This article originally appeared in Wichita Woman, a publication of the Wichita Eagle.
Shopping at Nell Hill’s is worth the drive
At least once a day, a coach bus stops on Commercial Street in downtown Atchison, Kan., and eager shoppers file out for a chance to step inside Nell Hill’s, a home furnishings and accessories store.
Cars with license plates from cities like Kansas City, St. Louis, Des Moines, Omaha and Wichita fill the parking spots. Nearly 97 percent of Nell Hill’s customers drive at least an hour and a half to shop.
The shopping season is never busier than during the holidays, and Nell Hill’s home decorating emporium is never more fun than when it’s transformed into a magical space that captures the spirit of the holidays.
Mary Carol Garrity quietly has created a loyal customer base that makes Nell Hill’s a destination shopping spot. The success of the original shop also spawned two sister stores: G. Diebolt’s for bedding and linen and Garrity’s Encore featuring antiques and furniture. All three stores are within a block of one another, all are named after a family member.
But Nell Hill’s is the flagship store, the one that motivates customers to drive hours to treasure hunt. Garrity founded Nell Hill’s 23 years ago as a gourmet food store but eventually discovered her passion was in home decorating and converted the 8,000-square-foot storefront to that concept.
The inventory – and there’s lots of it – combines European antiques with home décor wares you’d find at stores like Pottery Barn.
But what does Nell Hill’s have that draws shoppers to its location 50 miles northwest of Kansas City? The right products, exceptional prices, customer service and Garrity.
“We work hard at market to bring in items that our customers don’t see everywhere else and at prices they can’t get other places,” said the 48-year-old Garrity. “We turn our merchandise over so quickly we can buy in large quantities. We find great values and pass them on to our customers.”
The two-level store is divided into mini stages. Rather than putting merchandise on shelves, it is spread out throughout the store in groupings that look like real rooms in real homes. You might see the same the same vase used a dozen different ways. The store is packed with merchandise and design ideas. The key, Garrity said, is to keep the merchandise and the displays ever-changing.
“Customers are entertained visually when they come into our stores,” she said. “At least every five weeks we make huge changes at each store, so it’s like coming into a new space chock full of gems every time you visit.”
According to Dan Garrity, the store reflects its founder’s – and his wife’s – personality.
“Mary Carol enjoys the people and the creativeness, and the business just follows along,” said Dan, a Wichita State University graduate who met his wife while practicing law in Wichita in the 1990s. “Her personality – open, friendly, caring – pervades the store, and when customers come through the doors they immediately connect to Mary Carol.”
The Garritys live in Atchison, Mary Carol’s hometown. Dan joined the business six years ago. He handles finances and travels to Europe three times a year to purchase antiques.
Mary Carol can be found in the store every day it is open, Monday through Saturday. She doesn’t have an office; instead she prefers to be on the floor helping customers. She often encourages shoppers to bring snapshots so she and her staff can offer solution to specific decorating issues.
The success of the stores has made Mary Carol one of the Midwest’s premier interior design consultants. Her third book, Nell Hill’s Decorating Secrets: Easy and Inspiring Ways to Bring Style and Comfort to Your Home, recently was published. Her other two books are Nell Hill’s Style at Home and Nell Hill’s Christmas at Home.
To encourage shoppers to make the drive, Nell Hill’s and the Garrity’s other stores offer free delivery to Wichita on purchases of $400 or more. The stores also feature special events, from seasonal open houses to the annual warehouse sale or the month-long 20 percent-off upholstery sale. For a schedule of events, have your name added to the mailing list or visit www.nellhills.com.
Despite all the success in Atchison, don’t look for Nell Hill’s stores to open anywhere else. Expansion outside of her hometown wouldn’t fit the hands-on style of Mary Carol.
“I want to keep it fun, and getting too big wouldn’t be fun,” she said. “I just want to see our stores in Atchison get better and better.”
(Note: this article was published in 2004 and is being posted here as an example of my travel and business writing. Since this piece published, Garrity has closed G. Diebolt’s and has opened a store in Kansas City. Please check out www.nellhills.com for the most up-to-date information)