Jess Brittingham and Deb Kruse were just a couple of moms on the playground at Roosevelt Elementary School when they found each other.
It was 2009. Their boys were in second grade, unaware the economy has just taken an epic dive. That employers were laying off. Mom and pop shops were shuttering.
“Deb wanted to start her own business and wanted help. I said, ‘If you’ve got an idea, I’m looking for a change, too.’ So she’d stop me on the playground and ask, ‘What about this? What about this?’ When she said consignment, that was it,” recalled Brittingham, co-owner of U-Turn Apparel.
Their timing was practically perfect.
At a time when members of the middle class were suddenly selling things to make ends meet, Brittingham and Kruse were paying people to get rid of their stuff – and using infrastructure from faltering businesses to set up shop.
“We were savvy shoppers, and we were fortunate to find a shop that was going out of business,” Brittingham said. “So, we got a lot of our hangers, our clothing racks from that business for dirt cheap. Then we would hit up estate sales, and we scored big time.
“One place, we got five pieces of furniture that we use as our displays for $80. We just knew where to look. We looked on Craigslist. A lot of businesses were going out of business. But we were always estate shoppers, anyway. We knew to hit up those places, garage sales.”
They also got creative, turning those garage sale finds – like a collection of old tennis ball carriers – into displays and storage.
“We put a bag inside, and they hold scarves. But we got those for $1 a piece at a garage sale. We’re all about repurposing,” Brittingham laughed.
For their business, they found a little spot on North Avenue, just west of 69th Street.
“We got in early before North Avenue changed,” Brittingham said. “And we pretty much lived there for the first year or so.”
Kruse was in finance at a car dealership. Brittingham was a speech pathologist; still is, actually. They both continued at their day jobs until knew they could make profit.
“Which didn’t take long actually,” Brittingham said.
Their combination of higher-end inventory – think J Crew, Anthropologie, Nordstrom – and one-of-a-kind items, like vintage Lord & Taylor, seems to keep people coming back.
“We’re also very picky about what we take in. It has to look clean, feel clean, smell clean. Probably the biggest compliment people give us when they walk in is they ask, ‘Is this consignment, or is this new?’ When we tell them it’s consignment, they’re shocked. It’s the presentation. It’s the smell. That’s one we hear a lot. You take whatever compliments you can get,” Brittingham laughed.
They also draw from a deep pool of consigners – about 2,300, by Brittingham’s count. And they try to regularly rotate stock, keeping items on the floor an average of 60 days, sometime 90, before moving on.
“We’re like a boutique or a village shop, like any of the shops in the Third Ward. That’s what we’re trying to emulate,” Brittingham said.
So far, it’s been a success, enough that they’ve actually considered opening another shop.
“We toy around with a second location every now and then, but it always seems like our kids are so active and life is so crazy.”
Their second-graders are now in high school, after all, Brittingham said.
“I think we’re pretty content where we are. If we stay here another year, another 10, I think we are proud of what we’ve done,” she said. “We’re a true small business. We just came up with an idea, put it together, made it happen and did it during a downturn in the economy. And we’re still here.”
JUST THE FACTS
BUSINESS: U-Turn, 6905 W. North Ave.
CO-OWNERS: Jess Brittingham and Deb Kruse
TYPE OF BUSINESS: consignment boutique
PEARLS OF WISDOM: “We’re a true small business. We just came up with an idea, put it together, made it happen and did it during a downturn in the economy. And we’re still here.”