Bedside Manor a four-shop mainstay in Chicago suburbs

Retail Editor 3, August 5, 2013

Chicago, Ill. - You might say Meg and Michael Carroll have mastered the home textiles specialty retailing business in their vast suburban market.

Co-owners and operators of Bedside Manor Ltd., the married couple and parents of three 20-somethings have managed to raise their family and grow their business over the past 28 years into a four-unit chain of luxury linen stores in spite of external economic hurdles and rapidly shifting practices in the industry.

Meg Carroll founded the business, with the help of a longtime friend and colleague - Rosella Louis, founder of Brass Bed of Denver, which HTT featured in its May 13 issue.

"I started the store in 1985 with my friend. We were partners," Carroll told HTT. "My background was in department stores. I was a buyer for Carson's and wanted to do something different. So I turned to my friend from college at the University of Denver, Rosella, who went into specialty retailing with the opening of her own store - Brass Bed of Denver."

Louis, who today operates a two-unit chain that this year celebrates its 35th anniversary in business, is credited with helping Carroll and Bedside Manor "get going," as she put it.

"She helped me get the business started, with the idea that one day I would buy her out," she explained.

And about four years later, that's exactly what happened.

"My husband, Michael, who was working in finance, left his job to work with me. We bought out our partner, and we got started expanding our business."

Together, the Carrolls built Bedside Manor into a mini empire of neighborhood luxury linens shops, surviving the recession almost intact, maintaining their four-unit operation, and most proudly, never letting anyone go from their staff.

"We've been through some economic recessions, but it really didn't affect our clientele until 2009," she explained. "Before that, we were in a real growth stage. Things were easier.
"It's true that good business and lots of business bring on a whole set of challenges. But we were rocking for several years for sure. Then when the recession hit, we really didn't want to close our stores. It was four long years of trying to figure out how to work smarter, and we obviously ordered a lot less merchandise. And if ever a staff member moved on, we just didn't replace them. But we never let anyone go during that time, and we are very proud of that. Instead, we made changes within our organization in terms of hats people wore. But we kept everyone we had on staff."

When Carroll established the company, she did so much as her partner had: with brass and iron beds, as well with some Amish quilts and some limited bed linens from Palais Royale (which today is known as Yves Delorme), Brinkhaus, and now defunct-Coverdown.

"What we had was a smattering of European linens to help the consumer focus on the beds, and back then, our brass and iron beds comprised about 80% of our business," she said.

Today, that figure has flipped" Carroll said. Bedding linens generate 80% of Bedside Manor's business, while small furniture and accessories make up 20%.

"As years passed, our business has dramatically changed," she explained. "As European linens have come more and more into the U.S. market, that is where our growth has come and taken us to four stores."

Bedside Manor's first unit opened in the village of Long Grove, a Northwest suburb of Chicago.

"It was in a cute, old-fashioned shopping and restaurant town - a very nice place for us to start our business because Long Grove is such a destination spot," Carroll said. "We were there about four years when we decided to open a store in Lincoln Park," - which remains open today as Bedside Manor's flagship site.

About a year and a half later the Carrolls began working together - Michael heading all operations, Meg in charge of merchandising, marketing, and advertising. Also around that time, they were starting a family.

"Our commute to Long Grove became a little too long, so we closed that store in 1991 and kept only our Chicago store," she said.

They ran the single store until 1996, when they opened a new shop in Winnetka - a suburb on the North Shore of Chicago.

"Winnetka was a natural place for us to be because there are a lot of home furnishings stores and design stores there," Carroll said. "And it is still that way. It's our highest volume store to this day."

Encouraged by growth in sales, the Carrolls then opened a third store - this time in Hinsdale, a suburb due west of Chicago. "Again, we picked Hinsdale because it is also an upscale area with good schools and high home values."

Carroll recalled the formative years of both her business and family in the late 80s and early 90s.

"Our kids were born in 1988, 1989 and 1991 - it was all kind of fast," she said. "And so during those years, we were living in Lincoln Park and our store was in Lincoln Park. So as we grew as a family we decided to expand our business and have multiple stores. We considered one big store at one point. But in the end, we decided the Chicago market was big enough for more, and there weren't any other stores like us anywhere, so multiple stores - like boutiques - in the nicer areas would ultimately be a smarter move for us."

Bedside Manor's fourth store opened in 2001 in Lake Forest.

As the national economy has been slowly improving, Bedside Manor is seeing its business respond.

"Now we feel like we are recovering," Carroll said. "A couple of our stores are doing some pre-recession numbers and we're seeing good increases at one store that had the hardest time."

Fashion has become more seasonal and basics have taken over as a core business.

"We are way more selective about what we do bring into the stores," she explained. "But we do have some fashion inventory. We have great relationships with some key vendors."

Bedside Manor's basics line is anchored by the store's private label program, dubbed just that - Private Label - which was developed via a small company in Italy.

"We stock a beautiful 460-count hemstitch in white and ivory sheeting, and we have five different embroidered patterns on that same base cloth," she said. This program also has a few other simple looks.

Other basics programs in stock include Sferra and Yves Delorme, among a few others.

On the fashion bedding side, vendors include: SDH - "a very important vendor to us, very, very important," Carroll noted; Ann Gish, and John Robshaw, as well as others.

This month, fashion plays a more central role at Bedside Manor in time for back-to-school - a season that has grown by about 30% for the company over the past three years.

"Our back-to-school programs are from the likes of John Robshaw, Pine Cone Hill, Matouk," she said. "These brands are a little more affordable and a little more fun, and they offer a lot of pattern and color and a fun vibe."

She added that BTS creates another reason to "keep us fresh out there for the customer. We are working on not being so promotional, and instead looking at parts of the seasonal business to stir business."

At the Winnetka store, BTS has seen a noticeable uptick over the past two to three years.

"People are coming in to buy really beautiful linens for their high school students or for the dorm rooms of their college kids," she said. "So this year we are focusing on doing some magazine advertising toward a more youthful look and reaching out to show we have in stores and that we are broadening that assortment."


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