This article was originally published in the April 2018 Princeton Echo.
Princeton has long had the reputation among shoppers of being a destination town; a walkable, day-trip locale. But the recent spate of retail store closings could put that reputation in jeopardy.
Most recently, within weeks of each other, Hulit’s Shoes, Jane, Savory Spices, Cool Vines and Lisa Jones all closed. Street level shops stand empty on Nassau Street, Witherspoon and Palmer Square. Most glaring is the row of five starkly empty storefronts on Hulfish Street, a prime location. Not a great recommendation for a town that considers itself a weekend mecca for walkers and shoppers.
However, a random walk down Nassau Street reveals that there is still definitely a “there there” that can entice visitors and residents to come out and about. While an increasingly large amount of real estate is being devoted to restaurants, there are still a variety of retail establishments that encourage shoppers to linger in town.
Browsing is the key word. It is the browser who makes the spur of the moment purchase; the shopper who comes to Princeton to see what is new and who is happy to patronize stores without having a specific errand. Spending time can lead to spending money. After a walk around town, the chance to grab a bite to eat is key to a day out while, conversely, coming into town to have breakfast can lead to a walk around town.
During that walk you’re likely to encounter a store operated by Kelly Jung. When you meet Jung for the first time you immediately like her buoyant, exuberant style. Her congeniality stands her in good stead for she and her family own not one but three — yes, three — successful retail shops in the heart of downtown Princeton. Given the rocky road that retail faces these days, this is no mean feat. But Jung has demonstrated her commitment to Princeton and her approach can serve as a template for further growth in town.
The family opened its first store, Morning Glory, in 2004 at 20 Nassau Street. Jung’s mom, Sun Jung, still runs what has become a must-visit shop among town and gown kids of all ages. The jewel box sized shop is chock full of toys, Legos, and gizmos that elicit chuckles from toddler to college students and beyond.
Jung’s first retail experience primed her to open her second store, Botari, at 63 Palmer Square. Also a jewel box sized shop, it features several lines of handbags and small leather goods, along with gifts and novelties.
Her latest venture, Limelite, is on Hulfish Street in the space that used to be Alex And Ani. It is less than a month old and a logical outgrowth of her success at the other stores. It too is a browser’s paradise where you can find accessories as well as fun, spur-of-the moment gifts and casual clothing.
Retail was not on Jung’s radar when she came to the United States from Korea in 1999, spurred by her desire to learn English. Her interest in the language stemmed from her experiences helping international pilots from the regional airport near her home find lodging. “Because I spoke some English, I acted as their interpreter with local business people and landlords,” Jung says. “I wanted to improve my fluency in idiomatic English so what better place to learn than America?”
Her father was the manager of an export company and her mother had run a kindergarten in South Korea. Together they searched for a good school for Jung, and both parents were willing to emigrate after she enrolled at the Pennington School. “Originally, my family settled in north Jersey while I boarded at Pennington. My father bought a delicatessen in New York City and mom opened a toy store near their home. Eventually though, my mother found the distance between us too great and when I transferred to West Windsor-Plainsboro for my senior year, we bought a house in West Windsor. It was a much longer commute for my poor dad, but mom was happy,” says Jung.
Jung pursued a biomedical engineering degree at Rutgers but after graduation, she just didn’t know what she really wanted. “In my junior year, I worked with professors doing research and writing grant proposals. You need to have so much data for the grant proposals that you end up doing the same experiments again and again. It was just too repetitive for me,” she says.
“My mom had opened Morning Glory on Nassau Street by this time and I had helped her in the shop periodically, picking out merchandise and serving customers. I said I wanted a year off and my mom encouraged me to open my own shop next to hers in space that had become vacant. She knew I was an avid shopper and had a knack for what sells. It would be a terrific change of pace. That was how Niko Niko was born.”
Starting slowly, Jung learned the retail business step by step. “At first, Niko Niko sold only T-shirts. I knew I had to expand but I didn’t really know anything about trade shows, clothing inventorying, or the wholesale world. I did what came naturally and just searched for contact information online for those manufacturers whom I loved personally and cold called them to ask if I could carry their merchandise. Everyone was so nice even if the answer was no because I was too small for them.”
“Bear in mind, this whole venture started in 2008 just before the big crash. Buying what I loved personally and pricing merchandise reasonably kept me afloat. I had hit up on a niche with the local high school and college kids. They could find clothes that were not high-priced and I was local; no hassle going to the mall. I relied on my personal experience of knowing what I could afford and what was current without being so trendy that you couldn’t wear it more than once. Plus, I wanted to offer better quality material than could be found at the cheaper chains.”
Jung weathered the 2008 depression but in 2011 she had her first hard lessons in lease renewals. Niko Niko closed, but by that time, she was already on the cusp of needing a new venue. Her handbag lines at Niko Niko had hit the right chord with area shoppers and were becoming her main focus.
