Spiffy clothing for little ones

Butchers Hill pair's hobby catches the eye of Target chain

July 30, 2008|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

After their daughter was born, Mike and Stephannie Weikert, who live in Butchers Hill, developed a philosophy of "cool clothes for cool babies" and spent about $5,000 from their savings to create a hipster line of baby wear called "Small Roar."

It's mostly onesies and T-shirts emblazoned with simple images: an empty speech balloon symbolizing free speech, a pacifier over the word "pacifist," a heart mom tattoo on a sleeve. It brings in about $500 each month through boutique and Web site sales, but without the resources to reach a mass audience, the three-year-old project run out of their home was always more hobby than business.

The Weikerts were considering closing up shop early this year to concentrate on other things. Then they got an e-mail. From Target. That Target. Now they're hoping to make it their life's work.

Target Corp. buyer Linda Babka contacted the Weikerts in February, saying she wanted to include the products on target.com. Small Roar's clothes began selling there this month.

It's a move many small businesses covet: major exposure by a top retailer and the kind of potential sales that could transform a small operation into a big one.

The baby apparel business is a $300 million industry, which rises to a half-billion-dollar one when all the other infant accessories are added in. Knowing this, Target has been beefing up its baby products during the past few years, retailers said. The Minneapolis company launched an upscale, but affordable, baby boutique online and has been searching for singular collections to add to it ever since, stumbling upon Small Roar online.

"I was in disbelief, I thought, 'This can't be real,'" Mike Weikert said. "It wasn't a scenario we're like actively trying to get in the door, actually, they just contacted us."

Neither Babka nor Target officials responded to requests for comment. The Weikerts said they sell their goods wholesale to Target for about half of their retail price of $15. If the line sells well, they're hoping it would eventually make its way into Target's 1,500 stores.

The days of generic gender-specific pinks and blues, applique trucks and butterflies have given way to more inventive fashion during the past few years, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for research firm NPD Group. Outfitting junior has become more important than outfitting yourself when it comes to making a statement, he said.

That's led to a booming niche industry of baby businesses, particularly in Baltimore. Flexible-soled Rileyroos shoes were created by a Cockeysville couple. The developers of Oh Mama! pregnancy power bars came up with the idea during a walk through their Guilford neighborhood. And Baltimore's Bratt Decor furniture store is so popular, its owner counts Jennifer Lopez and Marcia Cross among her celebrity clients.

Having access to Target.com's customers has the Weikerts daydreaming that their line could be among those well-known ones someday. They're talking about possibly expanding their offerings to include toddlers, new designs, maybe new styles.

"Target's become the new place for cheap chic," Cohen said. "[The Weikerts are going] to sell in one month on target.com what they would be selling in one year in boutiques across the country."

Seattle's SwaddleDesigns, which makes high-end swaddling blankets that have become a favorite among celebrities including Angelina Jolie, gets most of its revenue through boutique and department store sales. But its highest online moneymaker is Target.com.

"They have that loyal customer base," said Jeff Damir, who created the company with his wife in 2003.

They've been selling on Target.com for about three years, after the retailer contacted them. Damir said the outlet could be "an important milestone" for the Weikerts, though he doesn't recommend building a business online alone.

Once the Weikerts realized the Target deal was real, they alerted their three American vendors - the ones who make their clothes, the hang tags and add the designs - that volume could go way up. They're not certain how much business they could handle or how much business they'll get.

No sales reports have come in to confirm Cohen's prediction - or counter it.

"With a company like Target, it could sell 100, could sell 100,000," Mike Weikert said at his home while almost-4 Maya and 18-month-old Eli played nearby. "We just don't know. ... That's the exciting part."

The Weikerts also own a graphic design firm and Mike Weikert is director of the Maryland Institute College of Art's new Center for Design Practice, which gives students and teachers the chance to do real- world work.

They moved to Maryland for MICA, in fact.

The Weikerts met at an Atlanta graphic design firm and married seven years ago. A few years after that, Stephannie encouraged her restless husband to try teaching, and he signed up for a master's in fine arts program at the school, which helped make the Small Roar business a reality. Mike made it his graduate thesis project.

Things just seem to work out like that for them. They're hoping Target, whose buyer stumbled across Small Roar on the Internet, falls in line. "We're just open to whatever happens," Mike Weikert said.

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Small Roar

Business: : a line of baby T's and onesies

Web:: smallroar.com; target.com

Founded: : May 2005

Founders:: Mike and Stephannie Weikert

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