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From natural fibers to fair-trade

New Mexico Business Weekly, NM

All good things must come to an end.

At least, that’s how Melinda Rand Kenefic was feeling two years ago when she saw a precipitous drop in sales at Celebro, the Nob Hill clothing store she and her husband, George Kenefic, opened in 1991.

The business, which featured natural fiber clothing — originally for larger-sized women, and later, for men and children — had steadily been producing about $375,000 in annual revenue for more than a decade. Equally important to Rand Kenefic, the loyal consumers who frequented the shop had become “a sort of support group,” one that shared everything from births and divorces to job changes, she says.

“The store, at its peak, was a community gathering place for women of boomer age going through life transitions,” says Rand Kenefic, who is 52. “All of life’s changes happened at our store and everything revolved around service, whether it meant someone was buying clothes or not.”

Then, during the summer of 2007, something radically changed.

“All of a sudden, it was as if everything we’d ever done before that was ‘spot-on,’ just stopped working,” Rand Kenefic says. “There was this plummeting of revenue.”

After assessing the situation, Rand Kenefic attributed the decline to two factors. The first was that she had “outlived” her customer base.

“We were growing up and we didn’t have the same needs anymore,” she says. “And I wasn’t marketing to younger people — or really interested in marketing to younger people.”

The second factor, she says, was that she had done her job too well; that is, the clothing she sold was of such high and durable quality, that customers kept telling her they didn’t need to buy new items because the old ones were still perfectly serviceable. Rand Kenefic found she constantly had to mark down items to near cost to eliminate them and make room for newer fashions.

“The problem with clothing is, it’s like milk,” she says. “If you don’t sell it by the expiration date, it goes down the drain.”

With her husband increasingly happy in a job with the New Mexico Loan Fund, helping other small businesses start and survive, Rand Kenefic says she felt increasingly unhappy and unfulfilled.

She toyed with the idea of returning to school for a doctorate, or opening some other kind of business. But, in the end, “I just didn’t want to give up the store,” she says.

“So we went deep into our core values and decided the store needed to speak to a sense of community that went beyond just us,” she says. “We looked at the whole concept and reevaluated product demand and consumer desire, as well as our own personal commitment.

“And I decided if I’m not going to get rich, at least I’m going to be proud of how I’m earning a living.”

That led to the transformation of Celebro Natural Clothing to Celebro Natural Living. (The name change took place a year ago.) Working nights and weekends, the Kenefics renovated their 1,200-square- foot retail space, just south of Central Avenue on Carlisle Boulevard NE, to accommodate a department store product mix, with everything from sheets to purses to children’s books.

But not just any department store; Celebro Natural Living only sells items from “best practice, fair trade” businesses, many of which support immigrants or small scale producers in developing countries. There is also an attempt to embrace multi-culturalism and a dedication to preservation of the Earth, Rand Kenefic says.

If you walk into the cozy two-room retail space now, you’ll find — among hundreds of items — recycled glass vases, hand-dyed scarves, books teaching children about other cultures and platters made of wooden chopsticks. There are still some natural fiber clothes, but far fewer than when the business began.

The only store in Albuquerque with a similar mix, Rand Kenefic says, is Peacecraft, which is run as a nonprofit.

In the past, Rand Kenefic says, an average sale at their store was about $150 “and some people would spend $1,000 without blinking an eye.”

The average sale now is closer to $100, and many products are priced under $25. But the diversified inventory allows continual tracking of what is selling well and allows the couple to make adjustments quickly and avoid a backlog of aging items.

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