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OUR HOUSE: Mark and Cricket Fries began A Cricket in the House in 2011, their first experience in the retail industry.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
OUR HOUSE: Mark and Cricket Fries began A Cricket in the House in 2011, their first experience in the retail industry.

Business Spotlight: House Partners

Springfield couple’s first-ever retail venture creates eclectic environment

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Cricket Fries, the namesake of a Walnut Street home furnishings and gifts store, didn’t have operating a retail establishment in her view at the beginning of the decade.

Fries and her husband Mark started the shop, called A Cricket in the House LLC, in 2011 as a chance to showcase her love of home furnishings.

“People would call me to decorate their homes when they had company coming or they were going to have an elegant party,” she says of the seed for the couple’s first retail pursuit. “I got a lot of positive feedback on that. So that was my favorite thing to do.”

Starting out almost exclusively selling furniture, A Cricket in the House’s shelves and aisles are now packed with a multitude of products – candles, soaps, jewelry, vinyl records, greeting cards and apparel. Cricket describes the store as eclectic with a focus on midcentury modern.

“We look around now and it’s just so different than it was,” Mark says, adding the growth in merchandise has led to more retail space being utilized at the 412 E. Walnut St. building.

When the couple opened the store, less than half of the 3,500 square feet was in use, he says. Today, approximately 2,500 square feet is filled with products.

“A lot of people, especially travelers, are not looking for a coffee table and a couch. People would walk in and walk out,” Cricket says of the desire to expand merchandise. “We needed something else.”

Since opening, the shop has experienced consistent growth in revenue every year, Mark says, with a near 25 percent uptick in 2018 from 2017. Cricket attributes the growth in part to expanding the showroom and selling a larger selection of personal care and apparel items.

“It’s not where we want it to be,” she says of sales, declining to disclose company revenue. “We’re not making a big living on this.”

Landing downtown
Cricket’s most recent prior employment was with the Springfield News-Leader, where she did newsroom work including writing headlines and a society column. She says the desire to become a retailer in 2011 wasn’t instantly shared by her husband, who quit his job as director of marketing and customer service at Watts Radiant Inc. to help her.

“I told him I wanted to open a shop and he thought I was crazy. He said, ‘Why don’t you just open a booth?’ I’m better than a booth,” she says with a laugh.

As the search for a location was ongoing, Mark happened upon the Walnut Street spot as a “for rent” sign was put in the window. The couple say many probably know the building as the former home of The Percussion Shop. But it was the Chic Chick clothing store when they rented the space from The Downtown Church, located across the street, she says.

“One of the biggest things we liked was the parking,” Cricket says, noting the store needed some attention – particularly a new paint job to cover up its pink walls.

Additional work involved widening the doorway and adding trim to the windows, Mark says, with the couple investing about $30,000 for startup.

Appeal to everybody
Approximately 75 percent of inventory for the shop comes from estate purchases, Mark says, as people with a death in the family frequently contact them in lieu of holding public sales. The remaining inventory is generally acquired via auctions, products by Missouri-based companies such as Date Lady Inc. and Berry and Birch Co., and people bringing in items to be sold.

While items were sold by consignment more during its early days, that total is now probably just 5 percent of sales, Cricket says.

“It’s just easier for us to buy,” she says. “It’s a lot less paperwork than consignment.”

Valerie Richards started out selling consignment with A Cricket in the House about five years ago, but has since rented out around 200 square feet in the shop to sell handmande items, such as wool hats, quilts, crocheted jewelry and pillows. While declining to disclose her rent or monthly sales, Richards says her artistic pieces are a way to express herself and make a little money to boot. Most of her products fall within the $10-$30 range.

“I was just looking for a place to sell my things,” she says, adding she retails exclusively at the Walnut Street store. “I’ve been knitting since I was 5 years old.”

While not a paid employee, Richards says she goes in a couple of days a week to help out, adding, “It’s just a great place to hang.”

Much like products sold by Richards, Cricket says the store’s offerings in general are priced to be affordable. Furniture ranges between $25 and $600, while smaller items start at $1 on up to $50, Mark says, noting the couple studies eBay and other online sites to determine comparable prices for products. The store doesn’t have a website and just relies on social media to promote products.

“We’d rather spend that time with customers in the shop than sitting at a computer,” Cricket says.

Making it happen
The store has been on a year-to-year lease since opening, but Cricket says the short-term arrangement allows them to annually re-evaluate business to determine changes, be it services, products or the building’s look. For example, she says a new paint job for the front is on tap later this year.

Starting the business in the aftermath of a recession, such as they did in 2011, isn’t ideal for any retailer, Cricket says. That was another motivator to keep their prices low.

“That’s always been our goal, is to be affordable. We’re not a flea market, but we want it to be affordable, quality stuff,” she says. “When they can come in and furnish their home with new decorative items at a good price, we thought if we could manage it during a recession, maybe we can make this happen.”

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