By Jessica Harlan
In the history museum of Geneva, a scenic riverside town just west of Chicago, a current exhibit celebrates the centennial of a business that helped make the town a tourism and shopping destination. The iconic business, The Little Traveler gift shop, is housed in an 19th-century Victorian house. Mike Simon, whose father acquired the business in 1971 when Mike was a teen, attended college for business administration and participated in Lord & Taylor’s buyer training program, experiences that prepared him to lead The Little Traveler well into its next century.
What makes your store unique?
Everyone has a story to tell about growing up at the Little Traveler. It’s a tradition to come shopping here, and we see references to multiple generations every day. There’s such a wide variety of merchandise here that appeals to different ages and demographics. You can come in with your grandma or with your granddaughter, and you’ll both find something to love. The fact that we have a tearoom also offers customers the nice opportunity to bond over food.
How would you describe the atmosphere of your store?
As you walk through our 36 rooms, you’ll get the feeling that you’re in someone’s old house. Everything is comfortable, nothing matches, but you feel like you belong and could comfortably hang out with family and friends. Every room has a different theme: candy, tea, kitchen, fairtrade and Christmas. There’s always a “wow” factor in that shoppers don’t know what they’ll find next.
To what do you attribute your success?
Our buyers do an amazing job of finding unusual merchandise and displaying it intelligently and creatively. But more than anything, it’s our people. If you look at our Google and Yelp reviews, we see more positive reviews about the people who work at the store than anything else.
How do you promote your store?
Our main vehicle is something that’s been done since the start: The Almanack. Our founder had an esoteric newsletter that talked about everything that was unusual in the store, and it went to customers in every one of the then-48 states.
We still publish the Almanack on a quarterly basis letting people know everything that’s happening in the store. We have a mailing list of 35,000 people and an email list of 15,000.
What has been your most successful recent event?
xWe do a lot of community events to benefit local charities. Our headline event is Festival of the Vine, a townsponsored wine tasting on our front lawn. Last year we raised over $10,000.
Do you have a favorite new product line?
A few years ago we opened a fairtrade room because everyone is looking for a reason to make a difference in the world. We’ve now expanded the products to include women’s empowerment, earth-friendly and give-back companies. Everything in that room is making a difference in the life of someone.
Finally, how do you stay inspired?
I try to do something every day that we’ve never done before. Some ideas work, some don’t, but we always try to give the element of surprise and thrill the customer in a way they haven’t expected.