By KAREN RIDDER
Photos by EMMA HIGHFILL
Some Topeka businesses have been able to stay local, because they have gone global.
Warehouse 414 and Custom Dredge Works are using the global market to grow beyond what the local market can support. The result of their expanding reach brings money from around the world back home, giving Topeka’s economy a broader opportunity to thrive.
Chris Grandmontagne has spent the better part of the last 30 years staying ahead of design trends and having people outside of the Topeka area take notice. As the owner of Warehouse 414, her reach extended across the country from early on by word of mouth.
“At first we had pickers come from both coasts and Texas. They would buy a truck full of stuff from our warehouse and take it back to their part of the country,” Grandmontagne said.
Grandmontagne started doing design work in the 1990s. At the same time, she started buying up old art deco furniture and filling up the warehouse she owned at Crane and Quincy.
“We kept busy, and we filled that five story 40,000 square foot building with stuff,” Grandmontagne said.
Hers was one of the first shops in the area to sell mid-century modern, and she helped business owners in Kansas City accumulate the inventory to open their stores. In 2006, she opened Warehouse 414 as a retail store to sell her “stuff.” They started doing the First Friday Art Walks and the store quickly became a popular haunt for people browsing for unique treasures. Local people loved them; however, business was not sustaining.
“I felt like we had saturated this market. Everybody knew we were here, and we weren’t going to make it selling locally. I was still just selling my own stuff to my own clients. I was struggling,” Grandmontagne said.
The Internet offered an opportunity to change the way she did business. Grandmontagne realized, given what she already had in her inventory, that she could get a lot more money online for those products than what she could ask of local or regional buyers.
Despite decades of experience and a good reputation for offering quality products, taking advantage of those online opportunities was more difficult than she expected. She researched the best ways to reach online customers and found the First Dibbs website particularly promising. She applied to be a dealer in 2006 and was rejected.
“They just said, ‘We aren’t in your area.’ My first thought when they said that was they just didn’t think }that anyone from Topeka, Kansas, could have the inventory they wanted,” Grandmontagne said. “They just brushed me aside.”
She tried selling her products online on her own for a while but could not create the reach of an established online retailer like First Dibbs. When she discovered several years later that one of the shop owners she had helped get a start in Kansas City had become a First Dibbs dealer, she decided to try again.
“I figured they could no longer say they were not in my area,” Grandmontagne said.
This time, her application was accepted. She became a First Dibbs dealer in 2015, and since then her business has taken off. Items from the warehouse that she started to fill in the 1990s are now sold and shipped all over the world to places like Japan, England, France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
“First Dibbs made selling globally so much easier than doing it on my own,” Grandmontagne said.
Grandmontagne pays for the right to sell her products on First Dibbs. In exchange, First Dibbs provides her with a worldwide audience, takes care of getting the items she sells to their location and insures against damages in transit. While she could probably do the shipping on her own, First Dibbs is able to offer a much lower cost on the shipping. They even send a shipper to her door to pick up the items and start them on their global trek.
The advantage to Topeka is that Warehouse 414 stays open and thriving. For Grandmontagne, her business has grown tenfold. About 99 percent of her profits now come from online sales around the world.
“I would have gone out of business,” Grandmontagne said. “I’m still here for the local people because of the global market. That’s the bottom line. I could not have maintained the store if it had continued as it was without expanding internationally.”