By Maureen McEwan
For a quarter of a century, a Westboro family business has lived at 373 Richmond Rd.
West End Kids, the local children’s clothing and outerwear store, opened its doors on Aug. 15, 1995. This summer, owners Sheba and Gordie Schmidt held a small, COVID-19 safe celebration. But the Schmidts are launching into their 25th year with a new adventure: West End Kids is opening a second store this fall.
“It’s exciting!” Sheba said. “I worked out a really good lease, so I’m comfortable with it, if everything falls into place.”
The second store is, quite literally, a stone’s throw away from the original location. The newly rented space is at 376 Madison Ave., directly behind the main store. Sheba estimates that it is over 3,000 square feet which allows them to have a duplicate store, warehouse, and maybe even a “little office.”
In early 2020, Sheba said the business was in its “best year in 25 years.” They decided to expand to the second location and signed the new lease at the end of January.
“It’s sort of long overdue. We just couldn’t afford it,” Sheba said about the new store. “And, in February, it looked like we were in our best year ever — business was fantastic. And then the bottom just [dropped]. I mean, everybody has their story, right?”
COVID-19’s spread quickly led to shutdowns in the spring. West End Kids closed its doors along with many other Ontario businesses on March 15. The staff was laid off, leaving only managers Benjamin (Sheba and Gordie’s son) and Jackie to run their online store. They reopened in late May, but the last six months have been difficult for their team. Sheba said that there have also been permanent closures in Kitchissippi due to the pandemic.
“It’s going to change Westboro,” she said about the recent closures. “But I do know that kids still have to play outside and I still know that I have a strong presence with a great reputation. So I’m being hopeful.”
“Without it [the second store], we cannot succeed,” Gordie added. “There’s not even a chance because the store normally does in the hundreds of thousands of dollars [in revenue] over the next couple of months and, physically, we can’t get the people in the store to do that kind of volume. So, hopefully, with this [second store], we’ll be able to. Now we just need the community support — that’s all we need.”
They had the keys to the new space on Sept. 15 and they’ve planned their soft launch for early October. The second store will open as they head into their busiest season — Sheba said it is typically wall-to-wall with customers for the next few months. For the busy season, the store will act as a duplicate, offering the same products in each location.
With COVID-19 safety measures, Gordie anticipates that the second store can have up to four families in the space at a time, while the original store can accommodate three families at a time.
“So, that way we can sort of handle the same kind of traffic we usually do and, if people make appointments, it will make it so much easier,” he said.
The business has set up its appointment schedule mobile app to encourage customers to book their shopping times in advance. In the new year, Sheba said they might review their stock and designate one location for footwear and accessories, or something similar, but they will see how things progress with the duplicate store.
How it all began in Westboro
Their original store’s lease was signed in the mid-1990s, a very different time in the Village.
“It was a main thoroughfare [Richmond Road] and Gordie felt that this would be a good location,” Sheba said. “It was $10 a square foot.”
Sheba had just turned 40 and they had a seven-year-old son, Benjamin. Two years earlier, Sheba and Gordie had retired from their careers in sales for Esprit — the American-European clothing company — and travelled globally before calling Ottawa home. In 1995, Sheba decided to draw on her professional experience and open West End Kids in Westboro.
“So I opened up the store in 1995 and I cried for five years,” she said, laughing. “I could not believe [it]. You know, selling to a retailer and then becoming a retailer, it’s two different things!”
Initially, Gordie had taken on a financial role when the business started up. Sheba said he became more hands-on with the business as they headed into year six and signed another lease.
Around that time, they decided to “take the plunge” into outerwear. Their first order of snowsuits (50 of them, Sheba estimates) sold out in a couple of weeks. The demand for winter wear continually rose.
“The store kept evolving and evolving and the outerwear, I could sell it to the last piece,” Sheba said.
For the last fifteen years, West End Kids has been more of an outerwear retailer, Sheba said. Some of the brands they carry include Columbia, Helly Hansen, The North Face, Sorel and more. And the local store has built a strong customer base across the country, shipping to remote spots like Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and other northern communities.
From the beginning, Sheba said the store’s philosophy has been primarily about “knowledge” and not about driving sales. Their staff works with customers with diverse needs to provide them with the right information and to help them find the right products.
The store has also been online since the early 2000s, when Sheba wanted to look into retail options and met with Industrial Media, a local company.
“They put together a custom website for me,” Sheba said. “So I’ve had [an] online presence since 2007.”
In 2011, Benjamin officially joined the business and now manages West End Kids. Sheba said Ben also works as an interactive multimedia developer, so he was “really instrumental” in developing the online store.
Three years later, West End Kids moved its business over to Shopify. Sheba said that it “became a beautiful story” as their partnership yielded terrific sales results — the company remains a Shopify merchant, both POS and online.
After 25 years, Sheba said that Westboro is a great place to be as a business owner.
“I love the business community. I’ve been on the board (BIA) for years,” she said. “And I love the people.”
Despite all the challenges, she also believes in the community support for small businesses in Canada.
“I think there’s going to be a resurgence of small business,” she said.
“I can’t speak for anyone else but with Canadians, they want to support local,” she added. “[In] this type of industry, we’re the crux of the economy: minimum wage people that work.”
West End Kids is set to open its second store in early October. Visit http://www.westendkids.ca to learn more.