There's No Business Like Snow Business

A couple moved to Vermont from Massachusetts to escape the corporate world and ended up creating Christmas all year.

by Jason Koornick

Christmas Loft co-owner Richard VanderVeer's seven stores offer more than 30,000 holiday-related items, but he says the ability to experience Christmas year-round is the main draw. Most of the revenue is generated between July and December.

Christmas Loft owners Richard and Ronnie VanderVeer are in show business as much as retail. Their seven gift stores give visitors a taste of Christmas throughout the entire year. "We're big Disney buffs, so we've tried to create the Disney World experience on a retail basis," Richard VanderVeer says, noting that Christmas Loft is the largest chain of holiday stores in New England.

"From the beginning, we have always tried to make it fun," he says. "We want our customers to experience the joys of Christmas all year-round. We are probably the only store in the United States that is decorated to this extent."

"Decorated" is putting it lightly. Three of the seven stores feature complete turn-of-the-century villages decorated with trees, snow, animated characters and every kind of holiday adornment. At the Shelburne store, for example, shoppers can walk the streets of a miniature of Shelburne village that occupies 3,000 square feet in the middle of the store. While it's the centerpiece of the Christmas Loft experience, individually themed rooms surrounding it are also fully decorated set pieces.

"Customers who have never seen the store are amazed. They can't believe it is so beautiful," says customer service "elf" Paula Stone. She enjoys assisting customers and says a positive and helpful attitude is a reason why many come back to the store. "Regular customers know we can help them find what they need. This store is for enjoyment and so people can get ideas for the holidays."

VanderVeer explains that the Christmas Lofts are busy for six months of the year. Most of the revenue is generated between July and December. "It's a product of traffic because we are located in resort towns," he says. The company has up to 40 full-time, year-round employees, but the majority of the workers are part-time seasonal employees. "Our high point is 120 people around the holidays," VanderVeer says.

The Christmas Loft also sells products to a worldwide market through its website and mail-order catalog, which is sent to more than 20,000 mailboxes once a year. Containing only 300 of the 10,000 items offered in the stores, the catalog is "mainly a vehicle to get people to come into the store," while the website accounts for a very small, but growing percentage of the company's total sales, according to VanderVeer. All mail and Web orders are shipped directly from the company's 18,000-square-foot warehouse in Jay.

VanderVeer grew up in Connecticut. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1965 with a degree in psychology. His first visits to Vermont were for ski getaways, and he met his future wife, Ronnie Leeds, in 1968 on vacation at Mount Snow. She was raised in New Jersey and attended Douglass College, the women's college of Rutgers University. They were married in 1968 and have two children, Jennifer and Gregory. Jennifer runs the company's website.

The seeds of the Christmas Loft were sown when the VanderVeers moved to Vermont and purchased the Jay Country Store in 1975, because "it was the only place we could afford," VanderVeer says. Having worked as inside sales director for General Mills in Massachusetts, he brought experience in food service retailing to the new venture.

The couple moved to Vermont because "we didn't want to be part of the corporate world," VanderVeer says. The Jay Country Store offered gifts as well as specialty food products to a sophisticated customer base, many of whom were from nearby Montreal. "This was before supermarkets had wines and cheeses," VanderVeer says. "I don't think that people in Vermont had ever seen some of the high-end items we were carrying."

Shelburne Christmas Loft manager Debbie Kelly has worked for the VanderVeers for 19 years. She has helped the company grow into the largest chain of Christmas stores in New England. "I am very proud of what I've done in retailing," she says.

A year later, they opened the first Christmas Loft in a 1,500-square-foot loft in the store. VanderVeer says the response was terrific right from the start. "From the beginning, we have always tried to make it fun. As soon as we built the Christmas store, people were really enjoying it," he says.

Christmas Loft co-owner Richard VanderVeer's seven stores offer more than 30,000 holiday-related items, but he says the ability to experience Christmas year-round is the main draw. Most of the revenue is generated between July and December."Our basic philosophy started in Jay. We tried to give people a positive experience. They want to be entertained and have a good time," he says.

