Forethought, focus and fun yield fabulous results

What if I came to you recently for advice on opening a business? What if I said I was going to open a 15,000-square-foot, brick-and-mortar, retail store selling gift items and furniture? What if I told you I was going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars creating this store? What if I told you it was in suburban Detroit? Put down the phone, there is no need to have me committed. The suggestions I’m making are exactly the choices made by Mary Liz Curtin and Stephen Scannell just a few years ago, and thanks to their understanding of The Awesome Experience, their store, Leon & Lulu, was in the black in less than four months, and today, it is a highly profitable multimillion-dollar destination store in Clawson, Mich.

It’s no secret that most new retail ventures fail, so dissecting the strategy behind Leon & Lulu’s success is a worthwhile endeavor that neatly exposes The Awesome Experience components.


Mary Liz and Stephen love retail. They both had decades of prior retail experience and Mary Liz speaks, writes and consults for the retail industry. As Detroit locals, they were well aware of the economic challenges in their area. With unemployment greater than 15 percent and the decimation of the automobile industry, Detroit business had suffered for more than a decade. But through their research, they realized that more than 80 percent of suburbanites still had jobs and needed to buy things.

Furniture wears out, gets dated and eventually needs to be replaced. Gift items may seem like an unnecessary luxury, but in reality, they are a necessary staple in American life, so Mary Liz was intent on making sure she had something worth buying.

A big part of Leon & Lulu’s success is due to the amount of research and forethought that Mary Liz and Stephen put into their buying and selling process. Months before they began, the couple created a detailed business plan. They were crystal clear on their expenses and how much they would need to sell each day and at what margins just to keep the doors open.

Their research and forethought helped them find the best vendors for products that met their pricing and margin criteria. They keep a steady overstock of products reflecting a meticulous selection of core performers with room for new and exciting experiments.


From day one, Mary Liz designed Leon & Lulu to delight. Stephen spent months searching for the perfect facility. They found it in the form of a 1941 suburban roller rink that was still in use. It had charm, was unique and could accommodate large events, which would become the key to customer growth. They were intentional in rehabbing the space to be party central. They made it caterer-friendly, bought land next to the store for parking and planned the interior to accommodate crowds. They even left the roller floor intact and kept 300 pairs of skates for decoration.

Mary Liz has made it easy for individuals and community groups alike to host everything from birthday parties and showers to fund-raisers like their annual Hysterical, Historical Museum party, and they even host artist’s markets. Apparently one still-living patron has reserved the store for her wake, in hopefully the distant future.

Mary Liz and Stephen are able to manage all of this off-the-wall chaos by being obsessively organized behind the scenes. Mary Liz also supports all of the charitable events by donating 10 percent of the proceeds, and she increases her customer database through co-promotion.

The Unexpected

What takes Leon & Lulu from great to awesome is the creativity. In a day when so much of the retail experience is contrived, Mary Liz finds ways to personalize the interaction of her store with the customers.

Hospitality for the whole family starts the second you enter and smell the cookies baking. You can often hear laughter over the fun, hip music. The staff will gift wrap everything at no charge while they joke around and engage you in warm, friendly discussion.

Once you are a friend of the store, you will find yourself the unexpected recipient of spontaneous gifts for a birthday or when your spirits need a lift. Mary Liz even has a budget for giving gifts to those who are grieving or suffering. Her comprehensive approach to gift giving has led to a deeply loyal following and steady sales growth. The gift component of the store initially designed to be a supplement to furniture sales, now represents more than 60 percent of the store’s revenue.

Leon & Lulu effectively showcases the benefits of stringent forethought, consistent focus and passion for your business. Here is some self-analysis to help make you awesome, Mary Liz style:

  • Have you identified and promoted the passion you and your customers share?
  • What rarely filled need still exists in your community that you can uniquely provide?
  • How can you take a mundane business process and make it fun?
  • How much budget do you give in your business for experimentation?

Often businesses focus on customers or operations or products or promotion or environment but rarely do they put together all of the above. Successful business today rarely happens by accident, so get planning, get connected and get creative.

KEVIN DAUM is the principal of TAE International and the author of several books, including “ROAR! Get Heard in the Sales and Marketing Jungle.” He is a regular speaker and consultant on marketing and book development. Reach him at [email protected]. Check out Kevin’s Quest for the Jewish Super Bowl Ring at