Enthusiastic and always brimming with new ideas, Ramesh Wahi says there is no substitute for hard work and honesty. These attributes “can take you anywhere,” says Wahi. But there’s another big key to his success: his “keep it fresh, keep it new” approach to business. For Wahi, specialty retail success is all about change. Every major event, new fashion craze, cool new product, or societal trend can turn into a successful business venture. By staying on top of the trends, keeping his eyes open and always looking for new business ideas, he continually reinvents his business, always thinking about his next move. “When you start a new concept, you have to begin looking for another one right away,” he says. “You have to keep asking yourself: What’s next?”
The first venture
Wahi was not always in specialty retail. During his first year in the United States, he took a blue-collar job working the assembly line at the Owattana Manufacturing Company in Owattana, MN. A creative and energetic go-getter, he quickly realized he would have a much brighter future if he owned his own business.
He moved his family (a wife and two children) to the suburbs of Waseca, MN, where his brother, Chander, also lived. “I started by selling disposable lighters from the trunk of my car,” he laughs. But he soon teamed up with Chander to start a distribution business that sold small electronic appliances—mostly calculators, watches, telephones and alarm clocks. Over the course of 10 years, the brothers built up the business, expanding their distribution network to four states.
In the meantime, they opened a convenience store and bought a liquor store in their hometown. “We made headway in all three ventures,” says Wahi. How did they find the time to manage three businesses? “We assigned job responsibilities among the family—my brother, his wife, me and my wife,” explains Wahi. “There’s a lot of strength in the family when they’re all together.” Wahi and his wife, Asha, have two children in their mid-20s, a daughter, Arti, and a son, Dinesh. “Both children have been helping out with the business since they were little,” says Wahi. In 1991 the Wahi brothers sold the electronics business and Chander took over the stores. “We both wanted to do bigger things,” he says.
Ramesh’s bigger thing was a watch store, City Time, in downtown Minneapolis, 65 miles from Waseca. It was “a long commute, but it was worth it,” he says. Always looking for new ideas, Wahi decided that the sidewalk space in front of City Time was a perfect spot to set up a cart. An art enthusiast, Wahi thought that T-shirts would be a great way to promote the work of up-and-coming local artists. City Shirts was born. As sales increased, he started importing Aboriginal art from Australia and the business became a big success. Soon Wahi had four City Shirt locations in Minnesota.
Then something wonderful happened. The Mall of America opened in Bloomington, MN, in 1992. With a large specialty retail program, the Mall offered Wahi the chance to apply his experience running carts in a new mall that promised millions of visitors a year. His City Shirts RMU opened and was a huge success, so naturally he kept expanding, within the Mall of America and into other malls as well. At one point in 1996, he had 28 RMUs and kiosks with various concepts in malls across the country, from Alaska to Washington, DC. But the Mall of America was the place where Wahi wanted to be, so he pared down his locations to focus on that center. (Although he does currently have one additional location, a City Shirts in-line in Southdale Shopping Center in Edina, MN.)
“If there’s a mall to be in, it’s the Mall of America,” he says. But success in specialty retail means more than just opening and waiting for customers, he adds. “The presentation of products should stop the customer as he is walking by,” he says. “It is very important to bring in new products. You don’t want to have the same product every year. I always try to bring in special, niche products.” If he sees sales starting to drop and spies a trend taking off, he’ll close one concept and open another.
“Being in the specialty retail business, you have to be a visionary of what’s coming,” he says. “Ask yourself: What am I doing differently than the next person?” Wahi says trade shows are excellent sources of inspiration, but he also consults magazines and television shows, and listens closely at social events and while chatting with other specialty retailers. In the early 1990s, while running his successful City Time and City Shirts ventures, Wahi noticed a trend towards land conservation and environmentalism. He immediately started Precious Earth, a store selling “everything wildlife,” including apparel, home décor, tabletop items and a host of earth-friendly products.
