Robin Burns in NYC’s Fashion District with “The Garment Worker” by Judith Weller.
In this table talk conversation with Robin Burns, retail manager of the iconic Webster House in Kansas City, she looks back at a time when women were moving into the boardroom and serving clients who needed to dress the part to compete with their male coworkers. I was one of those women, but that was a long time ago, as was my first experience at Webster House as a guest at an elegant bridal shower.
When I turned 40 my mother, who was also celebrating a milestone birthday, took me to Paris and the French countryside. Packing the right day-to-evening attire and necessary female stock-in-trade is complicated. Packing it all in one piece of carry-on luggage? Impossible.
One collected memory from the warmup to that lifetime experience is standing at a table (in my mind it’s a soft, buttery antique pine) in an upscale boutique being taught by Robin Burns how to elegantly pack using white tissue paper and an expert folding technique.
Fast forward years, standing in line at the tag office in a new city, I heard my name. In a place where I know few people, Robin Burns greeted me like a long-lost friend, introduced me to her husband and invited lunch with her at the Webster House.
When I began to envision the Shopkeeper Series Robin came to mind—not for the bespoke, National Register of Historic Places-listed or farm-to-table dining meets European antiques, apparel and accessories establishment for which she is the retail manager—but for the light around her. I have known and befriended many merchants. So many times I’ve wondered how they weather the demands of retail.
Entering this conversation I was curious to know how Robin manages life | work balance, what she does for renewal and how all that light and energy around her would hold up under the glare of a lot of questions.Reading her first answer, you’ll appreciate how much I enjoyed hearing her say she “truly enjoyed this exercise.” You’ll find that enjoyment and learning are threads through all of Robin’s answers.
The word enjoy is from the Latin gaudere or “rejoice” and the Old French enjoir…”to give joy, rejoice, take delight in.” It’s always interesting to meet the individual with an ageless spirit. This shopkeeper, Robin Burns, is one. Enjoy.
Who is Robin Burns?
I enjoy caring for people. My family is important to me. While Michael and I do not have children, we value time with my parents (Michael’s mother is no longer with us) and our friendships. I have never needed a lot of friends but truly appreciate those we have and how they continue to sustain and support us and sometimes even challenge my thinking.
Exercise and feeling good are important to me. I believe I can only be my best for Mike and myself when I am rested and tuned in. I enjoy sewing. I love the challenge, thinking, focus and desire to create, a legacy from my grandmother who did full-time clothing alterations to earn an income after my grandfather retired. She lived during the depression, was self-taught and knew how to succeed. My current mentor/teacher is 90. Her mind is sound and she thinks like an architect, rarely needing a pattern. I love what I continue to learn from her about clothing construction and life.
Mike and I enjoy cooking and entertaining, though not on a grand scale…it’s more important to us to enjoy people in our home and the conversations we have. We enjoy travel and exploring and what this world and the people around us continue to teach us.
You used the word enjoy five times. That says a lot about you. Tell me about your retail career.
I have worked in the specialty retail business for 37 years, beginning with a locally owned clothing business in Joplin, Missouri. I have been fortunate to work for several amazing and dedicated people. I’ve learned that if you enjoy your work and the people involved, it shows and when it shows people experience that.
There’s that word again. So retail has changed a lot?
Retail brick and mortar continues to change and be redefined. I still believe in the work I do and the opportunities we have if we choose. Much of my retail experience has kept me on the retail floor. However, moves presented opportunities that also guided my path. A move from Joplin to Wichita, Kansas, in the ’80s took me to a position that furthered my expertise in clothing retail.
At that time, women were moving into the “boardroom” and needed to dress the part to compete with their male coworkers. From the retail floor, we spent time locating and contacting professionals who wanted and needed our services. It was fun and exhilarating as we offered seminars, workshops and wardrobe styling. Oddly enough, I still have contact with several of those clients. As my work there continued, I began to be part of a buying team that worked to provide a unique shopping experience and product.
In 2004, Michael and I moved to Kansas City to the downtown Crossroads Arts District where urban living was just beginning to happen. Buildings that had long been abandoned and lifeless were being rehabbed and sold as condo living spaces. We enjoyed that neighborhood until 2018 and it opened the door for my employment at Webster House.
Kansas City and Webster House have been home since 2004?
Sort of. A hiatus from Kansas City and the condo in 2006 took us to Seattle, Washington, where Michael became the COO for an outdoor equipment and outfitter company called Filson. I had a connection to a previous vendor from Webster House whom I called upon. That connection introduced me to his wife, JeanMarie Bettencourt, who had a long-tenured, successful business on the wholesale representative stage. I began working on the other side of retail, selling items in 6s and 12s as opposed to single pieces. It was exciting and challenging and the pay was straight commission. You also had to cover your own expenses, but I enjoyed learning and the challenge JeanMarie offered me. I enjoyed meeting and working with the shop owners and felt responsible to know how the products I represented could effectively help their businesses grow.
