After fighting yard sale crowds, 2 mothers start own 'children's boutique' HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS


Up at the crack of dawn to fight crowds of bargain-seekers at another weekend yard sale, Stacie Griffin and Chris Lowey became convinced -- the county needed a children's clothing consignment shop.

From that early-morning revelation last fall, came Second Childhood about three weeks ago at the corner of Frederick Road and St. John's Lane in Ellicott City.

"With so many young families in the area, the market is ideal for a children's shop. And in this economy, people would rather recycle than be wasteful," Ms. Lowey said.

Billed as a children's boutique, Second Childhood hopes to find a niche in the consignment market by specializing in clothing, toys and equipment for infants through teens. Maternity wear and hand-crafted items, including toys, blankets and personalized decorations also are available.

Consignment shoppers have several options in the immediate area. Well-known among bargain-hunters, Two Timers on Dobbin Road in Columbia offers items for the home, as well as children's clothing, toys and equipment. Ellicott City's Selectively Yours also stocks some children's merchandise, but specializes in women's apparel.

Ms. Griffith hopes Second Childhood's focus on children will make it unique. "For seasoned consignment shoppers, there are a number of stores in the Baltimore metro area that are strictly for kids. We want to make that type of selection available in" Howard.

The store's co-owners ought to know their market -- both women are new mothers and veteran consignment shoppers.

"Customer service is a high priority to us. Our suppliers and customers are one and the same, so we're looking for a long-term relationship," Ms. Lowey said.

To keep their inventory fresh, prices are marked down after six weeks and items that haven't been sold or claimed by the consignor after 15 weeks will be given to charity.

Second Childhood hopes to further entice customers with a play area and activities such as story-telling to keep children busy while parents shop. The owners plan to offer sale items and activities highlighting various holidays.

Ms. Lowey and Ms. Griffin have refurbished several rooms in a two-story fieldstone building that also houses a sign shop and a marketing firm, a location they believe will add character to the shop.

Going into business offers other benefits to Ms. Lowey and Mrs. Griffin -- more family time and more flexibility. "We're both new mothers and we want more control over our lives. We have more flexibility than we ever did in our previous professions," Ms. Griffin said.

With backgrounds in accounting and the insurance industry, both women feel their complementary professional experiences will help them make Second Childhood a success.

They plan to share shopkeeping and child-rearing with each other. "We'll alternate days in the store. I don't know which will be harder, working in the store or being with the kids," Ms. Lowey said.

Staffing is one of the many issues Ms. Lowey and Ms. Griffin have been pondering during the past year. Their planning and research has taken them to consignment shops from Newport, R.I., to Atlanta, Ga.

"Our work paid off when we discovered a software program developed specifically for consignment shops. One shop owner told us that it saved her one full-time position," Ms. Lowey said.

From site selection to negotiating bank loans to buying equipment, Ms. Griffin and Ms. Lowey have contained costs whenever possible by doing the work themselves. Because they do not have to buy stock, start-up expenses are lower than for most retail outlets.

If all goes according to their business plan, initial expenses such as advertising, shop fittings and decorations, signs, computer equipment and software will be recovered in the first year of operation.

Ms. Lowey said advertising and marketing were key to the store's initial success. After buying a mailing list from a Columbia marketing firm, postcards announcing the store's opening were mailed to households with one or more child under 6 in selected nearby zip codes.

In addition, leaflets were distributed at consignment sales, libraries and pediatricians' offices and through various parent support groups and organizations.

"We're able to target our market very closely," said Ms. Lowey. "The same family might receive a post card in the mail and see our fliers in the library and the doctor's office, so they'll remember the name."

Finally, classified ads were used to attract consignors. Initial response has been good -- they have drawn more than 30 consignors -- one with more than 300 pieces of merchandise.

The store's grand opening exceeded expectations -- drawing a group of eager shoppers who gathered outside before the store opened.

Ms. Lowey attributed these accomplishments to planning and luck. "You might say we gently pushed things into place."

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