A True Tucson original, Buffalo Exchange, is celebrating its 40th birthday with a unique road trip across America. We ask: what makes this business tick? By Joan Calcagno.
It started tiny, in a 400 square foot store in the University district. Forty years later, one of Tucson’s best exports is going small once more. Buffalo Exchange, the clothing chain that now spans 49 stores and 17 states, is celebrating its 40th birthday with a road trip in a vintage Airstream trailer.
For two and a half months, staff will take the Airstream to each of its stores for a day of celebrations. At each store, the staff will fill the Airstream with vintage western clothing and other treasures, turning it into a roaming, dynamic pop-up shop. And after the retail tour, the Airstream hopes to hit music and art festivals, including Coachella.
Many who shop at Buffalo in Tucson may be surprised by the company’s size, its 750 employees, and the $82 million dollars in sales it brings in each year. In Tucson, the company just added its fourth store, Buffalo Trading Post – a kind of “older sibling” to the original, selling clothes for the older woman.
Yet despite its expansion, each of the 49 stores (46 owned, three franchised) manages to look like a small, independent business. That’s because every one uniquely reflects its location, and is at the same time grounded in the company’s principles. Principles and people appear to be the basis of Buffalo Exchange’s success. And as the company takes to the road for its big 4-0, it will be as much about getting back to these roots as it will be celebrating four decades in the retail fashion business.
Kerstin Block started the company with her husband Spencer in a 400 square foot store in the University area of Tucson on Warren Avenue near Speedway. Now Kerstin and their daughter Rebecca run the company from a head office that occupies seven rehabilitated houses on 6th Street and Helen, just a couple of miles from that first store location.
What sets Buffalo apart from thrift and consignment stores is the buy-sell-trade business model that Kerstin and Spencer created before they opened in 1974. Each Buffalo Exchange store provides their customers a percentage of the selling price (30% cash or 50% in trade) for clothing and accessories they think will sell in the shop.
With this new concept, the store took off right away. “We opened on a lark and the first few months were really fun,” says Kerstin. She had always been a big thrift store shopper. So when they opened, the inventory came mostly from her house. The store location had foot traffic, so people stopped in, shopped, and brought in great stuff to sell. Word spread and it was only a matter of months before Spencer quit his job and they expanded to the space next door. Within a few years they had eight stores, including a second store in Tucson and others in Phoenix, Tempe and the Bay Area. In the 1990s they started to expand to other states. (The company also has two thrift outlets, in Nogales and San Antonio, which do not buy or trade.)
It was at about this time that Rebecca started working full time for Buffalo Exchange. She moved into administration after working at the Tucson stores throughout high school and college. But Rebecca was helping out as early as nine years old. “It was the family business so I did [the little] things that had to be done,” she recalls.
Although Kerstin is responsible for what she calls the “big picture”, she is still very hands-on in scouting new locations. “It doesn’t work otherwise,” she says. She travels to locations being considered for new stores, looking for the same qualities that made those first stores in Tucson a success: a sizable urban, alternative, arty population, and a location close to a university or urban center.
While the team has experimented with the various management theories over the decades, it realized a few years ago that accounting and reporting systems were getting so complicated and rigid that what is really important was getting lost. The 40th anniversary, says Rebecca, is an opportunity to remember that “750 people depend on Buffalo Exchange staying a sustainable, viable business and we can best do that if we stay focused on the values.”
Spencer established those values. He was, by all accounts, a character with character. It’s all there in The Way of the Buffalo, a book of his previously unpublished essays on how to run a socially conscious and profitable business that Kerstin and Rebecca collated after Spencer’s death in 2009. There are pictures of him in some his many Hawaiian shirts, hitchhiking with a Buffalo Exchange sign and a mannequin, and ruminations on how trust, respect, leadership, communication, giving back to the community and having fun at work all make for good business. “We’re very aware of his legacy,” says Kerstin.
One of the primary “Buffalo ways” is functioning in a socially responsible manner. “Being in a sustainable business – buying and trading existing clothing, not creating demand for new textiles – is the most socially responsible thing we do,” says Rebecca.
Also as part of this ethic, the company promotes a number of community-based, environmentally-focused programs. Take its Tokens for Bags program. Shoppers can choose a bag for their purchases, or they can choose a token. They drop the token into one of two or three boxes designated for a local non-profit. Each token is worth five cents. That may not seem like much, but the tokens program has raised nearly $525,000 and kept millions of bags out of the environment. Proceeds benefit local organizations chosen by employees at each store, so the donations stay in the local community.
