For Sale: Vermont
By Tom Weaver Article published January 22, 2008
There’s not a beaker or test tube in sight. Instead, the tables and shelves of this laboratory are filled with wool hats, beaded jewelry, beeswax candles and goats’-milk soap. Though Growing Vermont, a student-operated retail store in the Davis Center, is every bit a Green Mountain gift shop, there is also some serious experimentation going on at the business and among the myriad entrepreneurs whose products stock its shelves.
Experiments mean trial and error. Tie-dye shirts, seemingly a wardrobe staple on a campus, haven’t found much of a market. The eight-ounce brick of Cabot cheddar? Not for students on the go. A graduate student’s spare-time efforts in jewelry making? Bestseller.
“We’re a start-up,” says Michael Moser, a research specialist in the Center for Rural Studies who is project director for the student-operated store. “Any entrepreneur would agree; you go along and you see what works.”
Sorry, no ice cream
Moser first got involved with creating a student-run business in the Davis Center while he was a graduate student in community development and applied economics. The original vision was to open a student-run café.
“Funky, alternative, sort of a Radio Bean on campus,” Moser recalls.
But some balked at the demands a food service operation would pose for an inexperienced, time-strapped undergraduate staff. Another popular thought: resurrect the UVM-brand ice cream worshipped by generations of students at the erstwhile Carrigan Dairy Bar. That idea would fall to practical concerns, as well, a business analysis suggesting the numbers just weren’t there.
The Vermont products store eventually emerged as a way to give students real-world experience with entrepreneurship and also support Vermont business and agriculture. Both goals square nicely with the missions of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Community Development and Applied Economics Department and Center for Rural Studies.
Moser took the idea to Professor Jane Kolodinsky, chair of CDAE and co-director, with Professor Fred Schmidt, of the Center for Rural Studies. “Jane must have been insane to let me give it a shot,” Moser admits, but she encouraged him to take the next steps. That meant enlisting the help of students in community entrepreneurship classes in CDAE to create a business plan for Growing Vermont. “We delved into real problems, got our hands dirty, and came up with numbers,” Moser says.
Jeffrey Doane, a 2007 CDAE graduate with retail experience from working in snowboard shops in his native New Jersey, is full-time manager at the store, overseeing day-to-day operations with Moser. Undergraduates Erin Schumacher and Mark Paglierani have been the store’s first student workers, taking on levels of responsibility that will grow as the operation matures.
Paglierani stumbled on his Growing Vermont job through work-study but praises the experience he’s found. A student in the Rubenstein School, he’s heartened by how the store’s “buy local” ethics are in synch with lessons he takes from environmental classes. Schumacher, a business major, has also found a chance to put what she’s learned into action. “Because the horizontal power structure is very small, I really feel as though I have a direct impact on the store with my marketing efforts,” she says. “We have to be creative with our efforts and really try to think what exactly the customers want and what will bring them in.”
Though Growing Vermont carries well-established Vermont brands such as Cabot Cheese and Lake Champlain Chocolates, many more of the roughly 50 vendors are fledgling businesses. For some of them, even creating an invoice is new territory. So beyond selling their products, the students of Growing Vermont will help these new entrepreneurs with bigger-picture work such as developing marketing strategies and business plans.
Finding the niche
So, with a semester behind them, how is all of this retail experimentation working out? There have been some good signs, Moser says — holiday sales were brisk, and he projects Growing Vermont might even reach its three-year break-even target ahead of time.
But there have also been some start-up challenges. The Davis Center doesn’t exactly offer the tourist foot-traffic of Church Street, and the first floor hallway connected to the Main Street tunnel is a quieter corner of the building.
Finding their market is also a work-in-progress, Moser says. While students represent the vast majority of those passing through the Davis Center daily, many of Growing Vermont’s products are more likely to appeal to older consumers — faculty, staff or visitors to the university. That fact has been borne out by spikes in sales during Homecoming and Parent Weekend, or when conferences are held in Davis. “We’re working to find our ultimate look and feel,” Moser says.
One group that has had little trouble finding Growing Vermont — the vendors. Moser says every time the store receives publicity, he can expect to hear from 10 or 15 people interested in selling their products in the store.
Nell Campbell, a graduate student in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, initially sold her handmade jewelry on consignment. Quickly, her “Made by Nell” pieces became one of Growing Vermont’s bestsellers. Though most of her time is spent on classes and research into carbon associated with biofuel crops in Vermont, she’s happy to “take a mental break and do something crafty every once in a while.”
And a little extra income never hurt a grad student. “Growing Vermont has been very supportive,” Campbell says. “I feel like it’s been a positive learning experience for all involved.”