The Vermont Country Store evokes thoughts of what life was like many years ago even if you are not chronologically entitled to remember back that far. We think back to simpler times when people knew your name, when candy was a penny and when the local general store was the place to go and meet friends and share stories.
Those days may be long gone in most parts of the country but the guys and gals at the Vermont Country Store have managed to keep alive two outposts of those general store days gone by in Vermont. But thanks to technology the reach of the Vermont Country Store is now global through their website VermontCountryStore.com
Today must have been my lucky day. On sort notice I was able to sit down with the president and CEO Bill Shouldice and two brother’s from the family that owns the company, Eliot and Cabot Orton. We talk about the impact of the economy on a business, when is the best time to start a business, advice for people crossing turbulent waters and how to hold your head up in difficult times.
The Vermont Country Store is very active in attempts to bring back the right for people to dry their clothes outside on an old fashioned clothesline. Pam and I started doing that again to help cut energy consumption since we put our solar panels in. The Vermont Country Store is a great place to shop for those needed supplies, clothesline, clothespins, and I even walked away with a nostalgic clothespin bag for our outdoor dryer.
Inside the Weston, VT original Vermont Country Store. Doesn’t it just feel like you’ve stepped back in time?
The proprietor brothers and the president of the Vermont Country Store. From left to right, Gardner Orton, Eliot Orton, Cabot Orton, Bill Shouldice
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Interviewer: So the Vermont Country Store has been around since before 1946 right? The first store opened in ’46?
Eliot Orton: Our grandfather Rest Orton and our grandmother Ellen Orton opened the Vermont Country Store in western Vermont in 1946 but before that opened – started a mail order catalog in the fall of 1945 and our grandfather grew up in a small country store up in Callis Vermont, north Callis Vermont. So the country store was in his blood and has been in our family for quite a long time.
Interviewer: So if you just joined us, if you could just give us your name with a voice and spell your name for me.
Cabot Orton: Hi, I’m Cabot Orton, that’s c-a-b-o-t o-r-t-o-n.
Interviewer: Would your great grandfather, your grandfather recognize the business today if he came back?
Cabot Orton: I think they’d be a little astonished at the scale of the business. I think they’d also be surprised by the fact that it’s not just a catalog anymore. We have, of course, a web site and I think they’d be delighted to see how far people will travel from all over the world to visit the two stores that we have here in Vermont.
Interviewer: So do you have – it’s like asking which is your favorite child, but do you have a favorite store? Is it the original or is it the new one or what is it?
Eliot Orton: Well I think we – I don’t wanna say to the folks that work there because they’re both unique and special in their own right. The store in Rockingham at times can be a little less busy on some days than Weston so can go down there and you can kind of be a little more alone to your thoughts. And Weston can be pretty busy on most days but are both truly authentic country stores and unique in their own way and just I love em both.
Bill Shouldice: Yeah, what I like about Weston is it’s in a traditional kind of Vermont downtown setting off the green. And so it’s just, it’s picturesque. But the same token, you know what’s really exciting about Rockingham is it has the same merchandise assortment but it’s got a nice covered bridge around it. All the land around it is very bucolic and hearkens back to the agrarian roots of Vermont along with a beautiful trout pond and a gristmill and it’s just – it’s a special place as well.
Interviewer: Well, I’m traveling around asking people about the economy we’ve heard so much about, it’s a difficult economy, people losing their jobs, foreclosures. What’s your impression from where you sit here at the Vermont Country Store? Do you notice a difference in the Vermont Country Store?
Bill Shouldice: Yeah I think, here’s what I think, I think that the Vermont Country Store is lucky. We have a longstanding tradition of selling products and we’ve got just a phenomenal loyal customer base. And we’re paying very close attention to both. The products that we’re offering them, making sure we’re focusing on quality as we always have. We’re not allowing ourselves to get distracted by that. Making sure that we’re offering good pricing and good price points and we’re focusing on service.
You know it’s really tough right now when you go out, when you shop in retailers and you can’t return anything or they say it’s out of warrantee. When you shop at the Vermont Country Store, 100% customer satisfaction from the day you buy it until the day you decide it’s met its ultimate end. So I think we’re just harkening back to our roots and I think it’s serving us well right now. I think our customers are loyal and I think they’re telling other friends about it and we’re able to have a little bit broader reach than maybe we have in the past by our web site. But I think the combination of those things and sticking to our knitting and who we are and not being distracted by some shiny new object or direction I think is serving us well right now.
Interviewer: Is that difficult to say, look, there’s a great new idea, like we’d like to head this way but it’s so much different than what you’re doing right now? Is that a temptation at all?
