With a degree in Elementary Education, she debated getting back into the teaching profession or doing something entirely different. “I prayed a lot about which direction I should go, thinking perhaps I could focus on some sort of ministry work but also do something that might bring in a little income. With five children, I thought it would be great if I could help pay for future weddings or allow my husband to retire a few years earlier!”
But owning a handbag store was not on her radar screen at all.
Susan’s father-in-law passed away from cancer in early 2007, shortly before she started her soul-searching. Several months later, her sister-in-law called and asked if she would bring her two daughters to Minneapolis in her father-in-law’s honor for a cancer foundation fundraiser.
“We made it a girls’ weekend and I was so moved by the Sara’s Dance Foundation and their mission, which is to build a wellness center in the Minneapolis area to serve women who are seriously ill and/or fighting cancer,” said Susan. “I loved it! I stood in the ballroom that night thinking, ‘I want to be a part of this!’”
She knew the co-founders of Sara’s Dance Foundation owned “some handbag store.” She knew nothing about the store, but figured there must be some connection, considering the people involved. The excitement led her to meet the founders that night. “I actually said to the women at our table, ‘Maybe I should open a handbag store and then maybe I will be involved with the Foundation that way,’” said Susan. “I figured, how tough can it be to be a store-owner,” she laughed. “You must just shake someone’s hand and start selling handbags. I could welcome people in as if I was welcoming them into my home.”
Susan came back to Bismarck and started emailing Cindy Deuser and Sue Olmscheid, co-founders of Lillians, the handbag store she learned about at the Sara’s Dance Foundation event, about the possibility of opening a store in Bismarck. At the time, the franchise was not yet available in North Dakota, but was soon to be. Ten months later, the first weekend of August 2008, the first Lillians in North Dakota opened in Bismarck.
The Lillians franchise was started by the two sisters from Minnesota who were looking for something ‘fun’ to do one weekend a month. They opened a handbag store that was only open four days a month and have now expanded the selection to include a wide variety of fabulous fashion, jewelry and many accessories. The first store opened in 2005 and the franchise has grown into 39 shoppes and counting.
There were many steps Susan had to take before the Lillian’s doors opened, but Lillians had an operations manual set up with everything mapped out. “I had to take a profile-survey to see if I matched what the company was looking for,” she said. “They discovered I was a good match for working with people, but questioned if I was going to be getting some help with the business side of things. I am sure my accountant had a few laughs over me the first year. She just told me to do what I do well and they would take care of the rest. Thank heavens for helpful people!”
Susan also found immediate support from her husband, Gary. “He has always been the realist in our marriage,” she said. “I’ve been known to have some crazy and idealistic ideas now and then, so I count on him to bring reality to many situations. He came to Minneapolis with me to Lillians Passion Day, an informational day for very interested parties considering joining the franchise. He knew to ask the tough questions that I didn’t want to ask. He is also supportive in helping out more at home since I am not as available there as I used to be.”
Until she opened her store in Bismarck, Susan carried the same handbag for about a year at a time. “I really didn’t care,” she said. “It was just something I put my ‘stuff’ in. It usually had to be brown or black so it would go with most things. Obviously, that has changed now. I have discovered there is far too much ‘fun and personality’ in a handbag to have just one each year!”
Susan quickly realized there is no direct connection between the Lillians shoppes and Sara’s Dance Foundation. However, each individual shoppe has the option to donate, but, most importantly, the Lillians founders encourage each franchisee to get involved in their own communities and find ways to give back. Schwieters hooked up immediately with the Bismarck Cancer Center Foundation, held a fundraiser within the first months of opening and has since held a Diva Night fundraiser for the Foundation each year.
But that is not the only organization she has helped. Countless non-profit organizations and individuals have benefited from Lillians Diva Nights and private events. Schwieters held eight fundraisers last November and December alone. “We do events for kids who are looking to raise money for mission trips and band trips, individual cancer survivors, as well as non-profit organizations,” she explained. “People can schedule private events with Lillians and at the end of the night we look at the till tape and write them a check for 10 percent of that evening’s sales. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out I am not writing checks for thousands of dollars at a time, but it all adds up. Lillians is a little shoppe, but the value of what we do goes far beyond the money a group can make, especially when girlfriends, family members and friends come together to support and cheer someone on.”
