As much as we can thrive in our online communities, there are certain parts of life where the in-person connection becomes invaluable and incomparable. One of those times of life? Parenthood. Located in Scottsdale, AZ, Jakki Liberman of Zoolikins has created much more than a shop. What you’ll find there is a bonding experience for parents, especially for those who are pregnant or in the early stages of having a baby, and seeking education on safe, natural goods.
How did Zoolikins come to life?
About eight years ago, we were seeing a lack of natural product stores. The only place to buy natural and green baby products was online. In Phoenix, although we’re a big city, it’s a big-box culture here so there weren’t a lot of boutiques. We were selling a lot online and had customers wanting to come in, so we thought that maybe we needed a storefront. So, we just decided that if we could find the right location, it would be fun to expand a little more.
We were lucky because we were able to find a really affordable and unique location that is very special. Downtown Scottsdale is in a redevelopment phase, and it’s probably one of the few local areas that have independent shop owners (versus everything else usually being in malls). We wanted to create an experience for customers who like natural products and like to support locals. Our neighborhood is unique in that the buildings are independently owned and the shops are independently owned. It’s a little funky and weird sometimes but charming nonetheless. Another opportunity that comes with our location is that it’s a become tourist destination, so during the winter months, we get a lot of out-of-towners who come to visit, find it a great experience and end up being customers online, as well.
When did you decide to make the leap?
In 2010, in the depth of the recession. Part of it was the fact that the prices were so low that it was almost a no-risk situation, plus, we went into it with a short-term lease until I felt like it was going to work. Because of the recession and a lot of vacancies in Old Town, landlords were allowing local artists to set up exhibits rather than have an empty building. It was an interesting time, and I thought, “Well if it doesn’t work then it’s just a pop-up.”
But it worked because there is something nice about having this community. There is something fascinating that happens when you can just come in and find people like yourself. Especially for people who have just moved to Phoenix, or moved here for college and ended up staying here. But a dramatic change happens once you’re pregnant or have a baby and you realize you need to find your people. I feel like our store helps to connect those looking to find that community. I also have employees who are awesome and have been able to roll up their sleeves and help push this giant rock uphill with me, so I’m proud of our low turnover and great staff.
Tell us about the in-store experiences and educational opportunities that Zoolikins provides.
We’ve got some new things going on! Our boutique is pretty small but incredibly loaded. We have a nice assortment of every essential you could need, and it’s been curated for natural and more conscious parenting from pregnancy through the early years. The store is long and narrow, and we get lots of out-of-towners during the tourist season, so we like to do more of the toys, books, and gift items in the front, while the back of the store is more intensive for parenting support classes for things like breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and baby-wearing.
Last year, the space right next door to us became available. It’s a beautiful space, so we decided to create a venue that would give moms another reason to come to Old Town. It’s called Mini Social, and it opened in August 2017. So now, as they come to shop with us, they can also go next door and hang out with their kids. It’s almost three times the size of our store so it has become a party and play space. We put in a kitchen, we have a ton of toys and we’re expanding programming to include mommy and me exercise, play classes, fun things at night for moms to do with or without their kids, birthday parties, and other special events.
We also use it as a photo studio; as social media is so important, we’re getting unique photos and getting together with the moms that are local influencers to spread the word that we’re here. We’ve got a lot of ideas! We have an incredibly hot summer here so people go crazy needing to get out of the house, making summer a busy season for Mini Social. Overall, we are trying to create an environment where you can come to meet people, learn about products and make friends during this transitional time in your life.
How are you utilizing technology to reach your goals?
I can’t even tell you how much technology we go through. I’ve tried at least a dozen apps just for class registration. I’m in a world of snap-in software, getting ones that sync between your POS and website and beyond. We’re constantly finding and testing things, and determining what we really need. For social media planning, we tested about six apps. I can’t get over how often we decide we need to solve something and then find all the different tools that exist out there. Between email, loyalty, POS, website, social media planning, class registration, and sales reporting programs, it makes you think about the old days of a shopkeeper just setting up and opening up and look at where we are now!
How do you curate items for your inventory?
We’re seeing a trend leaning toward a lot more unique items and a lot less mass items. People want Etsy-type things that are locally made. It’s interesting because, after being in business for a while, we’ve seen trends come and go. During the recession, it was all about price. We’d see some beautiful items but then decide that people weren’t going to spend that kind of money. Now, of course, everyone wants a deal, but people are willing to spend a bit more if the product is unique and special. We’re constantly seeking brands that are trend-driven. There are a lot more knockoffs on Amazon, so we are constantly checking to see if the items we are interested in are being sold there, and, if they are, we also check price points. You can’t compete with something that Amazon is selling at half the price.
We used to sell a lot more baby carriers and they were undercutting us; we’d do the work to educate the consumer, so we were still selling the product, just not getting the sale. We had a hard look at some of our brands to see if they were working with us or against us. We’re curating items not only based on if we feel they are the best products but also if we feel they are the best partners to work with, who we want to support. In the baby industry, you have a few core brand leaders that people want and seek out, like Lunette. Then, we also do the more fun and funky gift items like expression outfits or mommy-matching; it might be different the next time you come in and adds an element of fun when you go shopping and find something cute.
What inspires you?
We are inspired to constantly improve and move at this phenomenal rate of change. What really gets us going is the drive to do better, do more, and leverage more. There is a need to create the environment we have. We see ups and downs based on how the economy is doing, and when the economy is doing well, people can really support the products and companies that they believe in. We’re supporting natural product brands, connecting with the community, and helping moms figure out how to juggle it all.
There is a growing need for moms to stay technologically connected, too. Technology is moving so fast; if I were a new mom deciding to stay home with my kid, I’d be terrified to step outside of the “work world” and think that five years later I could just jump back in. You want to focus on your kids and give them the best of everything, but you also have got to take care of yourself and make sure you can still function in a world that is changing so fast. So, part of what we’re creating with Mini Social is a community: the kind of community that will help them stay connected and figure out how to still be productive without necessarily being committed to a 9-to-5 job. For instance, one of our classes is how to set up your own Etsy shop. That programming is something we’re inspired to create, to help parents.
In the new parent industry, what is the current landscape for clean wellness products?
One category that we sell and support is cloth diaper products, which seems to be slowing a little bit. I think a lot of the confusion is from “eco-friendly” disposable diapers that look pretty and gave a nod to the environment. We encourage cloth but try very hard to be inclusive, and it’s completely fine if you don’t use cloth diapers; but, if you think you’re being eco-friendly by using those products, you might be mistaken.
People are looking for healthier items in other areas too. For example, to address concerns about plastic, we have glass bottles and silicone dishes. We also have wood teething items and developmental toys with more natural materials and the thought processes behind the toys are even more special.
Are most parents coming to you at the beginning or middle of their clean wellness journey?
The minute you find out you’re pregnant, you start considering what you’re putting on your body and how you’re treating yourself. Especially when moms are nursing, the products they’re using on themselves become very important. People put in the effort to be so much more aware of ingredients and options, so I definitely think that people come to us for guidance because most of the places they’re shopping at do not provide that. When we do our advertising, we promote that we are here to help, educate and show you products that are safe.