“The major strength of specialty retailers is that we can move fast,” says Wahi. “It takes mass merchandisers a while to make a decision, while we can bring in new products almost immediately.” When stores like Wal-Mart or Sears pick up on a trend, specialty retailers must find ways to fend off competition. “If the bigger stores bring in something similar, we look for a better-quality , to distinguish ourselves from them,” he says. “We can’t beat their prices, but we can offer better quality.”
Naturally, while Precious Earth was still raking in the sales, Wahi was already looking for a new concept. During his numerous trips to trade shows, he noticed a lot of interest in gifts handmade by artisans in developing countries. That observation led to South of the Border, where he sold goods imported from Guatemala—handbags, hats, home décor products, purses and a lot of jewelry. “They were very hot items, especially among teenagers,” he says. Then came Liquid Color, another teenage concept, selling all the things “desperately needed” by teenage girls: colorful fashion purses, decorative make-up, temporary tattoos, sparkly jewelry and flamboyant hats. “I read a lot of fashion magazines,” says Wahi. “I also keep my eyes open when I’m traveling.” Over the years he’s also owned Lighthouse (a candles RMU) and Silver Images (an RMU selling silver jewelry and amber).
“You have to learn from other people and add your own twist,” he says. “There are six zillion candles on the market. Don’t just copy someone else. Think of how you can sell the product better.”
He also says specialty retailers have to work closely with mall management to fine-tune operations. The specialty leasing managers at the Mall of America, Kathy Roche previously and Lisa Taylor now, have helped him grow his businesses in numerous ways. Wahi says a good relationship with mall management in crucial. “Both parties should work hand in hand. It creates a motivated environment,” he says. “Retailers should not pretend they know everything. The management has a lot of information and knowledge that can help. Take their advice.”
Trends mean business
In 1999 Wahi opened New Millennium with all products related to the grandest New Year’s Eve of all time. “There was a great push for Millennium products,” he says. Wahi stocked everything millennium-oriented—shot glasses, wine glasses, humor T-shirts, mugs, lighted hats, countdown clocks, and even the Millennium beanie baby. Two years later, when the country was hit by the terrorist attacks on September 11th, there was a huge demand for patriotic products: hats, T-shirts, flags, mugs and lapel pins. City Shirts already printed shirts with the American Flag (with most sales during the Labor Day weekend and the 4th of July), but when demand shot up post-9/11, Wahi not only started printing more but also opened a new in-line, American Pride, which stocked all kinds of patriotic gifts.
“Why should customers go to fifteen different places if we can provide all these products under one roof?” asks Wahi rhetorically. Even when mass retailers ran out of products, Wahi was able to keep the stock pouring in, thanks to the business contacts he made at trade shows and a “library” of vendors he had built up over the years.
After a CNN broadcast on American Pride profiled Wahi, “We were swamped,” he recalls. “Everyone else was running out of flags and T-shirts. It was such a pleasure to see that people could come to me, teary-eyed, and buy the patriotic products they wanted.”
With consumers’ burgeoning interest in NASCAR, Wahi’s latest concepts include Motor Madness, an in-line that in addition to selling NASCAR novelty items stocks more than 2,000 car-related items including key chains, hats and T-shirts.
Another Wahi in-line store is Choppers Town USA, based on the popular “American Chopper” motorcycle reality show on the Discovery Channel. “At one point these products were so hot, I had three locations of the same Choppers Town at the Mall of America,” says Wahi. He also owns Got A Light, an RMU that stocks cigarette lighters in 2,000 different designs. City Shirts now has two locations within the Mall: an RMU and an in-line store. A third RMU, Hat Shark, sells hats.
As to his plans for the future, Wahi says his son, Dinesh, is planning to expand City Shirts nationwide. Eventually, he adds, “I’m hoping to build a small shopping mall in India.” With his track record of moving as fast as consumer tastes change, we wouldn’t be surprised if he breaks ground any day now.