We remained in Seattle until 2010 when the housing market took a downturn and we returned to our condo in Kansas City. Mike returned to spend the next nine months with his mother, whose health was declining, and cherished every moment of their time together. I returned to the selling floor at Webster House where retail was changing. We needed to stay ahead of products and categories and while the antique business was still active, it needed to be rethought. Downtown growth and changes brought about a new performing arts center, local downtown grocery and more downtown dwellers and buildings. Our product expansion now included woman’s clothing and accessories and that began to make sense.
What have you learned from your career mentors?
Several people have influenced and furthered my path throughout my retail career. I learned early on, at my first retail job, that attention to details truly makes a difference. I also learned that giving your best and showing up sets the pace for your day. Being organized, having a plan and setting goals all help line up your priorities and allow you to focus on things you can affect, not on those you can’t. As I have learned from these good people, I’ve tried to let them know I appreciate their knowledge and what they have given.
A gentleman I worked for in Joplin taught me how to complete the sale, specifically the value of following up with a thank-you note or phone call and making the purchase become a beautifully wrapped package with a thoughtfully tied ribbon. I would notice his hands as he wrapped the package and his nicely manicured nails. This did not seem odd to me as my grandfather, who also owned a retail business, would often sit down before going to bed and perform his own self-care ritual on his hands to be ready for work the next day.
Throughout my years, I have been acutely aware of how those I work for treat others around them. My experiences in Joplin taught me respect for others. I watched my grandfather’s admiration for my grandmother, who worked late into her 70s. I had many years to watch my employers and how they treated employees and colleagues. All of these people inspired me to be mindful of others and, whenever possible, treat them with respect.
What are your unique gifts and talents, your career sweet spot?
While managing and buying keep me busy, I am always reminded that my true love is working with the customers. I enjoy learning about their lives, families and needs. I believe I have the ability to listen and suggest. I don’t oversell. I often tell them if they are not comfortable in something they try on or decide to purchase they should hold off and see if it speaks to them after going home. When appropriate, I offer to call again if they wish or look for specific items that interest them. I enjoy the relationships and the stories of their lives.
What specifically are your responsibilities as manager at Webster House?
I manage a staff of six full- and part-time people on the retail floor. I am responsible for hiring when needed, training, scheduling and ensuring this team has the tools and knowledge to succeed in selling our products. As a manager, I try to lead by example on how to work with customers, know the product and follow up with calls and thank-you notes. I encourage them to grow where they are.
Retail hours are pretty rough, yes?
Retail hours have changed from a Monday through Saturday, 9-5, schedule to now include Sundays. Webster House is open seven days a week, from morning through evening dinner service. I accept and respect the hours we work and often remind my staff that varying work schedules allow us to see the many facets of the retail floor. Flexible start-and-finish times and days off also open the door to opportunities if we choose. With my travel, I often work more than 40 hours a week but I try to find precious hours at home when possible. Retail life is not always perfect and requires me to continue to find a life | work balance. As a salaried employee I am expected to carry the load when needed. I enjoy training my staff and delegating responsibilities when I can.
What unique pressures keep you up at night?
I do struggle sometimes finding the balance between work and home life. I have a strong desire to be good at my work and also be present at home, but honestly I am probably at work more than I am at home. Michael is extremely patient and does express some concerns when I get a bit derailed. Because he has a long past history with retail, he listens, suggests and sometimes challenges me. I know he cares for me and supports my work but it is the one area that we struggle with. Often if I am concerned over a work matter or relationship at work, I find myself lying awake at night trying to process the situation. Being fair, listening, being heard are all important and sometimes I know that while I can try and fix things, what really needs to happen takes time. A friend calls that putting in the river. I like that metaphor. One of my goals this year is to try and sleep better and that means turning off the computer and phone and reading something that is uplifting or inspiring before I shut the light off.
Where’s the joy in all of this?
Remember being in school and a teacher asking someone to step forward and volunteer? I enjoy challenges and often suggest thoughts or ideas I am willing to take on and implement. I know from so many years working in this industry, you either love it or you don’t. I have been asked many times and for many years if I owned the business I was working in. That is a very deep compliment. I smile and it warms my heart that they feel my joy and genuine love for what I get to do each day. Recently, I have been repeating the mantra, I get to go to work today.
I love learning something new every day and, believe me, I get that chance if I choose.
