How one small-town business strives to provide
a truly unique experience
In her store overlooking 4th Street in St. Ansgar, Kari Nelson points to a small jewelry display by the cash register.
“That company has only six employees,” she said, before turning and pointing at a bathtub in the corner filled with packaged bath bombs, popular and trendy items that dissolve in bathwater to add scent, bubbles or color.
“These are neat. Two girls from Minnesota make these. They’ve got little toys in the middle.”
Nelson’s Home Sweet Home is stuffed with specialty gifts, artwork and decorations, and each item has a story that Nelson can prattle about to curious customers. Where they’re made, how they’re made, who makes them.
“It’s about the experience, the engagement of all of your senses,” Nelson said.
In 1984, Nelson’s mother Judy Goplerud opened Home Sweet Home. Over the years, consumer dollars have tended to go to big-box stores and online retailers, and they’ve had to carve out a niche in order to compete.
“We don’t do it because we think it’ll make us rich,” Goplerud said.
Nelson has since taken over the business, but the focus is still on the face to face, everyday interactions. They push the experience, the opportunity to hold a product in your hand before you buy it, so you know what you’re getting and you’re getting what you want — but the most important thing, Nelson said, is that they throw in a smile, too. It’s stores like these that make up the fabric of small towns across the Midwest.
Editor’s note: what follows are Kari Nelson’s remarks on how her business is doing, where it’s been and where it’s going, lightly edited for clarity:
What can you get at Home Sweet Home that you can’t get anywhere else?
We like American made products, earth friendly goods, the small artists. We actually look real hard for things that aren’t made in China, and there aren’t many things in our store that aren’t American made. We look for unique things, up and coming things. As soon as we see them at, say, Target, we’re done. We’re on to the next new and up coming thing. Lots of times we find that it actually takes this area a couple of years for things to catch on. I’ll see a product in other areas of the country, we’ll get it and by the time we’re done with it and into something else, that’s when this area is finding out about it.
We’re retail therapy, definitely. People will go to the dentist across the street and say “Oh my goodness, now I need to come in here.” It’s almost like a reward. It really is instant gratification. You want to see the product, see the quality. Yesterday, a person came in, she had something in her mind and she found just what she wanted. She didn’t have to wait a week to get the product in, she didn’t have to order online, she didn’t have to pay shipping. She saw it right in front of her face, and she got four of them. instant gratification. And those were here words, too. We said “We’d be happy to get it if you have something else in mind,” and she said “No, I have it. I have it my hand and I want it.”
Your mother started Home Sweet Home in 1984, what was the struggle like to get it going? To Keep it going?
For something that’s not a necessity, you know, if it’s not something like a grocery store or a hardware store, it takes a lot of guts to open something like this in a small town. Mom had actually thought about opening in the mall in Austin back then, but she said no, that we needed to do this in our town. This was at the time when the Chamber started up, the streets got redone, Thymeless Treasures came along, and it all kind of revitalized our town. Mom was a real pioneer. There were businesses in town, but nothing really like this. It’s hard to word that humbly I guess, but sometimes it just takes one person. The town continued to add businesses and different things that are attractive for our town, and we really have pride in our town.
I took Home Sweet Home over when it was successful already. Mom retired after the 2008 Christmas. When I took it over, the economy was really weird then — things we’re off. And things have turned around again, our economy does that. There’s highs and lows, it’s kind of a cycle. You can see things repeating. I chart every month, and I like being book keeper. I think you have to be your own book keeper, and you should know what each month brings, and it’s very consistent. If someone is staring business now and they’re thinking “How can I do this?”, well, every March is slow like this, it’s nothing new, you’re going to be okay.
You used to serve food here. What happened to the restaurant?
People were coming in every day and asking ‘Where can we eat? Where’s the good food?” And that’s kind of how the Old Cottage Sampler started. This was before Paradise Pizza and all of this stuff. People wanted to spend a full day here and there was enough going on in our town that they could. In 1996, Mom sold it. She at that point had 20 some employees, and one morning it just kind of hit her that ‘this is enough’. It was honestly out of control, we were serving a hundred-some people a day. She was stepping towards retirement, and it almost got too big.
It takes a lot of drive and determination to be your own boss, to be an entrepreneur. What drives you?
I cannot think of anything else that I would rather be doing. I love what I do. I love coming to work, I don’t look forward to days off or anything like that. I love being here. And it’s the people I work with, honestly. We have a blast. We sing, we dance, we try to have fun, and customers can see that. We’re not cold and stiff, ya know? It’s the atmosphere, it’s fun in here. And the people you meet— amazing people that I would never have met otherwise. Everybody’s got a story. We love what we’re doing here, and we hope we’re spreading that joy onto somebody else. It’s contagious.
What’s the next step for your business?
We have dreams. Honestly, I’m not really willing to put my dream out there. Because we might do it yet, and we don’t want someone else to do it. We’re constantly dreaming, looking for the next thing. For a while I was into junking and vintage items, going and looking for stuff like that. Everyone does that now. To me, I get no rush from that anymore. But there’s something else right now that’s lit my fire, and there’s always something, ya know? Once it becomes so common, I want the next thing. But if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it right. You want it to be awesome.
And our goal is that we want to make people come to our town. We have an awesome town, let’s share it. I can’t think of another place I’d rather be. The chamber is just amazing, they do a great job promoting our town. People get pumped on our town. Over and over again, people come in and say they love our town. We’ve heard that so many times, and they come from all over. Sometimes when you’re here everyday, you overlook how awesome our town is. It’s like family here, people know you and they support you.