WESTLAND, Mass. For three decades Beth Dormitzer had been proprietor of The Natural Nook, a craft shop on the main street of this western suburb of Boston, with little to show for her efforts. “She’d make a little money, but she wouldn’t pay herself anything,” says her long-suffering husband, manager of a local bank branch. “It was a labor of love, which means I would have cut her off long ago if I didn’t love her.”
But all that changed two years ago when upscale women’s clothing stores moved in on either side of her, causing her rent to go up. “I became very creative with my excuses,” the distaff half of this sixty-something couples says. “I tried ‘My dog ate the check,’ then my landlord found out I was a cat person.”
Dormitzer was thinking of giving up when an idle comment by a customer inspired a change in her marketing strategy. “This man was gazing at my overstocked shelves of macramé owls and said ‘That looks like the Northern Spotted Owl, the one that’s on the endangered species list.’ A light bulb went on over my head, and it wasn’t fluorescent.”
Dormitzer rushed into the conversational breach left open when the man jingled his car keys to signal to his wife that he was getting impatient. “That is the Northern Spotted Owl,” she exclaimed, “and a portion of the proceeds of each sale goes into preserving the little fellow,” she said, not specifying exactly how much she was willing to contribute to the survival of the species.
“Well, uh, in that case, I suppose $5.95 . . .”
” . . . not including sales tax.”
” . . . isn’t so much.” The man plunked down seven dollars, told Dormitzer to keep the change, and The Natural Nook’s transformation into a guilt-tripping retail powerhouse was born.
“The turnaround was dramatic,” says Morton Shusterman, the Dormitzers’ solo practitioner accountant. “Before he was subsidizing her, now she’s clearing enough to pay my fees out of her own checking account.”
Dormitzer changed the name of her store to “Change the World” and swapped the “Take a penny/Leave a penny” label on glass jar next to her cash register for one that says “Leave the change you don’t want to see in the world,” her humorous take on a saying attributed to either Mahatma Gandhi or Yogi Berra. Teddy bears became “Endangered bears,” and mugs boldly proclaimed that they held only “fair trade” coffee or tea within.
New England’s guilt-ridden history made it a receptive area for the concept, says retail analyst J.J. “Jake” Curtin of Brand Strategies LLC, a consulting firm that helps turn around struggling businesses. “The Puritan ethos is strong here,” he says, mimicking the tone of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, a side effect of his long career working with clients on the precipice of bankruptcy. “As soon as they make money they feel guilty about it, but spending it doesn’t help unless there’s some distasteful moral element to it, like an ugly but long-lasting L.L. Bean sweater.”
While not by nature a political animal, Dormitzer has taken to her new persona as a nagging over-the-counter scold with gusto, urging her customers to make the world a better place by putting money in her pocket, and expressing her disapproval in a not-so-subtle manner when she sees one about to leave without making a purchase.
“You sure I can’t interest you in one of these cute pillows?” she asks with an upturned eyebrow as Maeve du Clos starts to walk out the door empty-handed.
“I don’t know,” the woman says, returning to take a final look at the wares on display out of courtesy. She picks up an odd blue number in the shape of a fish with the word “Sikppy” embroidered on it. “What does S-I-K-P-P-Y stand for?” she asks.
Dormitzer clucks her tongue in a quiet expression of disapproval at the woman’s insensitivity to the disabled. “That’s Skippy, the Dyslexic Whale.”