New owners of Linen Kist expand into home décor services

Retail Editor 2, April 2, 2012

Vail/Beaver Creek, Colo. - In less than a year under the new ownership of couple Nikki and Nick Kern, longtime luxury home linens shop The Linen Kist has managed to uphold its character as a venue for high-end bedding and bath while evolving its service offering as a more total-home décor service source

As Nikki Kern explained to HTT, she had a quick learning curve. But she swiftly realized the ingredients she would need to take her new business to the next level without actually altering its tried-and-true foundation.

"We want to save the Linen Kist because it's had such a great following for so long and many loyal customers over the years. We want them to know they can still come here to get their Sferra sheets and their Abyss towels and Labrazel bath accessories," Kern said. "But we wanted to offer our customers more. We wanted to also be a one-stop service for them for custom draperies, upholstery and in-home design consultations."

The Linen Kist was first opened here in 1989 by Nancy Rehder as a high-end linens boutique that catered both locals and seasonal residents with second homes in the area.

Rehder ran the business successfully until 2000, when a local entrepreneur approached her about selling her business to him. Looking for a change, Rehder agreed.

She relocated to Seattle and started working part-time - this time on the supplier side, serving as a rep for several home textiles companies.

That lasted for about six years, until one day in 2006 her store's buyer called her again - this time looking to sell the business back to her.

Again, Rehder agreed, and she soon returned to Vail/Beaver Creek to run The Linen Kist full time.

Kern owned and operated a Benjamin Moore paint store and flooring business in the area for more than 20 years with her husband, which they sold in 2010. A little more than a year ago, she was offered an opportunity to come work for Rehdeh at the store part time.

"It was all fun and all new to me, and I considered it more an internship than a job. I was looking to gain knowledge about the textiles and linens business," Kern said. "I wanted to know about thread counts, about everything that had to do with the linens business. Design has always been my forte, and working with [Rehder], I was really learning the [home textiles] trade," Kern said.

A few months into her job, Kern and her husband had an idea that could bring them back to the home décor business through a new route.

"We just threw it out there - we told her that if she was ever interested in selling the store, we'd be interested in buying it," Kern said.

And to their surprise - she was, very quickly.

"Within about six weeks of telling her, she offered the store to us," Kern said. "[Rehder] said she was ready to retire."

The Kerns became the new owners in July 2011. And their first order of business was naming Kern's best friend and longtime Linen Kist associate Amy Joersz the new store manager. She spent 15 years working at Linen Kist for Rehder, and was instrumental in helping Kern learn the home textiles business after she joined the store.

"Having Amy stay on as the manager helps us gain customers' trust, and she is the foundation of the store, really. When customers come in and see her, they can trust that things will go on as they have been all along," Kern said. "And that is very important, since so many of our customers are return customers."

Another mainstay in the plan: the linen offering.

"Linens are the backbone of this business," said Kern, adding that the merchandise mix remains much the same but has undergone some "diversifying" since she took ownership.

"We're working a little more now with some different brands, trying to focus on drawing more of our loyal customer base while expanding the assortment to include some newer items that are more affordable," she continued.

Sferra Bros. continues to be The Linen Kist's core, top-of-the-line bedding brand. It is also a key component of bath along with Abyss and Matouk. In the utility bedding category, Scandia and Cuddledown products make up the bulk of the assortment.

The store's bedding display continues to include two queen-size beds for showcasing fashion bedding and a twin-size bed for down utility products.

But Kern is integrating new suppliers to the mix offering more affordable luxury goods.

"For example, Kassatex has a beautiful bamboo-and-cotton sheet set and duvet covers and shams that we've introduced and are carrying in a small display and can sell in the $200 range as opposed to maybe $450, which is what a lower-end Sferra sheet retails for," Kern explained.

She added: "We are in no way trying to run out Sferra. They are still our core. But we want to also offer some more affordable options, working with vendors we can trust and who help us diversify a little in product and price point. With the market still somewhat tough, there is a need for that."

Also new is an updated fashion statement. While traditional looks "are still a big part of our motif here in the valley," Kern said, "more and more people are asking for an updated interpretation, or what we call ‘mountain contemporary,' which allows you to incorporate the popular natural wood looks used in so many homes here with more transitional décor and linens."

And the most notable shift in Linen Kist's new business approach is the addition of special custom services to the store. As Kern explained, "we want to be a one-stop shop" for drapery, upholstery, and in-store and in-home design consultation.

The store recently remodeled the showroom space of the store, "opened it up a little," Kern said, and added a work station with a "very large counter space" as a more comfortable station with where it work with customers more closely.

"We're not interior decorators, but we offer our customers ideas as experts in the design field," she said. "We just want to help our customers with their design needs, from the time they walk in the door to the end product. With their linens or drapery or upholstery needs, we work as a subcontractor, so now our customers only need to deal with one [company] - us."

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