Store finds inventive ways to attract customers

By Susan Orr

Evansville Courier & Press

Published: Friday, April 8 2011 1:03 p.m. MDT

**ADVANCED FOR USE SUNDAY, APRIL 10 AND THEREAFTER** The Newburgh Country Store's memorabilia hanging on its walls is as American as John Wayne, Mae West and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Newburgh Country Store, in Newburgh, Ind. on Jan. 27, 2011 looks nearly the same as it did in 1964 when Kurt Kluger opened it, but the inside merchandise has changed with time.

Denny Simmons, The Evansville Courier & Press) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

NEWBURGH, Ind. — In some ways, the Newburgh Country Store is old-fashioned — even ageless.

The downtown Newburgh establishment offers a side porch with seating. It sells everything from penny candy to hats, and if you buy coffee, a staff member will grind it for you using an antique coffee grinder. If you're so inclined, you can sit down and relax at a table with a built-in checkerboard.

It's the type of place, said proprietor Nathan Kluger, that people visit in childhood and continue coming back to with their own children and grandchildren.

"This place is precious to a good many people," Nathan said.

But if you focus only on the old-time atmosphere of the store, you'll miss the fact that the establishment actually has evolved quite a bit since Nathan's grandfather, Kurt Kluger, first opened the store in 1964.

Kurt and his wife, Marilyn, owned the store until 2007, when they sold it to son Robert Kluger and his wife, Susan. Robert lives in Indianapolis and works for IBM, leaving the day-to-day operations of the store to his son Nathan.

"It has weathered a lot of changes over the decades," Robert Kluger said of the business.

Many of the changes, he said, have been business decisions designed to keep the store profitable.

Back in the 1960s, Robert Kluger said, locally owned stores were more prevalent, and the era of the indoor shopping mall was just beginning.

"It was a totally different type of environment."

But malls and national chains started to proliferate, and rising gas prices meant people weren't as keen to drive as far to shop, Kluger said.

In response to these realities, he said, the store found some creative ways to attract customers.

The country store was a charter member of the organization Historic Newburgh, established in 1980 to preserve and promote downtown Newburgh.

Robert Kluger said his father also was instrumental in organizing Newburgh's annual Fiddler Fest as well as its annual Herb Festival and Plant Sale.

"My dad was very keen on giving people good reasons to come to the store," Kluger said.

The seeds of the herb festival, which began in 1982, were planted during a road trip, he said.

His parents were traveling and saw someone selling herbs. Marilyn Kluger, an accomplished cook, bought a large quantity of the plants from the vendor. Her husband asked why, and she told him it was because no one closer to home sold the herbs.

"The light bulb went off," Robert Kluger said.

So the country store started selling herbs and found they were wildly successful. From that, the Herb Festival was born.

In recent years, the Newburgh Country Store has further expanded the scope of its plant sales.

After Robert and his wife took over the store, he said, "I wanted to leverage the things we were doing well and put some fixes in for the things that weren't going so well."

One of the store's strengths was its plant sales and herb festival, so in 2007 the Newburgh Country Store started selling plants at temporary seasonal locations around the Tri-State.

This year, Newburgh Country Store plans on selling plants at five seasonal greenhouses in addition to its Newburgh store, Kluger said.

He also has made sure the store keeps up with changes in e-commerce.

The store launched a new website last year. It's not set up yet to sell products online — but that's a goal, Kluger said.

A Facebook page was launched last summer, and the store also sends marketing information to customers via e-mail. The store has offered special discounts through online coupon sites Half Off Depot (a Courier & Press program), Seize the Deal and Groupon.

Also changing with the times is the selection of merchandise that the store carries. In the flower-child era, for instance, the store carried posters and black lights.

"It always carried a product that was relevant for the current day," Nathan Kluger said.

During the recent recession, Nathan Kluger said, he noticed that consumers were more interested in purchasing garden items and consumable goods such as food, bath products and plants — so the store started carrying more of those items.

Nathan Kluger said he aims, as much as possible, to carry locally and regionally produced products. Currently, those items include handmade pottery, honey and coffee.

Robert Kluger said his father's community approach to business has helped the Newburgh Country Store, but also the community in general.

"What's good for somebody else in Newburgh is probably good for me."

Nathan Kluger agreed, saying that a place such as the Newburgh Country Store contributes to the Tri-State's economic health overall.

Big business is important to an area, he said, but so are the locally owned businesses.

As an example, Nathan said, local residents often bring out-of-town visitors to the country store.

If the visitors enjoy their shopping experience, this can help the visitors develop a positive feeling about Southwestern Indiana in general.

"We cannot define ourselves by the number of Wal-Marts we have within five minutes," Nathan said.

"You cannot have a rich experience for the people who live in the region without the other side of the story — and this (store) is part of that."

Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

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