Old Lyme's Bowerbird marks 25 years — and navigates tricky new world of online competition

Chris Kitchings, right, owner of The Bowerbird, in the Old Lyme Marketplace, jokes with a patron Thursday.
Chris Kitchings, right, owner of The Bowerbird, in the Old Lyme Marketplace, jokes with a patron Thursday. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Old Lyme — There was a cupcake giveaway on a recent sunny Saturday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Bowerbird — "a feat not achieved by many in the ever-changing retail landscape," boasted store owner Chris Kitchings.

But the seasoned businesswoman was not as confident when she took a break from her busy schedule recently to talk about The Bowerbird's accomplishments and its future.

"Twenty-five years of brick and mortar retail is something we may not see in the next 25 years because it's getting increasingly difficult to compete," said Kitchings, whose 4,500-square-foot shop in the Old Lyme Marketplace has been voted the best gift shop in the state by Connecticut Magazine readers for the past five years.

"We used to compete across the river, and then we would compete with Madison, and now, we're competing against the world," she said. "It's bizarre to say, but it's true."

The Internet has changed everything, including local retail.

"It's tricky, being out there against the big guys. We're not competing against peers anymore," said Kitchings. "It's big box to third-party vendors through Amazon now."

But it wasn't always that way.

When Kitchings and a friend opened The Bowerbird in May of 1989, they started small, in a 500-square-foot space on Lyme Street. The mother of three, now all grown, when Kitchings started The Bowerbird, she'd bring her toddler with her.

The shop, offering all kinds of tasteful gifts, accessories, jewelry, greeting cards and much more, was an immediate success, so when Kitchings and partner Jennifer Torgersen were invited to move into a bigger space, they did.

In June 1993, The Bowerbird relocated to the former Brown's Hardware in the Old Lyme Marketplace, quickly filling up the 2,500-square-foot space - five times bigger than its original shop.

Their philosophy had always been to search out and sell "impulsive necessities" - they've trademarked that advertising catch phrase - to entice buyers to shop at The Bowerbird for whatever occasion awaited them.

Greeting cards are a big draw, a selection, many hand-picked by Kitchings, coming from 60 different companies. There are also Vera Bradley, dog accessories, candles, pizza stones and fixings, kitchen gadgets, clocks, puzzles, toys, bird feeders and houses and books, clothing, scarves, reading glasses, jewelry, party decorations - and that is just a fraction of what's at Bowerbird.

"What I usually say is, 'We don't carry car parts,'" said Kitchings, as an employee called out, "We do carry duct tape."

Kitchings said all the same categories they started with in 1989 are still staples, but there is more of everything now.

There can be, because in June 1993, Bowerbird expanded again, when its owners convinced their landlord to build an addition for them, a new, attached 2,000-square-foot building.

There is so much inside Bowerbird, but the shop doesn't feel the least bit cluttered. There is a place, a section, for everything. And the gift shop, which employs 12 to 15 full- and part-time employees, has attracted a faithful following of regular customers over the years. It is not unusual for a group of women to meet there, shop, go out to lunch, and sometimes, even stop back in at Bowerbird to do a little more shopping.

Kitchings said last summer a family on their way to Cape Cod happened into the shop and liked what they saw. On the way home from their vacation, they stopped again, because they saved their "vacation money" to spend at Bowerbird rather than Cape Cod.

The typical customer is a woman aged 35 to 65, but men are regulars, too, because they know they can always find a gift that's not "too feminine or tchotchke," said Kitchings, who is the solo owner now, since her partner moved away in 2012.

But Kitchings acknowledged that it is getting more and more difficult to compete in today's global marketplace.

Customers will come in, look around, find what they like and look it over, then go home and search for the same item at a lower price on the Internet.

"They call that 'showrooming,'" said Kitchings. "They see it, touch it, and then they buy it online."

It's like a knife in the heart, she said, when a customer tells her they're going to see if they can find a better price on an item online rather than buy it from her.

"When shoppers do that, that impacts this business," she said. "And for the last two years, I've been hearing it from customers on a direct basis. I can't ask my staff to take 50 percent less pay, or my landlord or vendors or suppliers.

"It's not going to be easy without the customers - you can't sustain a business without customers coming through the door," she said.

The Bowerbird did open its own online store in 2012, and sold to every state except three in its first year.

But that's not the same as a brick and mortar business.

And, as Kitchings and her husband, Ken Kitchings, focus on the Old Lyme Inn, which they purchased and renovated in 2012-13, and The Side Door jazz club there, she's feeling more stretched than ever.

"I can't stop doing it. I'm not going to retire," she said, "It's crossed my mind, and the inn is really pulling me, but my first love will always be Bowerbird."

And by all accounts, The Bowerbird is an important part of the community. It's an anchor at the Old Lyme Marketplace, and when local nonprofits host events, the shop is usually one of the places to go and buy tickets. And Bowerbird has been a generous contributor to local events.

"They do a fantastic job, and they draw geographically from a pretty broad area," said Matt Prosser, managing partner of Guilford-based Provident Holdings, The Bowerbird's landlord. "We are ecstatic to have them as tenants, as are neighbors in the complex. They are great tenants, great merchants and good for the shopping center and for the town of Old Lyme."

Kitchings agrees that The Bowerbird needs to remain in town.

"This business needs to be sustained for the community," she said. "But it's very tricky waters we are navigating. There's rapid change in the way we live, work and shop.

"I think the big question for me is sustaining the business as everything else in the world speeds up. That's my big nut to crack right now."

a.baldelli@theday.com

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