I love feeling creative and learning from others. I am inspired by older people…their wisdom and the peace they seem to embrace. I enjoy seeing my coworkers excited about a good sale, or something they did that brought them satisfaction. I currently have two younger girls on staff and love hearing their perspectives and thoughts. I hope to continue to teach and inspire them to always seek their joy. All of those things bring me joy at the end of the day. I rest well when I know I have run a good race and worked hard.
How can a shopkeeper stay relevant and thrive in an Amazon world?
As a buyer, manager and brand ambassador, it’s important to pay attention to numbers, budgets, products and how Webster House looks at our customers new and old. We literally look at these indicators each day and week and react as we can. Our owner also looks at numbers and asks questions when she needs clarification. I read as much as I can to learn about how the industry is evolving. We talk at great length with our vendors to understand their challenges and direction. Ultimately, my position and responsibility ask me to continue to be a good steward in my work and treat my job as if the shop were my own. I talk to customers to ensure they like what we are doing, try to correct what needs correcting and listen to new ideas they might suggest or present.
Is it possible today to create a signature shopping experience?
I believe so. I know people have lots of choices but I believe in and hold in high regard our 19th-century, Romanesque-style building and all that is inside Webster House. We see new faces every day and get to tell the story of how we arrived. We are unique in that we are like four businesses in one: the retail shop, restaurant, catering and special event space. We have the ability to help our customers celebrate life in all its facets and provide a beautiful experience in a building with soul and history.
Our restaurant is very special and works with local farmers to create signature dishes that are creative and thoughtful. Oftentimes our chef uses ingredients from snout to tail to be efficient. Sauces and flavorings are made from scratch and deliver beautifully on the plate as well as the palate.
We create a special experience with the staff we have. They enjoy the customer and ability to create a special moment for them during their visit. While we do not have an online shopping presence at this time, we believe it is important to pay attention to what is right under our nose. From entrance to exit, greeting, welcoming and then thanking our customers is something that happens each day, each visit.
What do you believe the consumer today needs or wants?
It is no surprise that shopping, customers and access to goods have changed considerably from when I began my career. I believed customers would surely want to continue to touch, try on and experience a brick-and-mortar business. And yes, many still do. But make no mistake, Amazon and online shopping and many forms of social media take attention away from what I believe is still really special. I find that customers love a phone call to check on them…maybe they have been sick, maybe a spouse passed, maybe they have moved and downsized. I enjoy the conversation and, like slow food, slow conversations have relevance in the retail setting.
Remembering a birthday, anniversary or the loss of a loved one is important to me and I love how it touches a client. I hear it in their voice. So it’s not just about the selling, it is about being genuine and caring and that is returned to me every day. While I understand and respect the need for lots of choices, I continue to see that customers want to be relevant and remembered as individuals, not just parts of algorithms.
“Like slow food, slow conversations have relevance in the retail setting…customers want to be relevant and remembered as individuals, not just parts of algorithms.”
What makes you come alive personally?
It really is the small things…the smiles, the thank-yous, the longevity of life. The sunshine, a day with my husband, learning something new…all give me a good jolt of satisfaction.
To be filled up every day, I need clarity and good rest. I need to be organized and focused. It doesn’t always happen and some days I have to accept that and then pick up where the path is leading.
I’ve always had a lot of empathy for people serving in the retail world, especially at the holidays. How do you bend over backwards to serve and please and do it with a smile?
Yes, there are days I feel I need a break from always being in front of the customer, but I must admit that when I start to have that pity party, a sweet face shows up in my day and suddenly I am focused on them, not me. I am always amazed how that works out perfectly on time.
On occasion, when I can, I leave work 30 minutes or so early to go home and get recharged with Mike and our evening.
How do you learn and grow, and what inspires you to be better?
I truly enjoy reading. I like reading to learn, explore and consider new ideas. If I were asked to choose between a movie and book, I would probably choose reading. While I know it’s mostly a singular sport, it does help keep me focused. Mike is still a newspaper reader and I love that he wants me to be informed and aware of what is happening around us. Likewise, when I read something that inspires me, I will share with him or others who are important to me.
I truly enjoy learning from younger people…the technology they use and what their lifestyles are like. I’m genuinely interested in what a few young people in my life will be doing in 10 to 20 years.
While reading and learning are important to me, I know that I am not perfect in so many ways. Being able to look at a less-than-stellar response, decision or reaction is important, as is knowing that tomorrow offers another opportunity to strive to do better.
Sorry. Stuck on reading. What’s on your reading or watchlist?
Many materials come across my emails. Some have merit, some not so much. I do sometimes find myself drowning in discerning what is relevant and what is not. Whenever I fly, I use the time on the plane to catch up. It might be an article in Vogue, Bon Appetite, Yoga Journal or maybe something that is retail related and seems to have meaning at the moment.
