Soft Surroundings offers women’s clothes, bedding, jewelry and more.

Soft Surroundings, the lifestyle merchant for women, is on a plan to open 17 new stores this year.

That doesn’t sound so remarkable, perhaps, unless held up against one of the worst first quarters for retail in years. The Limited is shutting all of its locations. Macy’s is closing 100 stores. Kmart is gone. Payless ShoeSource just filed for bankruptcy protection. J.C. Penney is said to be considering its options.

Some of the more viable brands are retrenching store activities in hopes their online operations will save them.

For Soft Surroundings, though, the direction seems to be heading the other way – that its strong online operation requires a strong bricks-and-mortar presence.

One of those stores opened this week in Louisville at The Paddock Shops. And it was interesting to see such an enthusiastic turnout on Thursday evening’s soft opening, the day before the store was open to the public. (The “hard opening” in retail lingo.)

Why Louisville? And, for that matter, why did it take Soft Surroundings so long to come to Louisville?

A lot of it has to do with the hard-bargaining side of retail site selection, finding the right locations at the right rents in every market. (“We have a real estate company in New York that handles all of our negotiations,” according to Danny Boddy, Soft Surroundings’ senior vice president of retail, who was on hand for the opening.)
But much of it has to do with Soft Surroundings’ beginnings in 1999 as a catalog retailer. Even as it has expanded to more than 50 physical stores nationwide; and even as it has made its requisite online presence more dynamic and robust; Soft Surroundings still mails out hundreds of thousands of printed catalogs to mailboxes around the country.

A display at Soft Surroundings

 

From that, says Boddy, “we get a tremendous amount of intelligence on who our customers are and where they live.”

Although the operation was begun in St. Louis, there is a notable absence of Soft Surroundings stores in the Lower Midwest. Stores are lined up like soldiers along the East Coast, from Virginia north into Massachusetts. (The chain’s first location, in 2005, was in Connecticut.) The Great Lakes states, from Northern Ohio through the Chicago area and into Wisconsin, are also well-represented. So is the Deep South. And there’s a growing presence on the West Coast.

But there are no stores in the state of Indiana. Only the just-opened Columbus store in all of Ohio south of Cleveland. None in Illinois anywhere other than the Chicago area. None in West Virginia. None, despite the home office location, anywhere in Southeastern Missouri outside of St. Louis.

In other words, Soft Surroundings’ retail presence in the markets contiguous to Louisville was negligible. Until now. In addition to the Paddocks Shops, the retailer will be opening a store this summer in Knoxville, Tenn.

“The time was right,” Boddy says. “We just needed to find the exact right location.”

Why Louisville?

“We know, from our research and our own sales data, that this market has plenty of our shoppers,” he says. “We know that, in addition to ordering from our catalogs or website, Louisville women traveled to St. Louis or Chicago to shop with us.”

He says Louisville fit Soft Surroundings’ demographic sweet spot, in terms of ages, income and lifestyle. Boddy admits his customer is 40-ish and above, a gal who can afford the good things (“we’re moderate, but we’re definitely not cheap”) and who doesn’t feel the need to squeeze into something at H&M to make her feel young and trendy.

Why The Paddock Shops? Because Soft Surroundings always prefers what the retail industry calls “lifestyle centers” – sidewalks, greenery and the ability to drive right up to the store of choice. “We’ve gone into malls and even streetside locations, but it’s rarely our preference.”

Soft Surroundings at The Paddock Shops

Also, Boddy said the company likes being in Eastern Jefferson County, where it feels its customers live. And he likes the neighborhood.

“No retailer wants to be the only kid on the block,” he says. “You want to be surrounded by your best competitors because that brings out the density of shopper. Then you just have to hope that what you offer is better than what all the others offer.”

In that respect, Soft Surroundings will have plenty of company. The store sits right in the middle of the set of stores along the “back wall,” highly visible as cars enter the center from the Brownsboro Road entrance. It has White Horse|Black Market on one side, LOFT on another. J. Crew, Express and Banana Republic are all nearby. So is the large Ulta beauty store. The Soft Surroundings location was formerly a Yankee Candle store.

“Too big for Yankee Candle,” Boddy says, “just right for us.”

The 4,200-square-foot store is set up, as all Soft Surroundings stores are, as “a journey,” says Boddy. It’s an eclectic collection of women’s apparel, home furnishings, health and beauty, bedding, sleepwear and special “finds.”

In addition to its merchandise collection, Soft Surroundings concentrates on hiring people who like being among other people, who are service-minded and eager to help. Joy Owens was standing near the door during the Thursday festivities. She’s retired from a career in sales at International Paper Co. She wasn’t looking for “a job” so much as for something pleasant to occupy her time.

“I just like the way they emphasize working with customers. I’m a people person, this is a people organization.” She rolled her eyes. “We both know plenty of retailers that aren’t run that way.”

Although Soft Surroundings’ marketing positions its stores as retreats for harried women, Boddy says his shopper is not a woman with nothing but time on her hands. “Does that woman even exist anymore? We know women today have a million things pulling at them from all directions – job, kids, housework, activities. We’re not saying, ‘Come spend the afternoon with us.’ We’re saying, ‘Come indulge yourself with us for an hour.’ ”

If Soft Surroundings is such a runaway success – revenue exceeding $200 million, and growing every year – why the need to invest in costly real estate, especially when so many other retailers are going the other way?

“Because, no matter how beautifully we present our merchandise in our catalogs, there’s nothing like touching and feeling something, like seeing some intricate bit of stitching up close, in your hands.”

Not for nothing, apparently, that the company’s founders chose the “Soft Surroundings” name. Women customers who were there talked about the soft feel of the fabrics, the soft colors, the soft lighting of the store.

In the middle, surrounded by a sheer white curtain, is what Boddy calls the store’s “retreat” – essentially a highly visible section just inside the front door to feature special promotions.

Throughout the store, the merchandise is thoughtfully packed in around the square footage. And while much of it is hanging from familiar aluminum racks, rods and rounders, much of it also is folded and placed on tasteful pieces of furniture that – surprise! – are also for sale. And if a particular table was not intended for sale, Boddy says, maybe it could be. Soft Surroundings is in the business of accommodating its women’s needs and wants.

Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.