Cabot Orton: In terms of growing the business or changing the business?
Interviewer: You ever want the Vermont Country Store ski slope or you know –
Eliot Orton: No, I mean there are certainly opportunities as well in our industry. There’s certainly a lot of mail order catalogs that are having hard times. And I know there are a lot of opportunities for a company like ours to possibly go out and merger or acquire other businesses but that would also take away from our focus and the types of products that we sell and the core fundamental values of who we are as a business. And so I think there are always those temptations but I think at this point we’ve seen that it’s served us well to – as Bill said, stick to our knitting and keep our focus to the core attributes of our business that have made us successful over the last 65 years.
Interviewer: Do you think at all about your customers who might be struggling out there and trying to offer them any special deals during these times or to keep them motivated as customers?
Bill Shouldice: One of the things that we have is we’re an accessible brand. The Vermont Country Store is – we’re not aspirational in terms of high ticket. We sell everything from a piece of penny candy, literally, a piece of penny candy to a really industrial strength vacuum or a doormat. And so you know people have a way of thinking of the Vermont Country Store as a way to help them through this economic downturn and to be well positioned to not only help them with their – the things they need to run their household but ultimately to – we do a great holiday business as well, so they’ll come back to us and do their gift shopping.
So we all said as part of our duties as owners and as executives at the Vermont Country Store, that we refer to ourselves as shopkeepers. We sit on the phone and we talk, we hear from our customers. And they’ll say, “Jeez, I only have so much to spend on a particular garment. Can you help me?” And we take great pride in the fact that we help them through that purchase. We do the same in the store. A little bit harder on the web but there’s some ways of price points and suggestions that can be automated at doing that but we don’t default to artificial intelligence at the Vermont Country Store. We still keep a shopkeeper’s eye and we try and touch every item and every customer one-on-one.
Interviewer: Do people spend more when they call on the phone and order or when they order on the web?
Bill Shouldice: It’s about the same. They’re – we still get a lot of people who are sending us an order by mail. We still get cash in the mail. People will send us cash and just have not forgotten that that is a currency of choice not that long ago. But no, it’s a – the orders that we get are pretty standard from web to catalog to what the store – interesting thing about the store, and you’ve been there is when you can touch it. The store is the – the purchases they have there and it’s a little bit more broader because we also in our Weston store have a great restaurant called the Bryant House and we offer everything from Johnny cake there to ice cream to shepherd’s pie and a special sandwich of the day. So you tend to get – they stay a little bit longer at the store. You get a little bit more – it’s a place they go to say I’m going to the stores for the day. So they spend a little bit more there but by in large I think we’re pretty consistent across the channels.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for people who are living through difficult times right now who are struggling? I mean just advice from the heart. How do people make it through difficult times like that?
Cabot Orton: I think the keyword is community that nobody has to go through difficult times alone. You know our grandparents spent their formative years in the great depression. When they were our age, times were harder than anybody could have remembered or could have foreseen. And they made it by being involved in the communities that they lived in. They lived in a small town in western Vermont. And people relied on one another for a sense of connectedness, for reliability, for support, and at the end of the day there’s an awful lot we miss in a life of individualism and consumerism.
The gratification of connecting with other people around us and being part of something larger than ourselves. We believe in that and as Vermonters, it’s a fundament of our business and of who we are and we may be facing challenging times now. But as Vermonters, we think we’re probably better poised to go through those times and flourish than we may otherwise be living in other parts of the country that are less rooted and less grounded in tradition and history and community.
Interviewer: Is this a bad time for someone who is unemployed, has an idea, wants to be an entrepreneur? Is this a bad time to start a business or is there a good time or bad time? What do you think?
Bill Shouldice: I think the access to capital is really a stranglehold. It’s tough right now. You know folks have got their – if they’re out of a job they don’t have the income. If they’ve been out of a job for a while they’re probably incurred some credit card debt or have some back bills. So their credit as you’ve heard throughout the country is in a tough spot. And then banks aren’t lending. So I think it’s gonna be a tough struggle. I also think though that – you know I’ve heard some people who’ve been displaced and said, “I got nothing to lose,” throw caution to the wind, so there’s a little bit of that I think going on as well. But I think it’s a – I think this economy is going to – at least in Vermont – our down I don’t think is gonna be as down but I also think our recovery may not be as quick as others. So there’s something to be said for that.
Interviewer: So speaking of your grandparents and depression, what would your grandparents say about all of this credit card debt, all this easy mortgage, what would they say to that?
