Audrey Kuhlman strolls the creaky, wooden floors of Hinton & Hinton, navigating the skinny hallways piled high with bright shirts, patterned suit jackets, dark jeans and light khakis.
This spring, Kuhlman ditched her textbooks for a full-time job on the Square, opting to sell designer brands rather than write papers.
“I thrive a lot better not being in school… and working,” said Kuhlman, whose parents owned a chain of Minnesota retail stores in Kuhlman’s hometown of Minneapolis.
Walking through Hinton & Hinton is like walking through a labyrinth of different seasons, styles and brands. But after helping customer after customer, Kuhlman knows where everything is, and she is more than happy to show the next customer where to find exactly what they’re looking for.
“I love the interaction I get with people,” she said.
With her goals set high, the Ole Miss student is pursuing a major in liberal studies with emphases in art, anthropology and journalism. Still, Kuhlman finds happiness in what she said she was born to do: retail.
Her parents, Scott and Susan Kuhlman, designed, manufactured, sold and managed over 70 retail stores called “Kuhlman” in cities all over the United States, from Birmingham, Alabama, to Washington, to Memphis, Tennessee. She grew up traveling with her family while learning the ins-and-outs of retail.
“We’d set up all the stores, help paint, decorate and unbox everything,” Kuhlman said. “We helped them do things that we didn’t think was work. We thought they were games.”
She still maintains a morning routine like most students, waking up early at 8 a.m. to take her dogs out. Kuhlman skips breakfast and instead sips on coffee while her boyfriend drops her off in her small, silver Mazda hatchback outside the boutique.
Kuhlman’s Thursday consists of commanding the old-school, brass register behind the long, vintage, wooden counter.
Shadowing over Kuhlman is a large wooden bookcase adorned with American flasks, Ole Miss baseball caps, shaving supplies, wallets, koozies, coasters and belts. Blonde with warm green eyes, Kuhlman greets customers with a contagious smile as they enter through the double wooden doors.
“On busy days, we have zones to make sure everything is covered. It’s a big store with lots of little rooms, and you can lose people easily,” Kuhlman said.
In a busy store known for having something for everyone, whether it be game day attire, formal wear or casual wear, Kulhman enjoys making the many customers happy by keeping up with trends.
“The first thing you have to do is get to know your merchandise,” Kuhlman said. “You can’t sell anything unless you know what you’re selling.”
For example, Kuhlman said one must know dark green waxed Barbour jackets run a bit big, Comfort Colors tend to be the softest and most durable T-shirts, and there is a difference in style between a Southern Tide pastel button-up or a rugged Patagonia flannel.
“You need to be able to look at somebody, and they tell you vaguely what they want, and you know exactly what they need,” Kuhlman said.
Kuhlman believes after knowing the product, the next thing one needs to know is his or her fellow co-workers and their different personalities.
“If I have a strong ability to sell a pair of jeans and this person can sell a shirt, we need to work together to make an outfit,” Kuhlman said.
However, Kuhlman emphasizes the importance of balancing the line between helping a customer versus pushing too hard.
“Be brave. It’s hard. The first customer that you get that walks into the store you have to greet them,” Kuhlman said.
After welcoming people to the store, Kuhlman makes sure she is available to answer customers’ questions or give them the space they need.
Mark Shoemake, Kuhlman’s manager, has worked at the boutique since 1999 when it was a father-son shop employing five part-time college students.
A hulking figure in a red gingham shirt and steel khakis, one could easily mistake Shoemake for a left guard rather than a retail manager. Shoemake slides through the store quickly offering customers a friendly “hello” or his veteran service.
“You don’t have enough space on that phone,” Shoemake jokes when asked about what he has learned in the industry over the past 18 years.
“Some people can get along with people better than others, that’s kind of their gift,” he said. “If you can work well with others, show kindness and show that you care, specifically to your customer, and especially in a boutique-type as this, that makes all the difference.”
Garner Hickman, a sales associate with wispy white hair and black framed glasses, offered up his own sage old wisdom.
“The customer is always right,” Hickman said.
Shoemake argued that some people just cannot be satisfied.
While retail may seem easy, Shoemake, Hickman and Kuhlman know all too well that it’s demanding– both physically and mentally. Kuhlman said that unpacking boxes, checking inventory and taking care of the store, combined with the reality that a day may go by without a sale, makes retail a tough business.
“You have to stick with your customer, they are your number one priority,” she said. “If they walk away with nothing in their hand or if they walk away with 10 bags in their hand, it is your priority to make them feel comfortable and know you care about them.”
Even if customers stop by to look at the selections of power red or powder blue Peter Millar gameday polos, colorfully patterned drug rugs or high-priced tan leather Lucchese boots, the customer may only walk away with a 30-dollar keychain, complaining about the price the entire time in the store. Which makes the point, according to Kuhlman, that not all customers can be pegged so easily.
“A woman in her 60s, who looked like she just rolled out of bed walked in over Christmas break and started peddling around the store. We really didn’t know what she was doing,” Kuhlman said, “but she ended up buying three gift cards for a $1,000 a piece for her son-in-laws.”
Every customer and every sale is different. Kuhlman once began a huge sale by simply selling a Rebel alumnus in his 50s a pair of jeans.
“I told him, ‘Well, we’ve got a pair of jeans, let’s find a shirt to go with that. Now, let’s dress it up with a blazer and a pocket square,’” Kuhlman said.
She continued to add dress shirts varying from super fun and flashy to more tamed while working in different suit jackets ranging from blazers for work to light blue jackets for game day.
At only 21, Kuhlman is already a seasoned veteran, having mastered the tips and tricks of the retail industry, ensuring customers experience Oxford while at Hinton & Hinton and leave happy at the same time.
She said, “It’s kind of a game. It’s a fun one, though.”
By John Touloupis, an intern for HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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