Will Thompson Finds Retail Success in a Down Economy

Green Living Without the Guilt TripWill Thompson finds retail success in a down economy By Rosanne Dunkelberger

Energetic and enterprising, 26-year-old Will Thompson is juggling four jobs that can keep him on the go 13 hours a day. And he’s loving every minute of it.

“I like taking on a large challenge,” he says.

A year ago, while working full time in accounting (Job 1) along with a part-time gig teaching college-level accounting classes at night (Job 2), Thompson created his other two jobs while devising a new business he could “get excited about.”

Which he did, opening Almost Exclusive (Job 3), a Tallahassee gift shop and e-commerce site (almostexclusive.com) with a twist. The 26-year-old Thompson and his fiancée, Alyssa Greenhut, knew they wanted their store to offer products that promoted green living without scaring off customers with visions of “scratchy canvas-like clothing” or judgments about not being green enough.

They initially considered focusing on fair trade merchandise from developing countries but soon realized they were more enamored with items made in the United States. They also decided it was important that all their merchandise be of high quality and unique.

Their product mix ranges from bowls, bracelets and coasters made out of vinyl records to recycled-glass dishes and giant propane tanks fashioned into sculptural fire pits.

Before Almost Everything opened on Market Street in Northeast Tallahassee, the couple spent late nights seeking out individual artists and suppliers. Next, they took more time to research every product they planned to sell.

“We find the best … we’re basically providing a recommendation to our customer,” Thompson says.

The relationship works both ways: Customers often recommend products that find their way to the store’s shelves, including stainless steel drink bottles and bamboo leisure wear.

Thompson worked on the store full time while it was in planning, but then he made a “strategic” decision to scale back and go to work full time as director of finance and accounting for the Florida Prepaid College Board. Greenhut runs the store during the day and Thompson checks in at lunchtime and works there nights and weekends.

“At the end of the day, we have a story to share with each other (because) we didn’t experience the exact same thing,” Thompson says.

Sales generated nationwide from the Web site — a separate business entity — comprise the “vast, vast majority” of Almost Exclusive’s sales. As the site was being created, Thompson learned the workings of the software and is now capable of maintaining the site (Job 4). The ultimate plan is to expand the business concept via franchising.

Almost Exclusive opened in June 2008, when the U.S. economy — particularly retail sales — was heading downhill in a hurry. Businesses didn’t have to be as “fiscally conscious” or focus as much on customer service during boom times, and many were forced to make dramatic changes — or die. Thompson says he intentionally planned his business to open during a downturn, although “I’m not going to say I anticipated … how severe it was.” His plan is to remain lean and “nimble” in order to be able to quickly adapt as the market evolves.

Thompson’s entrepreneurial spirit came from his family, which ran a parasailing business in his hometown of Jacksonville. It followed him through his college years at Florida State University, where he graduated with accounting and finance degrees in 2004. As a grad student, he was offered the opportunity to teach — he says he “absolutely loved it” — and ran his own private investment fund.

“I look for those things that inspire and motivate me,” he says. “Those make the day go by really quick.”