Blending traditional leather crafting with trendy home goods and fashion, Stidham Outfitters and Custom Leather draws in men and women to stop and shop in tiny Johnson City, Texas.
It’s a two-stoplight town, not much more than a slowdown for travelers headed west from Austin toward the Texas Hill Country, searching for wineries, scenery and an escape from urban life. But little Johnson City, Texas, is home to a unique store that offers shoppers trendy fashions, unique home goods and a glimpse into the traditional craft of custom leatherwork— Stidham Outfitters.
Originally from Georgetown, Texas, longtime sweethearts Seth Stidham and Jasmin Arpin eventually settled in Johnson City. Seth’s mother, who frequented estate sales and sold antiques, gave him a set of leather tools when he was a child, sparking an interest in leather carving. Seth rodeoed at Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas, and then repaired tack and saddles for Martin Saddlery. When the couple moved to Johnson City, Stidham had a strong desire to pick up leatherwork in earnest. When his work filled their kitchen counters and open areas, Arpin pushed him to find a storefront in town.
In 2014 they used the money made from selling Seth’s team roping horse to open Stidham Outfitters and Custom Leather, a 900-squarefoot retail shop off the beaten path in Johnson City. Today, the store is in a new building with more than 2,000 square feet along Highway 290/Main Street, the busy tourist corridor running through town.
Arpin designs elaborate store displays, inviting shoppers to slowly meander through the goods. Stidham creates leather goods in the store, providing a shopping experience that can also be educational as shoppers watch him work. Browsing shoppers are given something to sip from a built-in shelf that houses complimentary cocktails and infused water. On busy weekends, a beverage cart shows off local spirits.
With a unique clientele that is a mix of the 2,000-person local population and the bustling tourist traffic, the store’s challenge is how to retain a strong repeat clientele. We spoke with Arpin to find out how they work to do that.
Browsing shoppers are given something to sip, from complimentary cocktails and infused water to local spirits and area wines.
How has Stidham Outfitters and Custom Leather evolved through the years?
Jasmin Arpin: Neither Seth nor I had retail experience [before opening in 2014], though Seth is a third-generation retailer. His family had a dry goods store in Georgetown, and his mom and sister have a shop in Del Rio. We didn’t study the market, look at data or demographics; we opened the original store strictly on what felt right to us. After a year, we moved closer to the main street going to Fredericksburg, added women’s apparel, home and gift [items], some antiques, you name it. It evolved based on the [retail] trends around us.
Seth and I feel really strongly about standing by the level of craftsmanship. We are kind of a throwaway society where we buy the next greatest thing and the handcrafted goes by the wayside. We wanted to bring the craft to the people. With an open space, it made sense to have the workshop be part of the store itself.
When you opened the store, what was your greatest challenge? Is it the same today?
Arpin: It was definitely wondering if people would like it. You do something that is true to yourself and you just hope people like it. We put a lot of time and resources in to it. Since then, it has been a lot of [worry about] retaining customers. The Hill Country is all about taking the back roads and stumbling on a place like our shop, [or others like] Albert Ice House [in Stonewall, between Johnson City and Fredericksburg] or Alamo Springs Café [in Fredericksburg] that are off the beaten path. Getting customers to return, online or in the store, is our biggest hurdle now.
What demographic do you serve?
Arpin: We identified our market in our second year in business. It is predominantly Hill Country tourism, a 30-something-year-old wine drinker out for the weekend who has the disposable income to pick up their wine membership. They are definitely out for the weekend or out to their second homes here. I think the majority of our buyers are from Houston. We are a stop when they are visiting. Commanding people to stop on their way to some of the larger Hill Country draws is a challenge for everyone in town.
Our second client base is people who live in the area. To support our community, we are constantly doing things to stay involved. When the small-town parades come through, we sponsor a Bloody Mary bar. We sponsor a rodeo queen and donate to the local Little League. It is such a small market.
The store offers men’s and women’s apparel, home and gift items, and some antiques, in addition to Stidham’s leatherwork.
Arpin creates eclectic displays that “tell a story” to slow down customers and engage them.
How do you use digital space to enhance your brick-and-mortar store?
Arpin: We have slow days as a result of being a small town. To kind of balance that, we have tried to do more to bring attention online to our website and increase social media interest. It has helped sustain us. For me, on the retail side, I use [social media] to collaborate with other shops. As the [various platform policies and] algorithms change, and you’re trying to increase social media visibility, the best way to maintain a presence is to stay in people’s feed by posting often. We utilize both Facebook and Instagram.
I also realize that most people are not in our store to see us, but are here for the beauty of the Hill Country. I am not always forcing apparel down their throats, but sharing the beauty of our area with a sunset photo, or another local tourist spot depicted. This keeps [our feed] diverse and interesting, and not so sales-based, providing followers with more of the Hill Country lifestyle.
We also use Instagram to find and source brands that aren’t necessarily in our area or aren’t readily available at the larger gift and market shows—[like] Paloma Loco, an independent men’s shirt line that has Seth’s stamp of approval. We found the Paloma Loco lifestyle brand on social media. When someone finds a shirt in our shop, they will buy it in three colors because it has a great fit. The customer base loves the product and we are one of a handful of shops in Texas that carry it.
While Seth is a cowboy, he has a little flair to him. We also have crossover lines like Howler, that is out of Austin, and more tapped into the outdoor market. Seth wears it 90 percent of the time now. While it can be too urban for some, it is crossing into the Western market. When he wears a shirt working or at a team roping, we will post a photo of it and tag the company, which allows more eyes to see [our post] and builds that partnership.
When selecting merchandise, what factors do you consider?
Arpin: The store is still very much who Seth and I are. It is a larger footprint, so we have to buy more as a result. I like to stock things unique to the Hill County. We do follow trends to an extent, but when I’m buying things, I ask myself if this is something someone would wear to a Hill Country wine tasting or at the Fredericksburg horse races or the Stonewall Peach Jamboree Rodeo. How will our customers use our products? A lot of it is vintage décor. It is a mix of a southwest Hill Country style that you can’t ordinarily find at big box retailers. I love antiques, personally. If I like it, I know it will do well in the store.
How do you partner with other local vendors to boost traffic?
Arpin: We “slow shop” our customers, meaning we make a display where someone can use the display themselves at the store. It slows them down in the shop and engages them. For example, instead of having table of recipe books, we will have a cheese pairing book open, a cheese plate with locally made cheese and a local wine, and tell a story. This helps the customer leave with multiple items instead of just one. That is the part of the business that I like: the psychological dynamics.
On the weekends we have infused water and share a few different bottles of wine from regional wineries. The Hill Country is really [into] spirits. There are craft brews, spirits, and also rum and even moonshine. Since day one, we have had a complimentary bourbon bar. Having AC, a place to sit and the bourbon itself is key to getting the men to slow down and shop. The shop is laid out in a way that reveals itself slowly, so you have to slow down to explore.
We will also do events like trunk shows. We have had bootmakers come in, because Seth doesn’t make shoes. So at that event we had a cigar bar and boot fitting. We are always looking for ways to engage with our shoppers and introduce them to other makers.
Seth Stidham and Jasmin Arpin are the creative forces behind their store.
Story and Photography KATE BRADLEY BYARS
(Originally published in Western Lifestyle Retailer Spring 2018 issue.)