She said she has gained many valuable lessons as a shoppe owner. “I have learned so much through owning Lillians. I never thought I would be where I am, but each stage of our lives can bring new and exciting things to our journeys,” said Susan. “Regardless of age or where we are in life, we shouldn’t stop meeting and helping people and making a difference in the world. I look back to my roots where service to others has always been important. My parents lived a conservative life where kindness and love toward others was of the utmost importance. I have now surrounded myself with family and friends who have that same attitude. I figure if I have been blessed, then it is only right to give back.”
Working Hard and Having Fun
The concept of being open only four days a month was somewhat of a motivator for Susan. She does not, however, work only four days a month. “I doubt that I would have considered it if it would have been a traditional retail store where I needed to be on site every day for 12 hours. Having flexibility is wonderful. Many people are surprised at how many hours my employees and I put in each week to get ready for our four-day event each month,” she said. “It is really a full-time job for me. I spend three or four hours a day on the computer, then go to the shoppe and spend several hours unpacking, pricing, displaying, marketing for the next event. The week of our event we spend many, many hours at the shoppe.”
Two years ago, Lillians of Bismarck was one of the test stores that introduced clothing into its inventory. “The clothing has really taken off,” said Susan. “Originally, we had six vendors we were buying from; we now have 90. Those various lines collectively are named ‘Moon Goon—-the fashion side of Lillians.’ Selecting each month’s new inventory is probably one of the most stressful parts of my job. I sort through thousands and thousands of pieces trying to figure out what our customers want, which ones will give us the best quality for the best price so we can pass it forward. I look to my customers for input and feedback.”
There are many options in the apparel at Lillians. Shoppers can find everything from everyday camisoles, leggings and cardigans to boutique-style tunics, dresses and tops, all at Lillians’ affordable prices.
As a Lillians franchisee, Susan has followed the store’s “recipe” from the beginning and yet has found ways to bring her own personality into the store. Different colored balloons are put out each time they are open to symbolize a party going on, and women have learned to watch for those balloons. Everyone who enters the store is greeted by a, ‘Hello, welcome to Lillians!’ and tunes by the old crooners, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Sometimes Susan gets out her megaphone and calls out a random special, and the “Lillians’ virgin bell” rings on a regular basis. Cookies and coffee are always available and entering the store is like being welcomed into her home.
Since Lillians is a women’s gathering place, Susan and the store’s patrons make it a big deal when a man walks through the door. Susan rings the “man bell” and announces very loudly, “Oh ladies, there’s a man in the store!”
“Every once in awhile we get someone who thinks we are dissing him and thinks he is supposed to leave, but more often than not, we have men coming in pumping their fists and getting into it,” she said. “It is just our way of making sure they get a little attention, too. Then we lead him to the ‘man chair,’ give him a hunting or fishing magazine and offer him coffee. Most men are great sports and the longer they stay, the more they realize why the women love being here!”
Susan’s family has always called her ‘The Cheerleader,’ something that may have its roots in her younger years. “My three older sisters were allowed to be on the cheerleading squad as tenth graders,” she explained. “However, I desperately wanted to try out for the squad as a ninth grader. I was reluctant to bring my desire to my parents. Eventually I did and was allowed the earlier start! It all prepared me to be my kid’s #1 cheerleader in the stands these last 20 years,” she said.
Now, Susan has turned herself into a cheerleader for the community, holding fundraising events and creating a fun atmosphere in her shoppe. “I love what I’m doing, what we’ve become,” she said. “I love my customers and the anticipation each four-day event brings. I am not sure who gets more excited, us or them.”
When women come into Lillians they are welcomed with open arms. “We are a women’s gathering place,” said Susan. “There is social healing that happens here. Women are laughing and hopefully they feel a little light hearted or happier when they leave.”
She has painted on the wall the phrase, “Together…. Scatter Joy” and she hopes women take the opportunity to scatter joy after they leave and make a difference in someone’s life.
Susan summed up the last few years this way: “I pray about my business a lot. I pray for wisdom and guidance. I asked the Lord to be my business partner, to help me in all aspects involved in owning my shoppe. Without the grace and help I have received, the last three-and-a-half years would look completely different,” she said.
“It all goes back to when I was wondering where I was being led. I remember asking, ‘Can retail be a form of ministry?’ I now realize it can be. I have the opportunity to reach out in various ways to every person that walks through our doors,” said Susan. “One of my favorite quotes by Mother Teresa is written on one of my walls in the shoppe, and it sums up so much, ‘Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless!’”
“Yes,” she continued. “I call this a ministry.”
Lillians is located at 108 N. 5th Street, downtown Bismarck.