From THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT by KIMBERLY PIERCEALL
SURVIVAL INSTINCTS: Reports of the death of brick-and-mortar retail may be greatly exaggerated. “Apocalypse” has been the go-to descriptor with each new report of a vacant mall store or a chain filing for bankruptcy. And while the challenges are significant – online shopping, private equity debt, a shift toward buying experiences rather than things – a whole host of retailers continue to survive, and even thrive, thank-you-very-much. As the holidays approach, we plan to profile several local businesses that have exhibited a particular longevity or are doing something unique to get people into their stores and to the cash registers.
Name: Hamilton Perkins Collection
Owner: Hamilton Perkins
What he sells: Bags made from recycled materials including vinyl billboards, plastic water bottles and pineapple leaf fiber
Location: 300 Monticello Ave., Norfolk, second floor of MacArthur Center in the former Banana Republic space; hamiltonperkins.com.
When he’s not selling bags to Fortune 100 companies for Coachella music festival VIPs, you can find Hamilton Perkins, 34, and his “earth bags” made of recycled materials at a table at the Ocean View art festival, or the Hampton Roads VegFest or the Bodacious Bazaar, just three recent examples. There is no market too small or large for Perkins. It’s part of the longtime entrepreneur’s approach to reaching customers wherever they may be.
Since May 1, the retail employee turned financial planner with Bank of America turned retail entrepreneur, has also run a pop-up store in MacArthur Center mall in downtown Norfolk, filling empty space left behind by Banana Republic, one of several mall retailers to leave this year along with Nordstrom.
But he does things the previous occupant, a traditional chain retailer, did not. He estimated that he held 85 events in the store during the summer, including a fashion show, panel discussions and live podcast recordings, as well as showcasing the wares of fellow retailers in the mall.
“We tend to see an uptick in traffic and sales regardless of the event,” he said.
He expected to only be in the MacArthur space for a matter of months, but a few months turned into several, and now he plans to stay at least through the holidays, maybe longer.
His bags are carried in 160 retail shops globally, including three others at MacArthur Center (Cardi, For All Handkind and the Tidewater Community College Barnes & Noble bookstore) as well as the bookstores at Old Dominion University (his alma mater) and Norfolk State University.
Among his customers are several Fortune 500 companies and other publicly-traded corporations who either give him their vinyl advertising materials (think billboards and banners) for him to use to make bags they’ll give as corporate gifts or that they’ll ultimately sell under their own brands. Zappos was one. T.J. Maxx, Dow Chemical and Nordstrom are others. Hewlett Packard commissioned him to make 3,000 bags for VIPs at the Coachella music festival in Southern California, which has become a must-attend event for influencers and style leaders. Ferguson Enterprises of Newport News gave him leftover signs from its showroom that he made into backpack duffel bags that were sold in a store for Ferguson employees.
Perkins said his 3-year-old company found its rhythm when he started working directly with corporations.
That relationship started naturally, he said. With his mission focused on recycling materials to make new products, he had to find the materials somewhere, and they came from the companies themselves. It evolved from there. Their corporate clients were offering their leftover materials and wanted his products, too.
“In a way, it was their idea,” he said of the companies who appreciated his way of recycling their materials in a fun way.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said of that side of the business, as well as the potential to grow his footprint in retail stores.
Last year, his sales were heavily weighted to his corporate clients, 80 percent wholesale and 20 percent retail, he estimated. Now? It’s about a 50-50 split.
What he’s discovered is that customers still want to touch what they’re buying in person, especially when it comes to unique fabrics. Having the physical store, “amplifies the e-commerce experience,” he said.
Using material made from recycled plastic bottles (a canvas material), banana leaves (leather-like fabric) and used vinyl billboards for colorful accents, Perkins started selling his bags in 2016 after he raised nearly $26,000 from 150 people in a crowdfunding campaign. Now, he works with factories in New York, Los Angeles and China to produce them. He has one other full-time employee, and a part-time worker.
Locally, he’s been making “really, really small batches,” of prototypes and limited-edition products that might be made on a larger scale.
While the story goes that Perkins left the banking world for retailing when he couldn’t find the ideal carry-on for travel and designed his own, he’s been an entrepreneur for as long as he can remember. Whether it was selling candy, cutting grass or washing cars. He worked retail at local shops, including Legends and Cream. He even had a locker-decorating business in middle school. He went into banking after college thinking the corporate environment would lend itself to a quicker learning experience, but he kept being pulled to start his own business.
“I had always been entrepreneurial he said,” he said.
As for what advice he might give others with an entrepreneurial spirit? Be patient but (and this is where it gets tricky) move quickly, he said. He pointed to Wall Street and the economy’s lengthy positive run as a good reason to get in now before it all slows down again. “It’s got an expiration date at some point.”