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Retail Therapy

Retail Therapy

Debbie Swan keeps cash registers humming at the Pink-A-Dilly

Pink-A-Dilly Gift Shop, located at Baxter Health in Mountain Home, glows like a polished gem, its collection of gifts tastefully arranged in its massive windows. Employees on their lunch break or on their way home frequently browse here, as do loved ones of patients receiving care, all warmly greeted by a smiling volunteer in a yellow shirt.

You can find the usual get-well mementos at Pink-A-Dilly: a card, a box of candy, stuffed animals. But the shop has a much more elegant, upscale vibe than is typical of such stores, thanks to the handpicked inventory and years-long merchandising expertise of Debbie Swan, manager.

“I like to offer things that are unique, that nobody else has,” she said. “I’ve always gone with quality rather than price. You have to have a fair price, but if you get something cheap, you’re going to get it right back. You want people to enjoy what they have.”

Swan, who’s been at the helm of the shop for two decades, is a walking master class in retailing. Any aspect of the store today, from the inventory to the upgraded registers to the very design of the shop itself, has all come to pass on her watch. And as the store moves into its newest chapter, online retailing, she’s at the head of that parade too, as foreign as it might feel at times.

“It’s a different animal. I’m from the generation that didn’t grow up with a cell phone in my hip pocket,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been here long enough I remember when they didn’t want to do credit cards in here.

“For me to learn a platform other than brick-and-mortar is a challenge, but a good challenge. I’m learning it, and I will learn more as we go. I’m all for it.”

It is this very attitude of continuous learning that has allowed Swan, and the store she considers her own, to thrive. Her retail education goes back to her 20s and her native Illinois, where she landed a job in a local landmark store.

“A German family had this big shoe store,” she said. “It was huge — men’s, women’s, children — and I worked there for eight years. That was how I learned how to work with people. This was back in the day when you sat on the stool and measured the foot. I became the buyer for men’s shoes. I also dressed the windows for them.”

Shopping for shoes in this bygone era was a far cry from what most people experience today. Sales clerks were consultants in fashion and function, learning the inventory in order to make style recommendations and understanding how to size feet for the proper fit.

“When you buy a shoe, it’s a personal thing,” Swan said. “You’re trying to find the fit for that person and you learn what people like. Also, you help them learn what’s good for them because sometimes they don’t know; they just needed a pair of shoes.

“There were lots of times a lady would come in and say she was a size 8 when really, she was a size 8 ½. You learned to notice that and bring out a range of sizes just to show her what fit the best.”

In addition to dealing with the public, Swan also learned the behind-the-scenes art and science of inventory.

“They had great quality stuff in there,” she said. “I really learned how to recognize a good product.”

Life took Swan to Hawaii briefly then to Lakeview, Arkansas, to be closer to her retired parents. There, she waitressed out of necessity while keeping a sharp eye out for her next retail position. Once she spotted it, she was relentless.

“I would always go by that Harp’s grocery store in Bull Shoals, and I would go in there and ask the manager if he needed help,” she said. “Finally, he hired me; first I became the closing manager, and then they made me the general merchandise manager.”

Tasked with ordering every non-food item in the store, Swan dove into the marketing aspect of the job with gusto, designing huge seasonal displays aimed at the many tourists visiting the area’s lakes.

“I love doing displays,” she said. “I put all kinds of floats and masks and all kinds of summery stuff up. That was the job that really taught me how to price things, what to put on sale, how to mark things down.”

Swan briefly accepted a job with Walmart before Baxter Health called about their gift shop manager vacancy. In taking over Pink-A-Dilly, the profits of which are earmarked for Baxter Health Foundation coffers, Swan resolved to make the store a destination retail experience.

“It was a closed-wall gift shop, and there were two square window boxes,” she said of the old days. “In 2005, we went from a 900-square-foot shop to a 1,300-square-foot shop. They broke out the solid walls and put in glass window walls, which made all the difference in the world. Instead of people walking past, they came in. They saw something in the window, and it brought them in.”

Swan also adjusted the inventory levels to help reduce what was being sold on clearance, especially seasonal items.

“I noticed right away we had the biggest sale after Christmas because they were used to ordering 12 of this and 24 of that,” she said. “I don’t do that. I get three of something and two of something and four of something. Then you can get more variety and less quantity.”

Most retail workers Swan’s age are enjoying retirement or have burned out altogether. But between the customers and the volunteers whom she credits with the store’s success and the ability to do the work she loves most, she has no intention of surrendering the keys anytime soon.

“We wouldn’t have a successful shop if it weren’t for the volunteers,” she said. “I tell them, this is your shop. I let them do some displays if they like to. Different people are good at different things, so I use their talents.

“It’s nice to give the customers what they want. We’ve got the nurses here who come in, and so I like to put uplifting things in the window. People have so much negativity going on in their lives that we need to read positive signs and things that build you up, not tear you down. That’s what I like to have.” 

Photography by James Moore