Phil and Penny Olinghouse on Keeping The Toggery Competitive 65 Years After Opening

Phil Olinghouse grew up in Little Rock and studied marketing and retailing at the University of Arkansas, graduating in 1969. On graduating from the UA, Olinghouse took a job with J.C. Penney, working there for 11 years before becoming the fifth owner with his wife, Penny, of The Toggery in 1980.

Penny also grew up in Little Rock and graduated from the UA with a Bachelor of Science in nursing. She worked as a nurse practitioner until the birth of the couple’s two children. Penny entered retail when she and Phil bought The Toggery. She went on to partner in a women’s retail store, Companions, with her friend Brooke Miller. After Penny Olinghouse and Miller sold that business in 2006, Penny returned to The Toggery full time.

The Toggery opened in 1948 in the 5700 block of Kavanaugh Boulevard in the Heights. In 1962, it moved to its current Heights location at 5919 R St., a 1,500-SF site that recently was expanded to 6,000 SF. The business added a west Little Rock store in 1978. That store, which carries school uniforms for more than 45 schools across the state and region, is now in Pleasant Ridge Town Center.

The Toggery, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, also sells fine children’s clothes, shoes, toys and books.

Q: What has The Toggery, which sells high-end children’s products, done to stay in business in a world of cheap goods?

A: Our lineage at The Toggery goes back to the founding in 1948 of a better children’s store on Kavanaugh. It has been our philosophy that customers, no matter the price range, expect a quality product at a fair price. Yes, we are proud to carry the finest brands of children’s products, but we have always sold them at a fair price while providing outstanding service and an array of free services. We also pride ourselves on being a part of the community. As an example, we are very active in school donation programs.

How long has The Toggery been selling school uniforms and how big a part is that of your business? How has occupying that niche helped your business?

Our stores had continuous growth from 1980, when Penny and I purchased The Toggery, through the early 1990s. At that time, the school uniforms movement started to cause serious erosion to our school-age apparel business. In 1995, we entered the uniform business through the acquisition of another company. This filled a void for our customers, many of them private or parochial school patrons, providing them quality school uniforms. We now sell uniforms all over Arkansas and on our e-commerce site, ToggeryKids.com.

What other changes have you made to keep The Toggery relevant in the marketplace?

We added a complete selection of children’s books. A few years later, we saw the demise of children’s specialty shoe stores, so we picked up children’s shoes. This year, we have made an effort to incorporate toys into our stores for the same reason. Each of these additions has enhanced the shopping experience for our customers. We feel busy parents appreciate the ability to pull up to the door, get a birthday or baby gift, have it wrapped and be on their way in just minutes. This business model — quality apparel, shoes, books and toys in one local place — has fueled our growth during the past several years. It is a highly efficient response to the busy lives of the customers we serve.

What’s different about marketing to children and their parents?

We have always marketed our stores to parents and grandparents equally, as they are both important parts of our customer base. In 2005, we formed a Web team and began using social media and email blasts to market our stores. This media allowed us to communicate to our customers in a powerful, effective way. We meet weekly and aim to provide information about the products we feel are of interest to our customers. We are very thoughtful about the frequency of emails and social media posts, so that we stay relevant. It has been exciting to discover viable new media that are perfect fits for our store and our customers. We have never before been able to reach our target audience as effectively or efficiently.

What was your best business decision? Your worst?

Our best business decision was embracing technology. In 1985, we had the first point of sale system in a specialty store in Little Rock. We are currently on our fourth POS system. In 2005, we started our e-commerce site and began marketing through social media. Both of these events have helped us serve our customers more effectively and grow our business. Our business philosophy has been fairly conservative. That has prevented us from getting too far over our skis and making a really disastrous decision. However, it also meant we were too conservative, early on, by not investing in quality people. But we changed. Today, we have a great staff. Retail is about the customer experience, and our people make our store and our experience. We’re happy that we learned and even more proud of the team we have.