To anyone within a hundred-or-so miles of a U.S. coastline, 200 people likely equates to someone’s high school graduating class or perhaps the number of people on a wedding invitation list. However, to the folks of Selden, Kansas — a quaint little town situated in the northwestern part of the state — that number represents the total population.
Drive four hours from downtown Selden and you could find yourself in Denver, Colorado; Wichita, Kansas; or Lincoln, Nebraska. But ask Renee Spresser, owner of Pauls Furniture, and she’ll tell you that those “neighboring” metropolises have nothing on Selden.
“I live in a town with two paved roads, and I drive two blocks to work each way,” Spresser says. “It takes me approximately five seconds from my garage door shutting to getting to my store. And that is a huge perk. Of course, I don’t get a lot of chances to catch up on my books on tape or anything, but I can sleep in.”
Spresser and her husband purchased Pauls Furniture, which was always a family-run operation, from the previous owners in 2012. A career move from insurance into furniture and bedding retail might not have seemed like a logical step at the time, but, as she puts it, it was an opportunity that they couldn’t pass up. Pauls Furniture was pushing 90 years of serving the Selden community and broader Kansas market, and they couldn’t stomach the thought of it closing.
“It’s always been kind of a little scavenger / treasure-hunt type of place where you go in and it’s five Main Street buildings all stuck together and there’s all these different rooms,” Spresser explains. “Everything just kind of fell together, so it just seemed like the right thing to do and the right choice for me as far as a career path. As an insurance agent, I was selling a non-tangible product that people didn’t want to buy. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself selling products that were tangible that people did want to buy.”
In seven short years of retail ownership, Spresser has turned the 17,000-square-foot Main Street showroom into something of a destination.
Pauls Furniture had a strong history of serving its community and carrying a variety of classic and contemporary products for every room in the home. But Spresser leaned into her creative nature to breathe new life into the store’s marketing efforts. And over the past few years, she’s tapped into an oldie (like, hundreds of millions of years old) but goodie when it comes to social media virality: the inflatable T-Rex.
For the uninitiated, all you need to do is search YouTube for inflatable T-Rex costume videos, and you’ll immediately understand why these get-ups are the perfect combination of hilarious and heartwarming. After all, what could be better than watching an oversized, short-armed, floppy dinosaur attempt to perform everyday tasks?
Spresser made the not-so-steep investment in a few T-Rex costumes for her store and the rest, as they say, is history.
“My philosophy on marketing is, I don’t think that you should shove product down people’s throats,” Spresser explains. “I’m trying to get people to go, ‘Hey, what is going on over there? Let’s go see what’s going on in that store.’ And so, I started thinking, if I could come up with some videos, and especially on the Facebook-side of things where I’m not limited to 30 seconds, I could just entertain people and they’re kind of like, ‘I really like her. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and a fool of herself.’ I think the more you see somebody in that way, even just your favorite TV character, you start feeling like you know them.”
The T-Rex performances have grown into a series of videos featuring Spresser and other members of the Pauls Furniture team around the store in different situations. Check out their Facebook page, and you’ll find them working through some HR issues, preparing for the “T-RexMas” holiday and enjoying a break in some massage chairs.
“It really has become kind of a thing,” Spresser says. “Everybody’s like, ‘When’s the next video going to be out?’”
Small Town Challenges
Spresser, as a retail store owner in a small town, doesn’t operate without unique challenges. She points to the logistics of getting product shipped into and out of such a small town. And the recent COVID-19 global pandemic did plenty to exacerbate those issues.
“I did apply for the Payroll Protection Program and received a small loan so I could keep my two employees on the whole time,” she says. “We definitely were dead for a good four weeks during the height of the pandemic, so it was tough to keep the bills paid. I am hopeful that people are getting back out and, since they aren’t going to travel as much, they might decide to use the money they put aside for vacations to enhance their homes. Personally, I have noticed that I am more aware of staying home and enjoying my home more this year instead of focusing on going away.”
In addition, Spresser noted that talent acquisition can often be a major challenge in a tiny community like Selden.
“You just don’t have a large pool of potential applicants to choose from as a small business in such a small market,” she says. “Honestly, it’s me and I have two people who work for me regularly and then maybe two or three that kind of fill in when we have trouble. I’ve kind of almost gone exclusively to women, which is kind of crazy when you’re thinking about delivering furniture and that kind of thing. But besides owning the business, I deliver all the time, I unload trucks every day. You kind of have to do it all. And then I have to find people who are willing to do those things as well, to take on every aspect of the business.”
Still, despite having to wear so many hats every single day, Spresser says she wouldn’t consider living or working anywhere else. And that dedication to her community and Pauls Furniture was recently recognized and rewarded with a 2019 Synchrony Pillar Award. The Synchrony Pillars Project was created to celebrate small business leaders who “shape their local community, strengthen their economy, and define what it means to be from a particular place.” No truer combination of words could be strung together to describe Spresser and what she’s been able to accomplish in a relatively short period of time as the owner of Pauls Furniture.
“One thing I learned going to the Pillars Project and even just in talking to other retailers — we really are all doing the same thing and we can’t be afraid to reach out to each other or even just a local business,” Spresser says. “I came home from that event and started thinking about it not as a competition. I have my strength, they have their strength, and there may be times where I need a little help or they need a little help. So why not reach out and see if we can help each other? I really think that people would be surprised by what they’re going to find and that there’s good camaraderie in the world.”
Rob is the corporate communications manager for Nationwide Marketing Group.