The stores also donate clothes to local organizations. In Tucson one of these is Youth On Their Own, which provides support services to homeless kids. When The Humane Society of the United States had to discontinue Coats for Cubs – which collects fur pieces to aid animal rehabilitation – Buffalo Exchange took it over.
Each Earth Day, Buffalo Exchange picks a national charity to receive the proceeds from a one-day dollar sale held at each store (it’s April 19th this year in Tucson.) This year, as part of the focus on their roots, proceeds from all the stores will go to the Tucson-based Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
People – customers and employees – are the focus at Buffalo Exchange. Unlike other retail stores that buy their goods from others and then pass it on to the customer, Buffalo’s customers are also their suppliers, so that relationship is critical, say Kerstin and Rebecca.
“Our customers are in business with us. The buying, selling and trading has to be mutually beneficial,” says Rebecca. Part of that, she says, is having a rewarding workplace, which is about “how you treat your employees and your co-workers and your customers. We want to have fun at work and have a good time with our customers, which sometimes can be hard when we aren’t buying [what people have brought in].”
Buffalo Exchange claims to have a much better retention rate than other retailers. “We work a lot on making sure people [who work for us] are growing. That’s one of the founding things – that we have people who have a good understanding of other people,” says Kerstin.
Despite the plethora of secondhand stores that have joined Buffalo Exchange in the retail sector, the company remains “very unique” in its business model, says Art Padilla, Professor in the Management and Organization Department at the Eller College of Business at the University of Arizona. He says that businesses succeed by finding a unique way to provide value to their customers, “and that is exactly what Buffalo Exchange has done”. That, and “knowing what to put in the stores – an eye for what will sell – is key,” he says.
To celebrate their 30th anniversary, Kerstin and Spencer traveled to each store in the small Airstream they owned then, living in it along the way. The Airstream that takes to the road this time is bound to get a lot of attention. Tattoo artist Allyson Bennett created artwork and signage for the outside and all of the interior design and restoration work was done in-house. The maintenance staff gutted and re-wired the 25 foot vintage Airstream. Other employees worked for months to create the interior. Everywhere you look there are interesting visual details, all from salvaged materials, that add to the lustrous restored wood interior. Shelves are made from the tops of vintage suitcases; jewelry is displayed on a rusted crib mattress spring with tiny rusted-metal buffalos welded to the frame for added interest.
The tour kicks off March 7th at the 2001 E. Speedway store in Tucson and ends May 22nd at the store in Boulder, Colorado. Five drivers and five coordinators are driving the trailer to each of the 49 stores. Each store will stock the Airstream when it comes to them for a day, so staff has been buying and saving a lot of what the first stores had when they opened and which is really popular now: fun vintage western-ware, Mexican and other ethnic pieces, hippie/”bo-ho” wear, tooled purses, cowboy boots and other accessories.
While there have been a lot of logistics to deal with for each location, like the parking restrictions in front of the NYC stores, they are “ready to go”, Rebecca says. She and her husband will start the tour and Kerstin will be going to the Minneapolis and Chicago stores.
The main customer base at Buffalo Exchange stores is college-age to about 35 years old. The company’s new Tucson offshoot, Buffalo Trading Post, is aiming a little higher up the age ladder. With the same buy-sell-trade concept, the 3500 sq ft store on the far south-west side of the city sells brands like Chico’s, Eileen Fisher, Coldwater Creek, and Banana Republic. Rebecca Block, who just turned 50, says she walked out with a stack of clothes a couple days after the store opened. (Rebecca and Kristen, 71, shop at the stores just like everyone else.)
Intermingled with the racks of contemporary clothing are mid-century vintage dresses and memorabilia, western ware, Mexican clothes, vintage housewares and accessories. But don’t expect any sparkly, nose-bleed high platform shoes here; instead, the brands are Clarks, Dansko and Keen. And let’s not forget the cowboy boots.
The three women who work at the Buffalo Trading Post have a combined 40 years of BE management experience. Says Amy Ostlie, who manages the store: “It not like work. It’s fun.”
As to the future, Rebecca and Kerstin look about a year ahead. They are scouting locations to open new stores, and after the tour they plan to start taking the Airstream boutique to music and art festivals like Coachella.
And although they are staying deeply rooted in the importance of people and principles, as Rebecca said: “We are always willing to look back to see what worked and always looking around to see what we could be doing. You cannot remain static. Change is inevitable.”
* Find the new Buffalo Trading Post at 2740 S. Kinney Road, just north of Ajo. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9am to 4pm. Follow the 40th Anniversary Tour here.
* For more on Buffalo Exchange, read about the latest recipient of its Visual Arts Award, Brenna Curry, in this issue’s Pleased To Meet You.