A new kind of retail shopping experience
While technology has forever altered the definition of “shopping,” walking through actual physical stores is still a thing, and in some spots, the experience is about far more than an exchange of goods for money. The notion that a transaction can go beyond the sale is the philosophy behind Hearth & Soul, a boutique with two locations (Austin, Texas, and Tallahassee, Florida) founded by Susie Busch-Transou to showcase her unique take on “retail therapy.”
While each city’s store is different, the concept at the heart of each is the same. “I call it hospitality retail,” Susie says. It’s an idea built on connection over commerce, and its foundation is first evident in the layout. Both stores are set up like a house, with apropos items for sale in the men’s and ladies’ closets, in the kitchen, in the library, and even in the laundry room. It’s truly a one-stop shop. Need a new dress or some comfy pjs? Done. A pewter platter, some locally roasted coffee, and a mug made by a Tallahassee or Texas potter? No problem. How about some throw pillows and the latest Southern literature best seller? It’s all inside.
The “home” setting is a practical and instinctual way to organize the shops’ diverse and carefully curated array of inventory. “That’s the ‘hearth’ part of the name,” Susie says. “It also makes people feel really comfortable, and so it’s a great environment for a variety of events.” Thanks to the warm and welcoming atmospheres, both locations draw community gatherings such as book club meetings in the “family room,” cooking classes, happy hours and tastings in the “kitchen,” yoga classes on the patio areas and more. “We even do seasonal special events like Easter egg hunts in the store,” Susie says.
She’s committed to bringing people together as a way to combat the isolation our modern age can create. “Technology is a blessing, but in some ways, it has removed the human interface that is the key part of true community, so I’ve made increasing connection a big part of our mission,” she says. And this emphasis on togetherness ties into the second half of the name. Susie drew the “soul” aspect from conversations with close friends when her vision for the stores was still in its formative stages. “I asked them, ‘What feeds your soul?’ Their answers are what really brought the Hearth & Soul concept to life.”
This information directly influenced the stores’ feel as well as what’s inside. “Every part of our stores is designed to feed the soul, so we try to have items that are not really readily available at other spots in our two communities; we don’t want to offer the same things you’d find next door,” she says. This means some exclusive treasures from far-away places sitting alongside items made by local artists and craftspeople. Susie stresses the quality of Hearth & Soul items. “The things people buy from us last; we are not fast fashion. We want anything someone leaves with to last for a long time,” she says.
During COVID-19, Hearth & Soul’s wide selection has proven helpful to customers. “The fact that we really are a one-stop shop, where you can meet your personal and gifting needs for almost anybody and any occasion, has been valuable for those who are pressed for time and don’t want to go in and out of so many places,” Susie says. “We’ve had so many express thanks for that aspect of our stores.” Hearth & Soul has also offered multiple virtual events to give customers as many options as possible to stay engaged and stay safe.
But the stores are not just inviting places full of lovely things; Susie is proud of Hearth & Soul’s people too. “We hear all the time how friendly our staff are,” she says. “We hire team members who we know to be caring versus maybe being really good sales people, and I think that comes through.”
Susie also put a lot of thought into the address of each store, putting them in suburban areas and neighborhoods instead of directly downtown or in malls. “Because we are so community-based, we really want to be close to homes, to where people live,” she says.
The link between Susie’s philosophy and the shopping of yesteryear, when it was a true experience filled with grace and even a bit of glamour, is clearly evident in her focus on the holidays, including Hearth & Soul’s extravagant annual holiday window display, which features a different themed scene every year and is based on some of her fondest childhood memories. “A designer friend who has helped me with the stores all along was visiting Amsterdam and saw a life-size advent calendar in a store window,” she says. “I wanted to do something really special for the holidays, and when she told me about it, I knew that was it.” Growing up, Susie always had an advent calendar. She loved opening a new little door each day in December to find a piece of chocolate or whatever other surprise it held behind it. “I wanted to incorporate and share that personal tradition,” she says.
Past window scenes such as a Winter Wonderland (with live penguins), one centered on the movie “Elf,” and one promoting Peace on Earth, are the result of months of planning and hard work. “They really get better and better every year,” Susie says. “We start brainstorming for the next year as soon as each holiday season is over.” The 2020 theme for the Tallahassee location is “Rocking around the Hearth,” and is a celebration of music. “That for sure feeds my soul,” Susie says. It’s decked out in throwback records and will include plenty of live music performances from local groups. “We love having that element that brings it to life,” she says.
The windows debut in early November with a “reveal” party, and then, starting on December 1, the stores do 25 days of advent giveaways. “It’s really engaging and shines a spotlight on the holidays in a fun, magical way for both us and our communities,” Susie says. The windows also benefit area charities and arts organizations; in keeping with Hearth & Soul’s community focus, every year’s window is tied to a nonprofit partner that is related in some way to the theme. But Hearth & Soul’s philanthropy isn’t reserved for one season; proving a commitment to the community connection Susie touts, the stores work with a different local nonprofit every month of the year.
Knowing the stores improve their respective cities is rewarding for Susie, but the real prize is found in the individual shoppers. “I want a stop into one of the stores to make their day better in some way,” she says. “Whether they are trying to check something off their list or just came in with a friend for a visit, we want to take care of people and enhance their day. And if they fall in love with an item or need an item, then they purchase something. But mostly, I hope they leave with a smile.”