store. I did lactation counseling for my customers and I didn't charge," Zimmerman said.

When the opportunity came to focus solely on the lactation consulting for a hospital, she took it. "It was hard to compete against the big box stores. It was tough. But for me it wasn't all about the retail. It was about meeting women and helping them breastfeed their babies."

Specializing in hard-to-find products and offering unique personal services can provide customers with that something extra mall stores can't provide.  "It's very important to me that I offer that kind of store. It's not easy to find the products I offer. I have people who are specifically searching out made in the USA products. For my maternity lines, 99 percent are made in the USA in fair-trade factory conditions from small designer lines, not mass-produced. I research my 'made in the USA' products. I think it makes a big difference to our global economy," Sullivan said.

"In my experience, getting new customers has been the best through word of mouth. The level of customer care people receive is a catalyst to let other people know that they'll have a great customer experience here. Advertising is a re-enforcer," she said.

As for "location, location, location," Sullivan loves working in the Arlington Business District. "I love that they're continuing the landscaping and roundabouts. It will hopefully bring in new business. There are young people here. It's a great central point for the Hudson Valley."

Counsel was wise

She praises the advice of her business mentor, another Arlington business owner, Michael Gordon of Zimmer Brothers Jewelers.  "When I was starting the store, he was a great resource," Sullivan said. "If someone wanted to open a business, I would suggest getting a well-established, local, small-business owner as a mentor. Having that insight and information was priceless. They encouraged me to join the chamber of commerce, Arlington Business District, do advertising. I probably would've wasted a lot of money.

"You really can't start a business without $30,000-$50,000 within the first year to get going, if you want a good, solid product base. Beyond that, the initial investment was in the space of time, paint and elbow grease."  The investment was worth it for Sullivan to do what she loves and be with the child she loves.  Her daughter spends a day with her work-at-home dad, one day with her grandmother and two days at the store. "This way, she can be with our family," Sullivan said. "We keep her busy at the store and she's a fixture now. If she's not there, people ask, 'Where is she?' "

Sometimes it's a huge thing to make that leap to small-business owner, but not for us. My mother is a small-business owner and my in-laws are, too," Sullivan said. "It's just part of our family."

Carolyn Torella is a freelance writer in LaGrangeville. Contact her at carolyntorella@gmail.com.