The word “eclectic” has been used to describe all sorts of things but perhaps its best use is to describe Leon & Lulu, Mary Liz Curtin’s wonderfully kinetic store located in Clawson, Michigan.
Leon & Lulu, and the adjacent Three Cats at Leon & Lulu, is owned by the husband-and-wife team, Mary Liz Curtin and Stephen Scannell. The store is named for their family pets, Leon the cat and Lulu, his rottweiler pal. While Leon and Lulu are no longer with us, visitors to the store just might meet Spot and Bertie, the two pups who “work” at the store.
Full disclosure: We met Mary Liz on the speaker circuit many years ago and our friendship grew from there. Make no mistake; this is not a puff piece about someone we know because it’s impossible to do a puff piece about Leon & Lulu. It is simply an amazing store with an amazing story.
Mary Liz at her store with Spot (left) and Bertie.
On April Fools’ Day of 2006, Mary Liz and Stephen opened Leon & Lulu in the former Ambassador Skating Rink in Clawson, Michigan, “against the advice of many business professionals and Mary Liz’s mother. They remortgaged their home and sunk everything they had into the building, the renovation, and not enough inventory to fill it.” We are happy to report that the mortgage has been paid off, their kid’s made it through college, and Mary Liz and Stephen are still happily married.
The Ambassador Skating Rink and Clawson Theater opened in 1941 and operated through the late 1950’s.
Leon & Lulu today.
Today, the 15,000-square-foot space is home to an eclectic (there’s that word again) assortment of gifts, clothing, accessories, toys, novelties, home decor, furnishings, and probably a few categories we missed. The store’s decor features the original skating rink floors, a disco ball that still hangs in the center of the space, a hockey scoreboard, and hundreds of pair’s skates that feature prominently in store displays. And it’s not unusual to see some of Leon & Lulu team members cruising the sales floor on roller skates.
Shoppers tend to spend hours at the store and Mary Liz had no place to send customers to lunch that were up to her standards, so in September 2019 she opened the 7,800-square foot Three Cats Restaurant. Located in the adjacent former Clawson movie theater, the building was a derelict mess. Everything had to be renovated and restored. The marquee was long gone so it was recreated as an exact replica of the original.
Three Cats is located right next door to Leon & Lulu.
Three Cats began as a coffee shop but later became a fine dining establishment when Mary Liz partnered with the famous Chef Matt Prentice, who liked her approach to business and charitable works. Three Cats survived the pandemic with Chef Prentice’s 3 for $39 gourmet carry-out dinners that included soup, a main dish, side and dessert. Sadly, Chef Prentice passed away unexpectedly in April 2021. He was replaced by Chef Drew Cayuela, who trained under Prentice and continues his legacy at Three Cats.
Three Cats offers everything from coffee to fine dining. Guests dine surrounded by fun product. Talk about your add-on sales opportunity!
That truck gets around. The decor is ever changing.
So, how do you fill a store this size, with so many departments? Attending trade shows is a definite must. Each year Mary Liz and her buyers attend markets in High Point, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, and Las Vegas. Buying five apparel collections a year requires trips to numerous clothing trade shows, plus one in Europe – customers love that. Mary Liz said it took a while to realize she needed more than just her eyes choosing product. You need others opinions as well or you could end up with a merchandise mix that does not resonate with all shoppers.
“You can’t make your rent on new items alone,” Mary Liz advises. “You need product that will sell through, so work with your solid vendors to identify these items. And even when you are tired of a certain item or category, weed out the slow sellers, but don’t bale on it if it is still selling. Send an email blast touting the item and keep on selling it.”
But once a trend is over, it has to go. Leon & Lulu has two sales a year, one in June and another after Christmas. During each sale, merchandise is marked down 30-90%. The final week customers are given a coupon for an additional 20% off sale prices. If a shopper doesn’t have a coupon, they can sign up for Leon & Lulu’s email blasts and get one on the spot. (Want to know a secret? Shoppers would get that coupon anyway, but Mary Liz is bullish on growing her email list because email blasts grow sales.)
