From the dining room to the downtown district, Kim Williams shares her retail story

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Spend five minutes with Kim Williams and you’ll get the sense she’s like your best friend, guidance counselor and room mother all rolled in to one. She is also an incredibly savvy businesswoman who worked her way up in a retail department store after graduating from college, took off a few years to raise her family, and then jumped back in headfirst to start her own business.

As owner of The Polka Dot Press and second-place winner of NRF’s This is Retail contest, Kim launched her stationary business online seven years ago and opened her first store last year on Tallahassee’s Market Street. While she was being interviewed by STORES magazine for the September issue, she also let us hang around long enough to get her insights on how to be successful in retail, share what (and who) is behind her success, and talk about how her employees make her proud.

Talk about your retail career path.

Retail is definitely a passion I have always had. I knew at a young age that I wanted to work in this industry and I have always done so, since graduating from Florida State University with a degree in Merchandising. I think you have to have this kind of career in your blood. Who else would choose long hours on your feet, chaotic holiday seasons, and hard work? I would! I love everything I do — from buying to merchandising, special events planning, and most of all, selling. I love to work with customers and help them find exactly what they are looking for!

Starting my own business was a gradual process, which started in my home. There was little risk while I found my way and built the brand. Seven years later, with a newly-expanded storefront, we are thriving and thankful for the baby steps that got us here.

How does passion come in to play in all of this?

The Polka Dot Press’ Kim Williams at her stationery store

I think that passion is key for someone who wants to start their own business. If I didn’t believe in what I was creating and selling, it would be hard to train my associates and even harder to sell the products. I get genuinely excited for every order, for each person who leaves here happy.

Who has shaped your success?

I have had many mentors along the way. I was raised in a working class household, so I was taught the value of hard work at a young age and have worked my entire life, since age 14. At the beginning of my career, as an executive trainee with a department store in Atlanta, I was mentored by some wonderful executives — both buyers and store executives. I learned both sides of the business and was able to see the “big picture.” I still remain in contact with some of these people today.

Today, as a business owner, I definitely like to collaborate with other store owners and discuss challenges, opportunities, etc. It’s nice to have a sounding board.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

My parents were super-supportive of every dream I had, so I think this was a very important lesson for me. I’ve never been afraid to follow my instincts, even when others laughed. The contest is a perfect example — everyone thought I was wasting my time and we know how that turned out. I’m certainly not right every time, but I am not afraid to take risks and go with my gut!

What’s the biggest challenge when hiring for your store?

We currently have four employees, not including my mom and myself. Hiring good people is always a challenge, but I have learned to follow my gut with this too. If I like the person and they seem to have the enthusiasm to work, I can teach them. Apathy is not acceptable around here.

Can you share an instance when you were made proud by an employee working for you?

My employees make me proud every day in their interactions with customers. They are a reflection of our store and I teach them to keep this in mind at all times. This is a happy place and I make sure that we all portray that attitude each and every day.

I am learning to “let go” of many of my duties and my employees are proving themselves daily. I recently returned from a 10-day vacation and there were no emergencies on my desk — everything was handled appropriately and they didn’t miss a beat. It’s nice to know that I can be gone for a week and the store can still “run.”

Read more about Kim Williams and her path of working from home to owning a storefront on Main Street, in the full STORES interview.

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