Change Agent

Donna and Art Milstein work hard to fill their stores with artwork that appeals to a range of customers. Credit: El Matha Wilder.

Level-headed, hard-charging and with seemingly endless reserves of energy, Donna Milstein, co-owner with her husband Art of Hanson Galleries in Houston, Texas, has come exceedingly close since the competition’s inception to winning NICHE magazine’s Top Retailer of the Year award. In 1995, she was named a Top 100 Retailer. That was followed by 10 consecutive wins in either the Top 100 or Top 10 listings. In 2009, she won a special NICHE Award for best customer newsletter.

Last August, during Buyers Market of American Craft award ceremonies in Baltimore, she finally got her wish, taking top honors as the 2010 Retailer of the Year. But rest on her laurels? Milstein doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase. She readily admits she has lots of work to do to maintain her Top Retailer status. “You’re only as good as your weakest employee,” she says. In addition to finding even more staff members who are the perfect fit for her two gallery locations, Milstein is also reconsidering the core of her marketing plan.

For the first time in several years, she has increased her stores’ marketing budgets. “We were depending too heavily on e-newsletters,” she explains. Although she says they are extraordinarily cost-efficient—and effective—she’s returned to print advertising in select publications, and to direct mailings. With an e-mail list of 4,500 and a direct-mail list of 10,000, it makes sense—she’s able to reach a wider audience, even if it means higher costs and a bit more waiting to see a return on investment.

Milstein has also expanded the scope of what marketing her galleries includes. To reach customers in a younger demographic (under age 30, in particular), she takes Hanson Galleries on the road—literally—exhibiting at shows like the Houston Ballet’s annual Nutcracker Market, which officially kicks off the holiday season, and participating in off-site charity events. “These venues gain us instant new customers, and we charge the expenses to advertising and promotion,” she says.

Milstein sets Hanson Galleries apart from the competition through careful inventory selection, merchandising and, above all else, customer service. “There’s a continuity,” she explains. “We’re always there for the customer.” And who are they exactly? Mainly 35- to 65-year-olds who appreciate handmade objects, she says. “Our core customers have gotten grayer.” And that’s exactly why you’ll find her and her staff out in the community at local events: to engage a younger customer base.

When it comes to hiring new employees, Milstein takes a similar tack. “I can’t remember ever hiring someone who wasn’t already a store customer,” she attests. “They love the things they sell, they like the atmosphere of the store, and they really like the customers.” To top it off, Hanson Galleries also offer a generous vacation policy and flexible schedules to accommodate employees’ needs, she says.

The Milsteins opened the first Hanson Galleries location in 1977, and a second one within the next two years. They came armed with experience in big-business fashion retailing, and approached their new venture as such. “That big business attitude gave us stature from the start,” she says. “Then we grew into it.”

And the couple’s dedication continues. At age 80, Art still works every day in the store, just as he has for the past 33 years. “As it turned out, we never got rich on the business,” Milstein says, “but it does afford us to live happily. The craft movement has served us well and I’m driven to give back all the knowledge and energy I can to the industry.”

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