Late in the fall of 2011, Pursuit was a new pop-up shop at The South Campus Gateway. We’d been open about a month with about the most bootstrapped, stripped down suit store the world had seen. The holidays were approaching and students would soon head out, leaving campus a ghost town. Money was tight and I was trying to come up with ways to drive traffic into the new shop. At that point I had no idea if Pursuit was going to work out, I was just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick. I don’t remember where it came from but I had an idea…Christmas sweaters.
I knew people would soon be throwing their holiday parties, I knew practically every Christmas party in the world was ‘ugly sweater’ themed, and I knew where to find ugly sweaters–I was a thrifting expert after piecing together the original Pursuit store fixtures on a budget. I was also a Christmas sweater expert as the son of a pre-school teacher, nephew of a first grade teacher, and grandson of a Northern Wisconsin Grandmother–I had grown up with Christmas sweaters all around me. So I decided we’d fill a rack with sweaters and use them to entice customers in to discover our new suit shop too. It may seem like a weird pairing but to me it made sense–we were trying to be the opposite of every other suit store we’d seen and what other suit store would sell ugly sweaters? I even brought Grandma along to hunt for sweaters on one of her visits. “Sure is a funny way to make a living” she said as we thrifted.
So it began, a rack sweaters and some Facebook posts and people were stopping in. Pretty soon we were running out and I was hunting for more sweaters. By the end of the season way more people flocked to the shop for sweaters than suits, we had sold out of a few hundred sweaters and made enough extra money that I could afford to hibernate for a few months and re-tool the Pursuit concept before popping back up in the spring. To celebrate we threw a huge sweater party at the bar next to us, complete with photo booth.
The next year I figured we ought to do it again, so we did, with even more sweaters. And, again, we sold them all. I couldn’t believe how much easier it was to sell sweaters than suits, how much faster word traveled. Retail is tough so when you’re just starting out and you find something that works, it’s exhilarating–even if it doesn’t totally make sense to you at the time.
By 2013 Pursuit was picking up steam and I started to get concerned that selling vintage sweaters alongside our brand new suits might be causing some confusion–“wait, the sweaters are second hand, are the suits?!” (No!). And the success of the first two years of selling sweaters was too much to ignore. What if we did it way bigger? What if we made an entire store dedicated to ugly sweaters? What if we made the store experience as goofy and kitschy as an ugly sweater party? If we knew how to do one thing at that point it was how to open a pop-up shop fast and cheap, so that’s exactly what we decided to do! We needed lots of sweaters and my tiny apartment soon became a warehouse.
We had to come up with a new name and brand it so it could be separated out from Pursuit and we settled on Christmisc. (a combination of Christmas and Miscellaneous, where the 2nd ‘c’ was silent). The idea was that we wanted to not just sell sweaters but all the miscellaneous and strange stuff that often accompanied them, like white elephant gifts. Then we had to find a space, and we didn’t have to look far. The retail storefront adjacent to Pursuit had served as the campus headquarters for Obama’s re-election campaign. With the election over, the space would be available and we’d become our own neighbor, how perfect (thanks, Obama!)! Since we’d have twice as many stores I needed some extra help and a friend who was preparing to go back to school for her PhD had some time on her hands, loved sweaters, and offered to serve as our sweater shop manager–it was all coming together!
We had so many crazy ideas and a silly brand that demanded we bring them to life. I had just purchased a used potato chip delivery truck which was soon to be transformed into the Pursuit Suitmobile. But first, in what I was sure would be a brilliant guerrilla marketing scheme, I dressed up like santa, spray painted the truck in Christmisc. graffiti, and cruised High Street during Gallery Hop with a megaphone out the window blasting Christmas tunes and shouting “Christmisc. is coming”. Barely anyone noticed. My Grandma’s words echoed in my head. “Sure is a funny way to make a living”.
Still we decked out the store in the most gloriously kitschy way! Candy-striped household appliances, the tackiest Christmas decorations we could find, a bunch of custom-made art installation pieces from a friend at CCAD. After the success of our sweater party photo booths the previous two years, we installed one in the shop to help customers share the joy (it’s now installed in the lounge at Pursuit)! We decked the halls, loaded up on sweaters, and opened our doors. We hoped people would show up. And did they ever!
I thought a shop selling thousands of ugly sweaters would make for a cute story and get some buzz but I didn’t plan on the reaction we received. Every Columbus TV station did a feature, popular websites wrote stories, we were invited to talk on morning shows, Monica Day ran a fun story that got picked up on NBC affiliates around the country, radio stations set up interviews, and we were even in the Columbus Dispatch with a picture of Grandma and I in sweaters (perhaps my favorite entrepreneurial moment ever)!
