Employees: Up to 30
Location: 208 N. Tejon St.
Contact: terraverdestyle.com; 719-444-8621
Some statistics show as many as 80 percent of new businesses don’t live to see their first birthday. So it’s no small feat that Terra Verde celebrated a quarter-century of existence this week.
Founded in 1992 by Chris Sondermann with then-husband Gary, Terre Verde was the couple’s second foray into retail.
Shortly following a move to Colorado Springs in 1980, the Sondermanns opened La Vicuña, a South American import company with a retail and wholesale component, in 300 square feet of space on Bijou Street downtown.
“I’ve worked on this block all those years except a brief sabbatical,” Sondermann said.
In need of more room, La Vicuña moved west on Bijou and began incorporating more variety. The Sondermanns sold the business in 1992 and traveled the globe.
“We’d thought of all these businesses we’d like to do as our next adventure,” she said. “We had come back from traveling, were downtown around the holidays and kept running into old customers who said, ‘You know, you guys should open up another store.’
“It was that time that made us decide we’d like to open another business downtown.”
‘A gut instinct’
“We’re a destination boutique,” is how Sondermann explains her business today. “We’re a business based on long-term relationships and personalized service — and clothing is the engine.”
But Terre Verde goes beyond clothing. It also offers accessories, jewelry, bath and body products, home décor, a kids department and books.
“We change things frequently,” Sondermann said. “We want it to be a discovery experience as you walk through the store. Every time you come in it will look a little different.”
To stay vibrant, she has had to continually evolve, she said.
“The mix has changed. We used to have crafts, pottery, wood items that were hand-carved by American craftsmen,” she said. “We also had an imported furniture component, then domestic. We’re constantly changing our mix to keep things interesting.”
And who decides the mix?
“The customers decide for us,” Sondermann said. “We’re a mom-and-pop, but we track our numbers really well and follow trends.
“When [the] Chinook [bookstore] closed in 2004, we were told by people that they missed books downtown, so we incorporated books here,” she said. “We base those on customer interest, so we have a big cookbook section and a kids book section and inspirational books.
“Our computer verifies a lot of this,” she said, “but there is a gut instinct in purchasing inventory.”
Having been around the block, Sondermann has experienced the undulations of the economy, both locally and nationally.
“My general business philosophy is, ‘Don’t whine about what you can’t change.’ Focus on what you can do as a business and don’t complain you’re down because it’s raining,” she said. “There will always be rain and economic downturns. Focus on factors you can influence.”
Like a significant number of businesses large and small, Terre Verde underwent challenging times during the last recession — but Sondermann adapted.
“We stopped carrying furniture. It had the lowest margin and highest maintenance cost and freight was an issue,” she said. “The freight is a lot lower if you’re a big furniture store ordering in volume, but not when you’re getting bits and pieces.”
‘Ebbs and flows’
In addition to owning the store, Sondermann also owns the building that houses Terre Verde, as well as two adjacent units — Title Nine, a women’s athletic apparel retailer, and the brand-new Martinez Imports, which focuses on gifts and décor from Mexico.
Those shops join an energy downtown that hasn’t been seen in some time, Sondermann said.
“Downtown has its ebbs and flows, but I love downtown. I have a real affinity for it,” she said. “I have enormous respect for the restaurant and business owners down here. They’re a very hard-working group of people. I see their cars out there early and late.”
She said the independent businesses with a sprinkling of “really good corporate entities in the mix” makes for an inclusive retail environment.
“I see Colorado Springs growing up in terms of its character as a city. Downtown is becoming more dense, including residential,” she said. “It’s more sophisticated when it comes to dining. There’s more variety in terms of places to socialize. Now it seems to be taking off. It has hit levels in its demographics and density of population that it’s becoming more like a big city.”
Sondermann said relationships are so important to her business model, she eschews the online shopping model.
“You can call and order something, but we don’t have an ecommerce component,” she said. “We’re entirely built on a brick-and-mortar model. Online is a whole other business, and we really try to focus on Terra Verde and do Terra Verde well.”
Sondermann said she’s researched the ecommerce component, and the logistics are a hindrance.
“I think it would be an inventory nightmare,” she said. “The model for online apparel is, [a customer orders] a bunch of stuff to try on at home. The return rate I investigated can be as high as 58 percent.
“For an independent business like us, that would be an inventory nightmare.”
Sondermann said her model has been tweaked numerous times over the years, and despite being in business a quarter-century, she’s constantly learning.
“People think if you’re around 25 years, you don’t have to think about it anymore — you really have the formula down.
“I can’t say that at all,” Sondermann said. “Sometimes I think, ‘Why is this so hard after all this time?’
“You have to constantly be analyzing and reinventing yourself,” she said. “And be vigilant about your business.”