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Posted: March 01, 2010

On Small Biz: Eco-politan picks up where modern mommy gear left off

Mike Taylor

With crying babies creating an apt soundtrack for a store specializing in "eco-friendly gear for the modern mom," eco-POLITAN owner Robin Morris held court from behind the cash register the last Sunday in January, expounding on the merits of cloth diapers versus the disposable variety.

"I'm going to try to it," one young woman said, gathering her goods and heading toward the door.

"Call me if you have any questions about washing them," Morris said.

When I last talked to Robin Morris for a small-biz column in March 2009, she had left her corporate job with a telecom company to launch an online store, ModernMommyGear.com, specializing in eco-friendly baby products. Unlike a lot of online retailers, Morris actually stocked her 600-square-foot basement with the products she sold and gave demonstrations to fellow moms who more often than not became regular customers.

A year later, Morris has expanded beyond her online/basement model and opened eco-POLITAN in the Lakewood City Commons across from the Belmar shopping center. It's an expanded brick-and-mortar version of what she started doing at home when her first child, Levi, was about 6 months old.

"I stocked up on a few things I thought would be better sellers in a store like this," Robin said, "things like wooden toys, which online are very heavy to ship."

Levi, a test pilot for so many of the baby products that earned a spot on eco-POLITAN's shelves, is now 2½ years old, and the Morrises also have 4-month-old daughter Bianca, who was in the care of husband Paul Morris during much of eco-POLITAN's first weekend of business.

"I'm the lone free employee," Paul said, as he walked around the store with his daughter resting on his shoulder. There also are two paid employees, both product users and "expert moms" as Robin Morris puts it.

"I actually started with great clients who have become great friends," she says of her two employees.

The economy has caused a lot of businesses to close and countless others to delay getting off the ground at all. But the recession was actually an impetus for eco-POLITAN's launch. Their first thought of the store came when Paul was laid off from his IT job early in 2009.

"I said, ‘Well, this might be a good time to do it because we could do it together,'" Robin recalled thinking. Paul found work within two months, so they put the idea on hold.

Then in July, ModernMommyGear.com had its best month ever - about $5,000 in diaper sales alone. They decided it was time.

"I felt like, ‘OK, things are on the upswing even though the rest of the economy is going down,'" says Robin, 35, who figures baby products will prove somewhat recession-resistant. "People have babies no matter what. They can cut some costs, but there's just some things that you can't get away with."

The depressed commercial real estate market also made it a buyer's market for tenants looking for retail space.

"I think in the peak of the economy this would have been a little more risk than I would have been comfortable taking on," Robin says. "But we got a pretty decent deal; we'll give it a shot."

By the time I stopped in on eco-POLITAN the day after the grand opening, it seemed most of the work behind the scenes had been accomplished, the next big challenge being to price and mark everything in the store.

"Everything you see here was in the basement," Paul said. "It was stacked to the gills. I rented the biggest U-Haul you can get without a commercial driver's license, and we moved everything in about a day. We had a lot of help from friends."

Of course, the launch of eco-POLITIAN means a newly vacant basement full of possibilities for the Morrises.

"He wants to make it into a poker room," Robin Morris said. "We talked about it. It is an unfinished basement. If the store does well, maybe that can be my return favor, to thank him for supporting my idea to open a store."

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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