Written Spring 2017:
There are a lot of things that change in West Chester from year to year or even season to season. However, there’s one thing that remains constant: the open invitation that KALY Clothing, located at 37 W. Gay Street, has provided customers for the past 29 years.
KALY has been owned by Polly Zobel for the past three years. Before then, the store was owned by Polly’s mother: Holly Brown. The duo started the store back in 1988. The name of this small, family business comes from a combination of Polly’s name and her sister Katie.
The store itself is half clothes and half everything else. “Everything else,” as Zobel describes, includes jewelry, handbags and gifts. They carry many organic, fair-trade and American-made clothing. One thing that makes KALY stand out is that they sell clothes with a piece of mind.
“When I took over the store, I really expanded the sustainable, organic, handmade and fair trade lines. I also brought in a lot of local artists. That completely sets us apart, because no one in town has really done that. That’s where I see a huge opportunity for success because there is so many people who care about where their clothes come from. I have always cared about this. All of my life, I looked for things that were handmade- items that were different, maybe organic, or had less chemicals in them. It’s even more important now. There’s a big movement towards this,” says Zobel.
Popular clothing brands that the store carries include Jag, Salaam and Janska. They also carry gifts from Curly Girl Designs, Chocolate and Steel and Blue Q.
KALY sure does have an abundant amount of gifts. They’ve got a little bit of everything from candles and socks, to necklaces that are made out of piano wire (a new line to them called Sea Lily). They really care about their customers, and they try to offer them something different.
“We’ve seen a lot of businesses come and go and one thing we’ve tried to do is fill a niche. For example, there was a lack of gift stores in town so we incorporated gifts,” said Zobel. “There’s a number of reasons why we have stayed in business for so long- one reason being that we have adapted to the change that West Chester has gone through. The town did not have much of a thriving retail at the time that we first opened. When we started the store, there was not much in town. There were maybe four or five restaurants, and now there are about 60. The downtown has really developed over the past 29 years. Building this town into what it is today has been a lot of work for a lot of people.”
“The university has become more prestigious too. West Chester University now offers a higher quality of education. They are getting students that could have gone to other institutions. However, these students are choosing West Chester University. In the past, WCU was known as a teaching college, but not so much anymore.”
Zobel attributes much of the town of West Chester’s success to the Business Improvement District. Notable additions to the town over the past 30 years include Hotel Warner and Iron Hill Brewery; however one thing Zobel believes that dramatically improved the town was the Business Improvement District. She believes that they’ve done a lot of marketing in town and have made an effort to get good retail into the town.
“I was amazed when people would walk in and say that they were coming to visit West Chester. Nobody came to visit West Chester, nobody just came to West Chester for the day—to shop and eat—and now they do.”
Another reason that KALY has stayed so successful is that they care about all of the customers that walk into the store each day. Their goal is to cater to the downtown, for the people that live within the borough. Residents become regular customers, and sometimes even friends.
“We’ve built a relationship with the town over the years, so we have a really loyal customer base. When I took over, I didn’t want to drastically change the store because I didn’t want to lose that relationship. I wanted people to still identify with the KALY brand that they remember, but just take it up a few notches,” said Zobel.
A lot has changed since Zobel took over the store three years ago. She renovated the store with new carpets and lighting, as well as made the systems electronic.
“When I took over, me and my mom sat down to talk about how to improve KALY. We came up with a list, and one of the things was that I needed to renovate the store completely. I gave it a fresh, new look. We also brought gifts back because we had gotten rid of gifts. I also updated the social media pages because my mom didn’t touch those,” says Zobel.
A big change that Zobel made was making the inventory and accounting system electronic, as well as integrating a POS system.
“Up until three years ago, inventory was done manually and all sales were written on sales slips. All of the inventory was in books on sheets of paper. At the end of the day, we would have to manually take every piece of inventory and mark it out. The store would close at 6 p.m. but we would have to spend 45 minutes after that doing the inventory,” Zobel described.
There was a lot of good that came with making the system electronic.
There is a lot that sets KALY apart from other retail stores in town and they surprisingly do not face a lot of competition.
“I think if you were going to brand KALY, it’s not about trends. It’s about finding clothes and items for your life that you will love and wear time and time again. They’re not going to go out of style, and they’re going to be good quality. But they are going to be fun and funky. We don’t compete much with any of our neighbors because we have a different goal,” says Zobel. “I’ve really tried these past three years to find more and more lines that are affordable because organic can be expensive or ill-fitting. I think that really is the main thing that sets us apart at this point. We’ve really gone down that road of finding items that are sustainable and eco-conscious.”
Zobel has a lot of ideas for the future of KALY, including an immediate goal of making an online shop. She’s also thinking about opening a second store in the next five to ten years.
“My main immediate goal is to get back online and allow customers to purchase items on the web. I’d really like to fine tune KALY a little bit more, and I am still toying with the idea of opening up another store down the road,” she says.
“We used to have a second store down in Stone Harbor, NJ. We did that for three or four summers. It’s a lot of work, and it was awhile ago- when I was in my twenties. I would live down there all summer and have a lot of fun. We would rent out a place and I would set up in the beginning of the summer and close it down at the end of the summer. It’s a whole different game- the whole seasonal thing. I still toy with that idea, or maybe finding a second spot closer to the city so that we can expand our reach.”
One way that KALY has made a brand within itself is through creating custom, screen printed baby onesies. Jen Saller and Jeannie Nelson, two sales associates that have been with the store for many years, have recently started their own venture. After taking a screen printing class, they are now screen printing organic baby onesies with many slogans, including “West Chester.”
Zobel’s work is far from done, and she is looking forward to the future of KALY.
“I think there is an opportunity to brand what we are doing, not a franchise, but making my idea more established, and I would like to do the same thing in another town. I think you’d need a town similar to West Chester, that cares about that sort of thing.”
By Amanda Saleh