Who inspires you?
Because I work with mostly female customers, I am constantly inspired by their stories. They share their lives, successes and losses. I am amazed by their ability to move forward even during difficult times. I admire how those who have lost spouses or family at young ages put the next foot forward. I am inspired by young people who are not afraid to make a move or career change. I am inspired by my mother Judie who is still alive. As a single mother of three and schoolteacher, she was always thinking ahead…down to the grocery list, particularly around holiday times. She and my stepfather Philip still live in their home, and she continues with her exercise and social clubs. A cancer survivor with Crohn’s disease, she never misses a birthday or anniversary with a card. As I age, I continue to try and prepare myself for when she is gone. None of the planning and organization I alluded to earlier will prepare for that. And from that I will learn again.
With your keen eye, what shops have you visited that you love?
My travels with work have also allowed some time for creative renewal. Years ago while attending a market in LA, I had the opportunity to walk into a beautiful store called Anne Fontaine. A small shop, mostly blouses, mostly white, but the fabrics used, the designs, the details…it was like touching works of art. I also loved another shop when we lived in Seattle called Baby & Company. Beautifully curated, European clothing and accessories. I have to say it makes me sad as I struggle to name the shops and recall all the beautiful places. Most of them do not exist today.
Where do you go to market?
Now as a buyer, I travel several times throughout the year to New York, Atlanta and Dallas markets. We meet so many wonderful artists at the New York clothing markets. They are a beautiful reminder that we live in such a creative world that constantly looks for solutions for our lives.
I am responsible for vendor contacts, orders placed, product selection and how product gets placed on the retail floor. We look at daily sales numbers and try to react to what is or isn’t happening as the season continues. Our buying trips include studying selling numbers, product categories and a planned budget based on prior sales. I travel with Webster House CEO Kristi Burns. She is new to Webster House but not new to the restaurant side of the business. Traveling with her is a pleasure and opportunity to teach her about the retail side of the business. When we attend markets, we call on current vendors with which we have had success. We also keep our eyes open for new vendors and directions to consider. Our buying plan usually has a six-month lead time, meaning the buy arrives in six months for the season ahead.
You live in the world of fashion. If you and Mike were going on a date, where would you go and what would you wear?
When Mike and I travel for pleasure, we try to find a local restaurant or retail shop or something of significance to the city. We love to talk to locals to learn about history and get details. We will usually pack something nice to wear to dinner. Nothing very dressy, but comfortable and considered. We try to walk a lot, so footwear and rainwear are musts. I have traveled enough to know to not overpack. One is best with comfortable, appropriate pieces that can dress up or down. Torn jeans and trends are probably not in my suitcase.
As an influencer in the retail world, there must be pressure to “wear” a certain persona? What do you wear at home when you’re alone and there’s no concern the doorbell will ring?
The blur between work and casual wear for me is hard to distinguish. I am a practical shopper and if I wear it to work and it sustains me, then I probably will make it work on more casual days as well. On days off or evenings at home, we have a saying at our house, “Go get into your homies.” That’s when the relaxing begins. If I get in yoga in the morning, I might actually stay in that clothing while I am running errands. Brushing my teeth, combing my hair, putting on some lipstick might just be enough to get me to answer the door if needed. I don’t fret too much about that.
Tell me about your home…the style you’ve created there?
We lived in a condo from 2004 until the end of 2018. We were ready for a change and truly stumbled across this sweet little home built in 1908. We like to walk and drive around other neighborhoods and this one really spoke to us. There was a for sale sign in the yard so we called the realtor. We looked, we loved, we listed the condo and it all happened very quickly. We moved in that December and then the spring rains came…in spite of the known and unknown things we faced we love this home and its true character.
I would describe our style as contemporary classic. We have a mix of contemporary furniture, hand-me-downs and antiques. We’ve purchased art that is meaningful to us. Michael now has a small yard again and truly enjoys being outside in the warmer weather. We both have space to retreat. I have my sewing room. He has his stereo and TV area. That’s nice.
Do you and Michael have pets?
We do not have pets and never thought we would during our condo years. Now we talk about it but also know it’s a commitment. As we age and get to travel more, we enjoy our time away from it all.
Pets are a so easy, so hard decision. Is there life after retail?
I always try to keep my eyes and ears open to what’s next. I do love my work and all the opportunities that come with it, but I also know that age brings changes to family and personal needs. I talk to a lot of people about their work and businesses. I think about what I might do next with my skill set. I believe I will want to remain in the creative world somehow. I would like to write, to be part of guiding something.