- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Kate Carpenter
Stowe Kitchen Bath & Linens is already decked out for the holidays. At the entrance to the Mountain Road store, a small Christmas tree holds skiing-Santa ornaments atop a miniature lodge. German-made wooden and glass-ball decorations cover a larger, upside-down tree suspended from the ceiling. A pine-scented candle diffuses a woodsy aroma from a display of white-sprinkled boughs.
On a recent weekday, owner Kate Carpenter is darting around the store carrying boxes, taking phone calls and checking the register. She's wearing a black faux-fur vest over camouflage leggings, both of which she sells in the store.
Stowe Kitchen Bath & Linens is packed with stuff — towels and rugs, dishes and frying pans, hand soap and jewelry — and the inventory keeps on coming. "We get at least two trucks in every single day of new goods," says Carpenter, who has owned the store since 2009. "Two weeks ago, we had nine tractor trailers in and out."
Carpenter, 56, isn't inclined to sit still, even when a pandemic impedes her business. "Whether it's COVID or anything else, the most important thing in retail is your ability to change," she says.
In March, when Gov. Phil Scott ordered most retailers to temporarily close to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, Carpenter began walking the five miles to her store every day, just to get fresh air and "soak up" the strangely quiet environment, she says.
In the store, she stayed busy with administrative tasks and took the occasional customer order by phone (web sales are sparse, she says). Carpenter unloaded shipments from FedEx and UPS trucks herself.
"People were anchored in their homes and not going anywhere," she says. "I would drive 30 miles to deliver a $10 package."
Sales were largely "nonexistent," though, until Stowe Kitchen Bath & Linens reopened in mid-May, when the state allowed it, Carpenter says. Even now, the fallout from the pandemic continues for Stowe merchants, who typically start their busy season with leaf-peeping tourists.
"This year, that foliage walk-in traffic is not here," Carpenter laments. "So it's not as busy."
Nonetheless, she's working hard to try to make up the losses. Stowe Kitchen Bath & Linens added puzzles, toys and other products made popular by the pandemic. The store bursts with nesting items, such as cozy throws, lambskin pillows and books about Scandinavian style.
"The hand wash, hand sanitizers and the masks have been some of our top sellers," says designer and marketing director Nicole Christopher. The face masks come from a mother-and-daughter team in Paris, she adds. "They're selling themselves."
Customers from across the country have called to request Le Creuset French ovens for making bread — the store stocks them in multiple colors. Sales of scented candles, priced from about $20 to $68, and other fragrant goods have doubled, Carpenter says.
She has swiveled to meet customer demand. For years shoppers have talked about the lack of local options for buying reasonably priced furniture, so Carpenter sourced and began carrying it. A wooden dining table costs $1,100. Unique fabric-topped benches start at about $400. A velvet sofa runs $1,200. Carpenter even bought a truck for furniture delivery.
"We can't get our hands on enough," she said of the pieces. "We're rearranging purposely because things are selling."
Stowe Kitchen Bath & Linens also expanded its design services. In the past, Carpenter and other staff would occasionally assist a customer decorating a home or redoing a room, but they didn't have a dedicated in-house design team to take on full interior projects. Now they do — with sustainability in mind, Carpenter notes.
She has yet to tally her sales to date to see how these efforts have paid off. "Every single purchase is meaningful," she says. "We've got a long way to go to make up for being closed."
Communication with the store's 800-plus vendors is a juggling act. Because the pandemic has cut into production, Carpenter staggered orders of the popular Yoshi dish towels from Japan to ensure that she never runs out. Some of the furniture fulfillment has been slow, so the store will loan a floor model until the customer's item arrives.
Trucks now drop off shipments at the front door rather than at the lower-level dock, where employees used to unload items. The new system saves employees time and allows them to interact with vendors and help customers.
"This store has always been a staple," says shopper Debbie Boardman Davis, who has scooped up glassware, table items and décor over the years for her Stowe home. "It includes all different types of items that you would need for your household."
Carpenter prides herself on carrying products for any budget and need. Customers can buy a pair of fruit-printed oven mitts for $8 or a Breville espresso machine for $1,000. Cowhide rugs start at $250; a wooden cutting board costs $35. The Christmas ornaments from Germany range from $6 to $25.
One store shelf holds sheet sets for $89 that would normally retail for $420, Carpenter says. Why? "Hustle, hustle, hustle," she says. On the phone with suppliers, if she learns that someone else's shipment got canceled, she can negotiate a deal on those goods, she explains. "Bring me that truck," she tells them.
Carpenter believes in going out of her way for customers. She'll keep the store open late if a shopper needs the extended time. And while many retailers have ceased allowing customers to use the restroom, that is not the case at Stowe Kitchen Bath & Linens; staff clean it every half hour, along with the front door and checkout counter. Carpenter's delivery drivers know she'll accept goods at 9 or 10 p.m. "They're working hard, too," she says.
When her recycling hauler from Casella Waste Systems shows up, employees send him home with a scented candle, which he and his wife love, Carpenter says. In return, the couple sent a handmade thank-you card.
That's what warms Carpenter's heart as the weather turns colder, she says. It keeps her hopeful, despite the current challenges and uncertainty for retailers. And it gives her reason to deck the store for a joyful holiday season.