From textbooks to textiles: Student takes semester off to learn the craft

Posted on Apr 26 2017 - 8:00am by John Touloupis

Audrey Kuhlman strolls the creaky wooden floors of Hinton & Hinton, navigating the skinny hallways piled high with bright shirts, patterned suit jackets and an array of leather and flannel.

This semester, Kuhlman ditched her textbooks for a full-time job on the Square, opting to sell designer brands rather than write papers.

“I thrive a lot better not being in school and working,” Kuhlman said.

Kuhlman’s parents owned a chain of Minnesota retail stores where Kuhlman grew up, which first introduced her to the retail industry.

“I have an active brain. I love the interaction I get with people,” she said.

Her parents, Scott and Susan Kuhlman, designed, manufactured, sold and managed more than 70 retail stores called “Kuhlman” in cities all over the United States from Birmingham, Alabama, to Washington D.C., to Memphis, Tennessee.

“We’d set up all the stores, help paint, decorate and unbox everything. We helped them do things that we didn’t think was work,” Kuhlman said. “We thought they were games.”

She said she still maintains a morning routine like most students do, waking up early at 8 a.m. to take her dogs out. Thursdays, Kuhlman commands the old-school brass register behind the long wooden counter. Blonde with warm green eyes, Kuhlman greets customers with a contagious smile as they enter through the double wooden doors.

“The first thing you have to do is get to know your merchandise,” Kuhlman said. “You can’t sell anything unless you know what you’re selling.”

It’s important to know dark green waxed Barbour jackets run a bit big, Comfort Colors tend to be the softest and most durable T-shirt and the difference in style between a Southern Tide pastel button-up or a rugged Patagonia flannel, Kuhlman said.

“You need to be able to look at somebody and they tell you vaguely what they want, and you know exactly what they need,” Kuhlman said. “If I have a strong ability to sell a pair of jeans, and this person can sell a shirt, we need to work together to make an outfit.”

Kuhlman said it’s important to know where to draw the line when helping customers, ensuring they don’t feel forced to make a purchase.

Mark Shoemake, Kuhlman’s manager, has worked at the boutique since 1999, when it was a father-son shop with five part-time college students employed.

A hulking figure in a red gingham shirt and steel khakis, Shoemake looks more left guard than retail manager. He slides through the store, quickly offering customers a friendly “hello” or his veteran service.

“Some people can get along with people better than others; that’s kind of their gift. If you can work well with others, show kindness and show that you care, specifically to your customer, and especially in a boutique type of this, that makes all the difference,” Shoemake said.

Kuhlman said even though retail may seem easy, it’s demanding – both physically and mentally. Unpacking boxes, checking inventory and taking care of the store, combined with the reality a day might go by without a sale, make retail a tough business.

“You have to stick with your customer. They are your No. 1 priority. If they walk away with nothing in their hand, or if they walk away with 10 bags in their hand, it is your priority to make them feel comfortable and know you care about them,” Kuhlman said.

Every customer and every sale is different. Kuhlman said she once began a huge sale by simply selling a pair of jeans to a Rebel alumnus in his 50s.

“I told him, ‘Well, we’ve got a pair of jeans; let’s find a shirt to go with that. Now let’s dress it up with a blazer and a pocket square,’” Kuhlman said. She continued to add dress shirts varying from super fun and flashy to more tamed while working in different suit jackets ranging from blazers for work to light blue jackets for game day.

Twenty-one-year-old Kuhlman said she’s enjoyed her semester working retail but will be returning to Ole Miss in the fall, continuing her anthropology studies.