Mary Liz rewards her staff, too. Each one receives $20, $30, and $50 coupons at the end of each sale to go shopping, plus another one good for an additional 50% off before that product is donated to charity. Nothing is kept in storage for next year.
For inspiration in between, Mary Liz shops everywhere for ideas – including gas stations and mini-marts – but especially indie retailers. Each time she attends a trade show she tries to take an extra day or two to go shopping, “When you are feeling receptive you can find great ideas anywhere. If you’re in a bad mood you’ll hate it all, but when you’re in a good mood you’ll find 10 great vendors.”
She added apparel to the store after not being able to find clothing she wanted to be seen in. During one of those after show excursions she visited a store that had wonderful apparel, but she had no time to shop. “Buy it all,” Stephen said, and she did. Customers and staff loved her new wardrobe, so those vendors became part of Leon & Lulu’s merchandise mix. Apparel now accounts for one-third of the store’s business. Getting people to try it on is key.
The ambiance is elegant and lighting is strong. And flattering. Shoppers over the age of 60 require three times the light to see clearly as shoppers in their 20s. What good is a great mix of product of shoppers can’t see it?
Accessories are displayed together using a variety of fixtures. Notice the attention to detail above the scarves displayed on the wall, and the chandelier. We love a well- placed chandelier.
Why just sell a dress when you can sell a couch, too? Or visa-versa.
Leon & Lulu’s “Small Crawl” Business Tours
In 2020, Mary Liz took customers on “Small Crawls” – tours of independently owned stores and restaurants in Clawson, and the towns surrounding her store. In each one she modeled outfits from Leon & Lulu, explaining what she would wear to a visit to that particular business, and how she would accessorize that outfit. Those video tours sold a lot of clothing. Mary Liz would hit the road at the crack of dawn so the filming wouldn’t be interrupted by noisy trucks. And since there were multiple clothing changes required, she traveled in a van, AKA mobile fitting room.
Because of the size of the store, and its huge inventory, the sales floor is highly organized. Cross-merchandising is utilized only at the front of the store. The rest of the sales floor merchandises categories all in one place. Looking for a purse? There’s a department for that.
Furniture is displayed throughout the sales floor in vignettes of approximately 10’x20’. Wherever possible two couches are displayed back to back, with portable walls on wheels used to define each space. The walls on wheels are also used to define the gift area located at the center of the store.
The furniture vignettes tell stories. One of our favorites is “The guy who got divorced and his wife took all the good stuff” vignette!
Merchandising a toy car on a coffee table? Why not?
Pre-pandemic, Mary Liz held approximately 80 charity based events at her store and restaurant. Now, the store is gearing back up with frequent but smaller events. We have no doubt that Leon & Lulu will be back up to 80+ as soon as it is safe to do so.
On any given week you might find a full-on charity event, like the Chair-ity Benefit that auctioned off chairs found at garage sales and turned into works of art by some of Michigan’s top designers. All proceeds went to The Turning Point Shelter for victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Other in-store events give a portion of the night’s proceeds to a deserving cause. Organizations such as the Women of Hadassah, PTAs, and local school groups can be frequently found gracing the sales floor at Leon & Lulu, shopping for a cause.
These retail events include trunk shows, demos, fashion shows featuring customers as models, book readings and book signings by authors, and artist markets that happen four times a year, right on the sales floor. “Made to Eat in Michigan” is a favorite that features small-batch artisanal food vendors who generously provide tastings of their food items sold at Leon & Lulu.
When things were Covid quiet last year Mary Liz turned up the volume with the Leon & Lulu Jingle Contest. The prize was $1000, dinner for four at Three Cats, and a big basket of Leon & Lulu Loot. Hundreds entered, 10 made the finals but the judges could only choose one winner. DJ Truth took home the prize with his “Need to, Get to, Leon & Lulu”. Check it out on YouTube. It’s an ear worm; we guarantee you will be humming it for days.
There is never a dull moment at Leon & Lulu. It’s that experience we always talk about. Mary Liz’s goal is to make people happy; she’s thrilled when people come in and just enjoy themselves. So the next time you find yourself anywhere in the Detroit area, set aside time to visit, because you need to, get to, Leon & Lulu!
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