As news of an ugly sweater shop spread, customers flocked. Their reactions were amazing; grown women squealed with delight as they walked in, crowds of fraternity guys tried on sweaters and rolled on the floor laughing, and customers stayed for over an hour inspecting every sweater in the store–most sweater shoppers spent more time picking out their $30 outfit than the folks spending $300 on a suit at Pursuit. I’ve always been fond of a quote from Les Wexner along the lines of “retail is theater” and it was so gratifying to feel like we’d pulled off some tongue-in-cheek performance that brought smiles to people’s faces. A week into the pop-up I knew we would need more sweaters and I made continuous rounds to every thrift store in central Ohio and soon had to widen my search to Dayton and Northeast Ohio. Days before Christmas we were sold out and there were no more sweaters to be had in a hundred mile radius. We had spent $0 in advertising and sold exactly 2,000 sweaters. I thought to myself, “oh, this is what success feels like”. The wheels were already turning thinking about the next year.
As I reflected on the third holiday season of ugly sweaters and the first year of the stand-alone Christmisc. concept, lessons from my MBA kept echoing in my head. Selling out of product means your prices are too low. Can we scale this idea and put more sweater stores in the world? How will we grow if we tapped out the supply of sweaters? So in year four we got more ambitious. I began scouring thrift stores in January trying to build inventory right away and, like a detective, I began tracking down leads to find places I could buy sweaters in much larger quantities. That search alone was like a case study straight out of a book I read at Fisher, The Travels of T-Shirt in the Global Economy, it was fascinating! I spent the second half of 2014 immersed in sweaters, mostly neglecting Pursuit. I bought a semi-trailer filled with sweaters and worked on expanding Christmisc. across Ohio. Imagine pitching that one to a bank as you asked for a loan. Huge thanks to Heartland Bank for not laughing me out of the room and getting me the cash I needed!
As I hunted retail space in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton I was so excited about the potential. Reality intervened though. Space in Cleveland never materialized and a deal on a space in Cincinnati fell through as construction was delayed. When the dust settled we were opening again at The South Campus Gateway and the premier mall in Dayton, The Greene. After seeing how much work went into having two sweater stores and a suit shop across two different cities, I was glad we didn’t add any more to the list. Thankfully I again had an awesome friend who was available to run the store as she had just moved to Columbus from Chicago and was just starting her job search.
Christmisc. 2014 was probably the peak of our creative expression (keep in mind I’m a business major). Our Columbus shop was inhabiting a former art gallery space and a timely visit to an exhibit opening at The Wexner Center for the Arts spawned the idea of Christmisc. as a pop-up gallery and shop. We decorated the store as an homage to the art of a Christmas sweater. Our Creative Chief again did a phenomenal job designing the visual branding and we framed sweaters as if they were priceless works of art, complete with what we assumed (read: completely made up) was the backstory which had inspired the sweaters. We had so much fun!
The Dayton shop was a little more of a traditional store in a traditional (mall) setting but we still had fun decking it out in the tackiest way you could deck out an old Cincinnati Bell cell phone shop. Both stores again featured our hallmark Quirky Christmisc. Card Photo Booth along with the most amazing assortment of genuine, vintage Christmas sweaters.
We opened both sweater stores on Black Friday and once again, word traveled quickly and people flocked. In a little over three weeks we sold almost $80,000 worth of ugly sweaters. Being in a traditional shopping center in Dayton proved to be even busier than a campus location in Columbus. The media circus we found in our first year was only larger with two stores in year two (thanks again, Monica!). We found our way on to every major television network in Dayton twice! We were on to something and it was so much fun, exhausting, but so much fun!
I headed home on Christmas Eve 2014, making the 13-hour drive in my Prius from Ohio to Northern Wisconsin. I was exhausted but contemplative. Christmisc. had been a smash hit again and it worked in a new city where we had no home field advantage. But at what cost? After just over 3 years in business, it felt like Pursuit was plateauing with our never-ending pop-up shop on campus. And it was clear that our fixation on ugly sweaters during the fourth quarter of every year disrupted Pursuit. My side project was thriving, while my main business was losing steam. Still, my family was happy I brought home a Prius-load of sweaters.
When I returned from the holidays my mind was back on Pursuit and it was clear it was time for a change. I had come to a difficult conclusion, focusing on campus retail had run its course. Most of our customers were no longer students and many customers where visiting us despite our campus location, not because of it. Just down the street one of the greatest neighborhood revitalizations in the Midwest was well underway in the Short North and it was clear that was where Pursuit needed to be. Nearly all of the Columbus businesses whose paths we wanted to follow called the Short North home and we had been in business long enough (3 years) to feel like we were ready to step up to a bigger stage. I searched and searched and negotiated for months in a very competitive market for retail space and finally found our new home in the heart of the Short North. It was time for Pursuit 2.0 and we finally opened our doors early September 2015.
Re-energized with a much more robust and thoughtful Pursuit store my focus was on the business I’d dreamed of creating since those early days as a class project at Ohio State. The reaction was extremely positive and it didn’t take long to realize the move was a game changer. Having re-invested in Pursuit and with the dust still only settling on the new store I was leery of putting too much energy into growing Christmisc in 2015. I wanted to be sure our commitment to becoming Columbus’ Suit Store was going to pay off in the Short North. But I still had a few thousand sweaters and success in two markets I didn’t want to abandon.