Cabot Orton: It’s absolutely antithetical to everything they grew up believing. The idea that you could pay no money down and buy a house. The idea that you could buy everything on credit far beyond your means. The idea that you could make a living producing nothing, creating nothing to show for it and that’s where really our economy has been over the last 30 years increasingly. So I think they’d be absolutely baffled and rather horrified by it.
At the same time I think that they furnished us with a sensibility that will carry us very well in terms of sacrifice, in terms of austerity, in terms of practicality, in terms of frugality. These are values we didn’t just abandon when we embraced credit and we embraced the opportunity of high finance. So it’s still central to the way we live our lives.
Interviewer: Right now there is no Vermont Country Store credit card.
Bill Shouldice: No.
Eliot Orton: No.
Interviewer: If some big bank came and offered you some great deal, does that kind of go against the beliefs of the Vermont Country Store to extend easy credit to customers or –
Bill Shouldice: There’s a lot of – you look at what’s happening to retailing over the years. You know Sears was a great retailer for years by all accounts, created the catalog business itself. And what are they now? They’re a finance company. They’re selling to you when you buy something that you think is quality, they’re selling you a credit card and they’re selling you warranty services. They’ve gotten away from what they were.
We are true to our core. And the Orton’s – you can’t work at the Vermont Country Store if you don’t understand one simple thing. We sell products that don’t come back to people that do. We focus on products and we focus on customers and all the rest of it around it is noise. And so we get em all the time, people who call us and say, “We’d like you to offer this financial service,” or “do it on credit,” do it on some new scheme and we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted by that.
Interviewer: Is that the launch code comin in?
Cabot Orton: Making you an aural canvas.
Interviewer: Last question guys. I’d like to hear from each of you on this one. People right now, as I said before, difficult times, losing homes, losing jobs, filing bankruptcy and they’re suffering in silence. They feel like losers and rejects. They’re just real down. What advice do you, each of you individually have for somebody in that situation?
Bill Shouldice: I think Cabot’s already started to talk about it. I believe that your community that you live in and you know, one thing about Vermont is we were raised in a – with a heritage of a barn raising party where people came together to help one another, shared labor to get the crops in out of the field. We still believe in the value and the virtues of town meeting and the fact that if your house catches on fire, the volunteer firemen are gonna be there to help you out. And I think it’s times like this, be it a natural disaster, be it an economic disaster, I think in places in Vermont people come together and they network and they share and so you know –
Interviewer: So they shouldn’t be afraid to suffer in silence? You’re saying they should reach out for help?
Bill Shouldice: No, I think what, I think people know and there’s a pride that comes with it in Vermont. We’re a small state of 600,000 people. They know who your neighbor who’s displaced. They know who the kid who was trying to get to college and hasn’t gotten a summer job because they are a hugely impacted population this year. Summer jobs which were once held by teenagers to make their spending money to buy their books and pay their share of the college loan, those jobs are gone.
I have somebody working for me this summer whose son couldn’t find a job and so he’s cutting my grass and doing things because his father wants him to have that work ethic and because he knows he needs to make a little extra money. So I think the double-edged sword that you speak of is absolutely true cause the pride to suffer in silence I think is very much a part of it but I think in caring, thoughtful ways, in a place like Vermont which is a special place, I firmly believe that. I think we have a little bit of a leg up in helping people get through that.
Cabot Orton: I’d say find a way to be of service to others and you’ll never find yourself wanting and you’ll never find yourself alone. That it’s truly powerful and when people can connect with those around them in a community and a neighborhood; it transcends the feeling of alienation and being alone in a hard place. And it sounds like a cliché but it’s the one thing you can always count on is the people around you.
Eliot Orton: Yeah, I think I’d echo my brother’s statements on that that. I feel certainly when folks are probably at their last end and feel they have no more, that to look for any way that they can give and help others even in the most minute way is very empowering and can connect you to opportunity that you didn’t know was around you. And I think certainly in the times of hardship we’ve seen that during national disasters and tragedies that occur. When folks bind together and bring out that spirit, I mean certainly New York City is forever changed because of the events that occurred there on 9/11 that there’s a spirit that still is there of friendliness in the streets. A willingness to – you know if you ask folks for direction, that a willingness to help one another that came out of that. And I think that will come out of the hardships that we’re in now and that’s the enduring spirit of our nation, what makes America great. The melting pot attitude and the energy that we have as neighbors and as a nation that’ll carry us through this.
Interviewer: All right, thank you very much gentlemen. I appreciate it.
Eliot Orton: You’re welcome.
Cabot Orton: Thank you.My Interview With the Leaders at the Vermont Country Store by Steve Rhode