April 21, 2011
|Debbie Binkley has managed the Friends Shop at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt since it opened in 2004. (photo by Susan Urmy)
But don't let store manager Debbie Binkley hear you call the Friends Shop a "gift shop." She has worked tirelessly to shape it into a specialty boutique, offering the most innovative toys, the hottest plush (retail-speak for stuffed animals) and on-trend clothes and accessories.
"We work hard to be a true boutique and make sure we don't have what everyone else in Nashville has. Our store is whimsical and fun and not what you would expect in a hospital," Binkley said.
And that hard work has paid off. Within three years of its 2004 opening, the Friends Shop had paid off all its start-up debt and is able to give back about $75,000 of profits each year to Children's Hospital.
"For a store of our size, even if we were in the private sector, it would be really hard to have that much profit, so we're very proud of that," Binkley said.
|Debbie Binkley and the staff of the Friends Shop work to make sure the mix of merchandise has something for everyone. (photo by Anne Rayner)
"Every bit of business - whether it's 10 cents, a dollar or hundreds of dollars - every bit of it matters to this hospital."
In October 2003, just months before the freestanding Children's Hospital was set to open, the leadership of the Friends of Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt approached Binkley about managing the shop. She had more than 20 years experience in the retail industry and had helped with Steeplechase merchandising in the past.
Binkley had but a few months to get the shop up and running, something that most businesses would allow a year for. As the inventory came in, the store's unique vision began to take shape.
"We knew that we were going to start with the basic items that would meet the needs of patients and families. But what about all the staff at Vanderbilt? They work very long, hard shifts and they may not have an opportunity to leave during the day and go shopping, so why don't we put something in there for them? That's how we got into all the clothes and accessories."
Binkley said she quickly realized that a patient's family often doesn't have time to leave the hospital either.
"We can't have everything, but we try to offer as much of the outside world as possible, and it makes them feel more normal."
|Sherry Radford looks at the wide variety of merchandise at the Friends Shop. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Always impeccably dressed and coiffed, Binkley has the gracious Southern charm that makes everyone feel welcome in the Friends Shop.
With colorful displays and eye-catching windows designed by Judy and James Morgan, a visual team the store hires, the Friends Shop invites people who just want to browse.
"I come in here often on my breaks," said Dottie Rager, senior executive assistant for Children's Hospital administration.
"It's a wonderful distraction for so many from what is going on in the hospital, whether it's personal or professional."
The shop has also become part of the routine for many children who come to the hospital regularly, like Delia Quezada, a 9-year-old who has to visit the hospital every week and purchased two bags of Hershey Kissesand a pen festooned with pink feathers and sparkles.
"They know that when they get through the challenging part, they get a treat and that is how their visit ends, on a happy note," Binkley said.
The Friends Shop staff is dedicated to customer service, especially bringing some joy to patients.
"When I take something up to a patient's room, if they're awake and alert, they will jump out of bed. They smile so big, and it's great to provide a little light in the room," said sales associate Maggie Hunt.
Binkley attributes the success of the Friends Shop to treating it like a true retail operation.
"The Friends Shop was never really expected to make a profit, and it was built with the thought that it would be a service," she said.
"We've been able to keep our prices at a very good point. We want everyone who comes in to be able to buy something."
Prices are low because Binkley has developed many relationships in the industry.
She also keeps a close eye on trends and forecasts - a surge in cotton prices or delays in China, for example - and plans for that in the shop's budget.
This business acumen comes from Binkley's nearly 30 years in the retail industry. She grew up in Springfield, Tenn., with a lifelong love of clothes and fashion.
"I truly love what I do and can't imagine that I would do anything else. It's nice to make people happy and put a smile on their face. Every day I go home and feel like I've contributed in a small way."
But Binkley is quick to point out that retail is not the fun, glamorous work that outsiders imagine.
"A lot of people think it is just playing, but it's such a hard, grueling business. You're unpacking boxes and tagging the merchandise. Then you've got to get all the merchandise onto the floor and look really pretty and simple for the customer. Then you have to track the merchandise and train a capable team that can provide the service. It can be exhausting work."
The fashion industry is always working months ahead of the seasons, and Binkley is about to travel to New York to select fall merchandise for the Friends Shop. "Going to market" is a quarterly ritual for retailers, a designated weekend when suppliers set up booths in a huge warehouse to sell their merchandise to retailers.
"You've got to know going in what you want and have a vision of what you want your store to be. There will be a thousand vendors and you've got to be able to move through it and recognize quickly what your customer wants. You learn very early on that you're not shopping for yourself," Binkley said.
|Binkley’s team at the Friends Shop includes, from left, Beth McCord, Sally Smith and Maggie Hunt. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Binkley is nonchalant about her ability to pick the perfect products, but Friends Shop assistant manager Sally Smith said it is a special instinct that Binkley possesses.
"A lot of times she will want something at market and I'll say 'You've got to be kidding me,' but it ends up being our top seller," Smith said.
The Friends Shop is now gearing up for May, one of its busiest months, as customers shop for Steeplechase, Mother's Day and graduation.
"To me, the sign of success is I can see the fingerprints on the windows, especially all the little fingerprints on the bottom. It means that someone has been very entertained looking in our windows. They've had a chance to be outside whatever their challenges may be while they're at the hospital."
Related Links: The Friends Shop Website
Tags: Fundraising, Friends of Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
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