Like today's stores, the original Christmas Loft sold anything and everything related to the holiday. Decorative items such as stockings, ornaments and wall hangings are displayed near dolls, linens, models, china, lamps, candles, music boxes and books. Presentation is as important as selection, says VanderVeer. Soft lighting and seasonal music create an atmosphere that makes people feel like children on Christmas Eve.

Although the Loft was successful in the Jay location, it wasn't until a visit to North Conway in New Hampshire that the VanderVeers realized what they had going for them. "When we went to North Conway, we really saw the potential," VanderVeer says. North Conway's tourist area along Route 16 sees considerable traffic during both summer and winter, and the VanderVeers recognized their store could draw visitors year-round.

"Every area we went to had small Christmas stores, but our philosophy really set us apart," he says.

Although the VanderVeers knew they wanted to open a store in North Conway, their first foray outside of Jay was closer to home. They opened a Christmas Loft store in Stowe with another couple in 1982. In 1999, they bought out their former partners and now own that store.

Throughout the '80s, the VanderVeers opened New Hampshire Christmas Lofts in North Conway, Meredith and North Woodstock. While they sold the Jay Country Store in 1986 to concentrate on the Christmas stores, the small town near the Canadian border is still home to the company offices and warehouse.

In 1987, they opened the store in Shelburne, then ones in Quechee and in Hadley, Mass. In addition to opening stores, the couple focused on relocating and expanding existing ones. These efforts led them to purchase the Stowe, Meredith and North Conway buildings. They leased the buildings in the other locations.

Customer service "elves" Terry Milton (left) and Paula Stone personally greet each customer who comes into the Christmas Loft. Stone says the employees' positive attitude is part of the reason so many customers return each year.

"Every year we have done something to grow, expand or relocate the business," Richard says.

In 1996, the partners acquired the 10,800-square-foot building at 3155 Shelburne Road, now home to the Shelburne store. The store recently celebrated its 15th anniversary in the town with a weekend of promotions and giveaways.

The VanderVeers still take a hands-on approach to running their business. He designs and builds the elaborate village sets while she is responsible for decorating the stores. Together they do the purchasing and manage the real estate dealings. Ronnie handles human resources, while Richard delivers merchandise to the stores around New England and loads and unloads the truck upon arrival. "We do everything, but we'd rather focus on business development," he says.

"There is a family atmosphere among the employees or else I wouldn't stay," VanderVeer says, adding that many of the store managers have been with the company since the early days.

Shelburne store manager Debbie Kelly has worked for the VanderVeers since 1983 when she started as a sales clerk in the North Conway store. She has seen the company grow "from cash register to pen to notebook; from sales manager to operations manager; from catalog to Internet sales."

Kelly says she loves the ambiance of Christmas. "I am very proud of what I've done in retailing. I love the warm and
fuzzy part of the job," she says pointing out that the Christmas Loft is an unusual retail environment. She explains that working with the customers and products is the most satisfying part of the job.

The VanderVeers buy their inventory from shows and showrooms in major U.S. cities like New York, Chicago and Dallas, to which they make a few trips every year. "We look for anything that has Christmas on it, specifically anything that will sell," he says. They try to stock a few new products every year. VanderVeer points to a line of fiber-optic Christmas trees as one of this year's offerings.

Although the store has a decidedly New England flavor, VanderVeer doesn't actively seek out products made in this part of the country. The stores sell some Vermont products that complement the stores' goals of providing a wide variety of holiday items. Whisper Tree Candles from Jay, Ann Clark Ltd. cookie cutters and handmade ornaments and wreaths are a few examples.

VanderVeer says profits have financed the store expansions and property acquisitions. He reports that revenues have grown steadily since the Loft was born more than 27 years ago with the exception of this year. "This year has been the first slowdown in over 27 years in business. We will be even or slightly behind," he says.

Regardless of how the numbers fall for 2002, VanderVeer says, "It is a fun business. We do it for the experience and for the employees and customers."

Originally published in December 2002 Business People-Vermont