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Front & Center: Simply Northwest owner focuses on customer service, product quality to compete

Denielle Waltermire Stuhlmiller holds a signature gift basket in her gift shop, Simply Northwest, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. Her store is at 11806 E. Sprague in Spokane Valley. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Denielle Waltermire Stuhlmiller holds a signature gift basket in her gift shop, Simply Northwest, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. Her store is at 11806 E. Sprague in Spokane Valley. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

Nothing seems simple this time of year – particularly at a small Spokane Valley gift-basket purveyor called Simply Northwest.

“I do at least 75 percent of my annual business during November and December,” owner Denielle Waltermire-Stuhlmiller said.

Most of her baskets are purchased by corporations and given in recognition of employees’ service or customer loyalty.

“Last year, we got one order for 750 custom gift baskets,” which couldn’t have been simple for Waltermire-Stuhlmiller.

But that’s the point.

“Every once in a while, I’ll get an email from a corporate client saying, ‘You’re amazing. You make it so easy.’

“When I hear that, I know we’ve done our job, because our goal is to give clients a stress-free experience.”

During a recent break amid the seasonal chaos, Waltermire-Stuhlmiller discussed Superman, self-doubt and the Magical Melting Snowman.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

W-S: In the Spokane Valley.

S-R: What were your interests?

W-S: I was a cheerleader and loved hanging out with my family and friends. At one time, I wanted to be a teacher.

S-R: What was your first real job?

W-S: It was at my family’s business – Dishman Dodge. I started working there as a receptionist when I was 16.

S-R: How about college?

W-S: I went to Spokane Falls and got my AA in business management and marketing, and worked in the retail world at Bath & Body Works and The Gap for a couple of years. Then I went back to school and got a social work degree at Eastern. I was going to go for a master’s in social work, but my mom suggested I take a break. She knew De Scott, the original owner of Simply Northwest, so I agreed to work here one holiday season. Afterward, De asked me to stay on and promoted me to retail manager. Five years later, I bought the business.

S-R: You’d left retail once. What about this job inspired you?

W-S: In corporate retail you’re pigeonholed, which doesn’t allow much room for creativity. Policies and procedures are already established. Working for a small business brought back the passion I once felt for retail. Getting to develop relationships with my customers and fellow employees also appealed to me. We’re like a little family here. That’s something magical you don’t always get in the corporate world.

S-R: Did you consider a career in your family’s business?

W-S: Yes. My grandfather, Mark Hollenback, who started Dishman Dodge back in 1960, mentioned the possibility of my joining the dealership. I worked there while I was getting my bachelor’s degree. But I kind of wanted to do something on my own.

S-R: Did you have a mentor?

W-S: Yes – my mom, Marlene Hollenback, who owned Dishman Dodge, and who I lost very unexpectedly this April. She and I were really close. I don’t know that I would have had the belief in myself to buy this business without her encouragement.

S-R: What about her impressed you most?

W-S: Her ability to connect with people. She had a way of being so genuine and caring and selfless. That taught me how to see things from other people’s perspective.

S-R: What skills from earlier experiences transferred to this career?

W-S: In the process of earning a degree in social work, I learned a lot about personal interaction and human behavior. That background has helped me be a better leader.

S-R: How has the business evolved since you bought it?

W-S: I’ve really focused on the retail side. That was never the original owner’s passion, because she started Simply Northwest as a corporate service. The retail store (at 11806 E. Sprague Ave.) grew out of customers’ requests. I started out running it, and still enjoy doing all the displays. But corporate sales are 80 percent of my business.

S-R: What advice has stuck with you?

W-S: My mom taught me is to not take things too personally. That’s something I’m still working on, because I am so involved in every aspect of my company.

S-R: What’s the key to success in your market niche?

W-S: It’s essential that we offer the absolute best customer service and products possible, since we can’t beat the prices online or at 1-800-BASKETS.

S-R: How expensive are your top-of-the-line custom baskets?

W-S: They can get up to $500, which includes wine, specialty Northwest foods, and keepsake items – things like dish towels and candles from our retail boutique.

S-R: Do you deliver the baskets?

W-S: We do lots of local deliveries and ship nationwide. Customers can also stop by and pick up the baskets themselves.

S-R: What challenges does your business face?

W-S: The minimum-wage hike has hurt me big time. I’m so small, I didn’t have room in the budget to absorb that.

S-R: Any signs of encouragement?

W-S: I definitely see people making an effort to shop small. Around 2010, American Express started Small Business Saturday – the Saturday after Thanksgiving – and now that’s one of my biggest days of the year.

S-R: The name Simply Northwest suggests a focus on regional products. Is that accurate?

W-S: We have a huge selection of products from the Northwest, including most of our food. But not everything we sell is from the Northwest. The reason is people love the idea of locally made, but not everyone loves or understands the premium we have to charge. So to stay somewhat competitive with the Targets and Walmarts, we bring in some other merchandise.

S-R: Your website features a wide range of themes baskets – from “Holiday Northwest Man” and “Perfect Catch” to “Breakfast in Bed.” Do customers sometimes request their own themes, or ask you to include unusual items in their baskets?

W-S: They do. Some bring us things like sports memorabilia and Precious Moments figurines they want included.

S-R: What else?

W-S: One customer’s dad was really into superheroes, so he brought in the Hulk and Spiderman and Superman. Another customer dropped off lingerie. We’ll never forget that one. (laugh)

S-R: Have you had to decline any requests?

W-S: The only time we said no was when someone brought us marijuana – years before it was legal.

S-R: How about the accompanying message cards? Do customers tell you what to write?

W-S: Yes. We never assume anything. Some messages are really clever or funny. Other times, they’re inside joke that we don’t get.

S-R: Have you ever worried the business might fail?

W-S: Oh, yeah.

S-R: What did that teach you?

W-S: I think it’s good to have a little sense of fear. It causes me to be more creative and come up with fun in-store events, such as our Easter egg hunt for children and adults. I want to encourage that special feeling you get sometimes when you shop in boutiques.

S-R: What challenges do you face?

W-S: I get nervous about things like Amazon’s two-day free shipping – things I can’t offer. But the buy-local trend gives me hope. That’s why last year I bought another business – Grandma Rubin’s Peppernuts. Now we make cookies in our commercial kitchen, along with our own soft peanut brittle.

S-R: Do you visit other boutiques in search of inspiration?

W-S: All the time.

S-R: What ideas have you borrowed?

W-S: This year we offered a really cool product called Magical Melting Snowman that I’d seen at an airport shop. We started with more than 60 and sold out.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

W-S: I love that I get to wake up and look forward to going to work. I love what I do. I love my staff. I love my customers.

S-R: What do you like least?

W-S: No time off. Even if I’m not physically here in the store, I’m still always connected by text messages, phone calls, emails. I miss the old days when I clocked off on Friday and had my own life until Monday morning. There’s no more of that, which is hard, especially with two small kids.

S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?

W-S: Definitely that I’m stronger than I thought I was. Without my mom’s encouragement and support, I didn’t know if I could run a business. But I can.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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