Jung began to carry Orla Kiely handbags and as that line grew in popularity along with the others she carried, she knew she was going to need to have a separate shop. “This store would carry the high-end leather goods such as Kiely, Michael Kors, and Kate Spade but would have more modestly priced items as well. But I was keenly aware that I couldn’t afford some of the rents that were being asked so I just waited. In 2011 I took a very small storefront on Palmer Square and opened Botari,” she says. “The name comes from the traditional little wrapping cloth that women in Korea use to carry small bundles. You gather the ends and tie them like a small hobo sack.”
Jung began attending trade shows, with an eye to items that would appeal to an American as well as international clientele, her core buyers in the diverse Princeton market. “I even met Ann Taintor,” Jung says enthusiastically of one trade show encounter.
Taintor, an artist who works with domestic stereotypes, founded her line of novelties in 1985, using mid-20th century advertisements from popular magazines and lampooning the dated image with snarky comments. Her work graces everything possible from mugs to books, calendars, magnets, purses and more. Laugh out loud funny, the wry images have remained wildly popular with each generation of women. “Because her work is so incredibly popular, I had thought she’d be this funky wild woman, but she really is this extremely calm and sweet lady!”
Now Jung’s newest venture, Limelite, reflect her eye for fun and style for clothing and merchandise. It is a quintessential browsing spot for gifts and casual clothing at a reasonable price. “As with our other shops, reasonable prices coupled with immediate personal service helps us attract and keep a steady traffic. If you live in Princeton or are at the university, there is no need to get in a car.”
Jung keeps the prices at her stores down by dealing as much as possible with the manufacturers, avoiding the price hike of the middleman. “I do not want to be one of those retailers who puts a high price on something, keeping a big margin so that they can advertise huge sales. I’m not a constant “50 percent off” kind of merchant.”
“I also aim for a large range of items to appeal to every pocketbook,” says Jung. At Morning Glory, which specializes in Japanese toys, anime, manga and Pokemon, prices range from novelty erasers for $1 to collectibles or Lego sets for $200. Jung travels extensively to Japan and Korea to buy from the source.
“At Botari, we are the licensed dealer for Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Orla Kiely, and MZ Wallace. Those are more expensive lines, but we also deal directly with a leather manufacturer for smaller goods, including vegan leather.”
Limelite combines gifts and clothing. Prices range from $6 for an Ann Taintor vanity dish and post-it notes to Einstein bobbleheads for $15. Quick hostess gifts and dorm decor abound. “My items are both domestically made and imported,” says Jung. “The popular reversible totes with matching crossbody bags by Remi and Reid are $79. Kimono tops from She & Sky are only $45; lace Ts and tunics are $39. I try to keep most of my clothing under $50. Even my line of more formal lace dresses is only $49. Eliminating the supply chain markups as much as possible lets me offer better quality without the higher price.”
Jung’s prices may be reasonable, but the center of town has high rents and some landlords have leases that tie rent increases to sales. Once beyond a threshold amount, the tenant pays an agreed upon percentage on sales in excess of the threshold amount. Other landlords use agreements that are based on a dollar figure per square foot.
So how does a small business entrepreneur like Jung manage in a high rent environment? “I have three different leases with three different landlords,” says Jung. “When I felt it was time to expand, I waited until I found the perfect sized location for the type of shop I wanted. I had to be patient and not end up with too much costly space. My family also plays a big role in keeping my costs down. For example, even though Limelite had already been a retail venue, I did have some renovations to do. My dad and I built the dressing rooms ourselves. Also, I don’t rush out to hire lots of help in the shops. I put in most of the hours myself.”
“Another key to survival and longevity is maintaining a niche and being a good neighbor to the other merchants. I try to offer merchandise that is not carried by other shops in town. My wares are distinctive and my suppliers unique.”
A looming threat to brick and mortar stores in any environment is the ubiquity of online retailers such as Amazon. Merchants find that shoppers come into their stores to try on or look at something but then go home to order the item online. “My approach is to carry items that appeal to shoppers on a regular basis, things that you can buy as needed because I’m right here in town, providing personalized service,” Jung says. “People rarely buy a $400 Kate Spade purse each week, but everyone has the experience of needing a last-minute gift, making a fun purchase because something makes you laugh, or spotting an item that is just perfect for an upcoming birthday or celebration. My customers see the other, more costly items, and put them on a mental wish list for next time.”
“It is very difficult for brick and mortar shops to adjust to fast changing trends. However, we can provide customers hands-on shopping experience and exceptional personal customer service. It may sound cliched, but it really does make a difference. I am also very grateful how Princeton customers support local shops. I hope shoppers realize online shopping may be convenient but if they only shop online, one day when they want to walk around downtown to browse different shops, they may not have that option. I hope Princeton will remain being shopping destination where people can find unique, interesting things.”
Jung has become an entrepreneur through hands-on experience. “I think the biggest lesson I have learned is how to become a risk-taker. I have learned to face my fears and take more chances. In taking risks, there is always an opportunity to learn new things. Taking risk is not always rewarding but those failures become the base for me to jump again to the next opportunity. As my mom always tells me, ‘Leap and the net will appear.’”
Limelite, 4 Hulfish Street, Kelly Jung. 609-430-0300.