Just a few weeks after opening Pursuit Short North, in an effort to maintain momentum with both businesses, I decided to go down the same path we’d blazed the year before with Christmisc. We again opened at The South Campus Gateway in Columbus and The Greene in Dayton.
We opened Christmisc. Columbus and Dayton 2015 on Black Friday without the luxury of months of planning and focus–we had been immersed in opening the new Pursuit shop. But we were smarter and more efficient in year five of being in the sweater game and year three of opening dedicated pop-up shops, so we pulled it off better than ever. We inherited a former Irish Pub space in Columbus and a recently vacated Aeropostale in Dayton.
We were again fortunate to be the hottest news story in Central Ohio and we flourished again due to the amazing media exposure and repeat customers! Even with far less time and attention from our team, 2015 was a new high point in sales for Christmisc.
While the results were great, something just felt different to me. I felt guilty to be working on the sweater shops with a shiny new Pursuit store now open. And the excitement I’d felt in previous years just wasn’t the same either. My heart was no longer in it. So many of the things that I loved about Christmisc. were changing. Ugly sweaters had become so mainstream that they were everywhere, they were on the end cap at Target and next to the checkout at Kroger (what?!?). But they were different. They weren’t “real Christmas sweaters” that were fun because they were something my Grandma would actually wear–something unique and creative from a bygone holiday season. They were new and intentionally ironic, and in many cases, crass. More and more customers would come in and ask for “the one with Santa peeing in the snow” or they’d wonder “where’s the men’s section”. And we’d explain to the them the history of sweater parties and the tradition of everyone, regardless of gender, wearing women’s sweaters and I’d curse under my breath as I said it for the twentieth time that day. I had become a Christmas sweater snob and I wasn’t having nearly as much fun as previous years.
For five years people had been asking me if the “fad” was going to fade out. But, in the end, it wasn’t the sweater parties that lost steam, it was me. I truly believe ugly sweaters are now a mainstream American tradition that will be around for many years to come. And I think a store full of thousands of genuine, vintage Christmas sweaters has even more potential than it did five years ago. But my priorities have changed.
As our first full year in the Short North unfolded it became clear that Pursuit was finding its groove. Business has grown dramatically in our new home and we’ve worked extremely hard just to keep up. After years of experimenting and tweaking it feels like we’re honing in on the Pursuit that really works–we have a lot of adjustments to make but it finally feels right. And with the way forward far clearer, I want it to get our undivided attention. Dressing our customers for the biggest days of their lives is what is meaningful for us; it’s what motivates me to keep building after five years. We no longer need Christmisc. and we can no longer afford to give valuable energy to anything beyond Pursuit.
That might seem obvious. You might wonder why it took me so long to come to that conclusion and that’d be a fair criticism. But to me it isn’t that clear cut. I believe firmly that without Christmisc. Pursuit never would have survived. Sweaters paid the bills in the early days when Pursuit was finding its way. And Christmisc. was critical for my psyche. Starting a business is hard, especially when you’re in over your head in a new industry and in over your head in debt. Thrifting in places nobody knew me was my escape when Pursuit was wearing me down. The throngs of sweater buyers were my validation when suit sales were slow. Something I was doing was working. I was capable. I just had to get the formula right. In the early days of Pursuit when my confidence would get shaken (sometimes it still does), Christmisc. helped me push through. I’m not sure where I’d be if I’d never decided to sell sweaters. I needed them then, things are different now.
So with a bit of sadness I’ve decided to put Christmisc. on the shelf. It’s tough to walk away from the only thing that has always worked. I sold the last of the sweaters to my buddy Josh at Clothing Underground who has a really cool store on campus that knows party attire, if you need a sweater this year, buy it from him! I’m going to miss the excitement and crowds of Christmisc. And I’m going to miss the chance to lose myself creatively in something different for a few months. I’m not going to miss the months of sleep deprivation and the neglect of Pursuit. If you know someone who could give Christmisc. the time and energy it deserves, send them my way, I’d love to see the business live on.
As a nod to the past 5 years I finally caved and brought in a small assortment of the ugly sweater suits that ten million of you mentioned to me when they first hit the market (no I didn’t think of them first despite being the perfect intersection of my two businesses). Buy one if that’s your thing.
I’m so excited for what we’re building at Pursuit. And I’m so grateful that, no matter how strange my projects, you have humored and supported me. It was such a fun run with Christmisc. these last five years. I want to extend my deepest gratitude to all the members of the team, past and present, that have worked with me these past five years to make both concepts a success. There’s been a lot of hard work and creativity from a cast of over twenty-five people to bring these businesses to life. Now it’s time for us to get back to work.
Have a wonderful holiday season!