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When Patricia Mulloy opened The Wire Whisk in Appleton, WI, in 1977, she was a housewife and mother who wanted to do something to enhance her family’s income.
“Cooking is what I liked to do most,” she said, “and opening the store made sense.”
Other than The Wire Whisk, the only other stores selling housewares in the area were department stores, which Mulloy said weren’t offering the kind of selection that her store was.
“They still don’t,” she said, which is one factor that has helped her store remain successful in the shadow of several big box stores and discounters that have sprung up in the 30+ years she’s been in business.
The Wire Whisk is located in the front strip of a shopping center that is anchored by a Walmart in the back strip. Before she moved to her current location several years ago, she was next door to a Target. Also in the area: Williams-Sonoma and Bed Bath & Beyond.
“I carry quality items, and we have people in here explaining the merchandise— they [the big box stores] can’t compete on that level,” Mulloy said. “In our old location, people literally had to walk through Target to get to our store. It brought people to us, because we could talk to them and tell them about the products.”
For that reason, Mulloy gives that sales staff much of the credit for her store’s success.
“You can’t do it all on your own,” she said. “You have to have good employees.” Her manager has been with the store for more than seven years and much of her sales associates are long-time employees as well.
Some of her best employees, though, have been her daughters, one of which— Mary Margaret— is Mulloy’s partner in The Wire Whisk. Daughter Mary Alice worked at the store throughout college as did daughter Mary Elizabeth, who ultimately opened her own Wire Whisk in New Canaan, CT— after 10 years, that store closed. The next generation of Mulloy women is being primed for kitchenware retail as well— granddaughter Rebecca works at the Wire Whisk on breaks from college.
“I think what was most appealing for the girls is the buying as well as the relationships with the customers,” Mulloy said. “It’s finding the right products for the customers and helping them fill voids.”
Mulloy has found that the majority of those voids are in the gadget category, which she said makes up the most of her more than $1M a year in sales.
“They have the biggest turn and the most reasonable pricepoints,” she said. “They’re more necessities for the kitchen, and a lot of our routine gadgets are very, very popular.”
Lines like Oxo and numerous products distributed through Harold Import Co. make up a major part of the store’s gadget wall; Mulloy relies on a selection of gadgets from around the world to round out her assortment.
“We try to offer a unique presentation, specifically in gadgets,” she said.
Unique might be the best word to describe some of the products offered at The Wire Whisk. According to Mulloy and her sales staff, the most popular item both in-store and online is the “Go Girl,” which is a female urination device that allows women to stand while they… well… “go.”
“When I first opened the store, my neighbor— who was a store manager for a department store in town— asked me what I was doing,” Mulloy said. “Here I was, this housewife with five kids, opening a store. But he was able to give me the best piece of advice, which I gladly pass on to my peers.
“He told me, ‘I don’t care what it is, but never turn down an opportunity to turn a profit on something that’s new and exciting— it doesn’t have to be in your range at all,’” she said. “We found out over the years that it’s true.”
There aren’t many items that fall into this category, Mulloy said, but they’re products that you get in and you’re out of immediately, such as the Go Girl.
Recipe books are also popular items as they make good gifts for holidays and showers, Mulloy said. Other popular items are the Spice Stack, the Chopster and Linden Sweden’s Baker’s Mate Cooling Rack.
“The cooling rack got a nice write up in Cook’s Illustrated, and once I saw that, I knew I had to load up,” Mulloy said. “It was a very popular item.”
But Mulloy makes it a point not to get too deep into any product to start with, so the store doesn’t suffer if the product doesn’t move.
“Products either need to fill a void in the marketplace or offer an improvement on something that’s already out there,” she said. “That’s what we look for and how we make sure we’re not going to take a hit on anything.”
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