How a Designer Answered When a Retail Opportunity Knocked

Interior designer Terry Sullivan made the leap to retail with Willow Tree Design, a home decor and window treatment business. 

Diane Falvey
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Willow Tree Designs
Willow Tree Design is a mix of window treatments, furniture and home accessories, including seasonal holiday decor.

Just outside of the south side of Chicago in the Beverly area, rests Willow Tree Design, a hybrid interior design/retail and window treatment shop that has gone through a number of changes. For the last six years, veteran interior designer Terry Sullivan has made the retail shop her own, complete with a Hunter-Douglas window treatment business, an eclectic mix of home furnishings and accessories, and her interior design expertise. 

Sullivan has been a designer for 33 years, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in the discipline. She started like so many other designers do, working for another design firm. When she started her family, she decided to practice her craft independently, a path she then followed for 15 years. 

Willow Tree Designs
Terry Sullivan, along with her husband Paul, 
have run Willow Tree Design for six years.

Following a medical emergency for her husband, Paul, a part owner in Willow Tree Design, Sullivan says, she needed more structure, and as luck would have it, she got a call from the company that sold rugs and window treatments for Costco. “I needed to get back into the workforce, so I took the role as employee designer at Custom Decorators,” she says. While successful in the role, Sullivan adds, “you can’t do your own design business, and I felt like I was drowning in beige.” 

From there, Sullivan moved on to work with her installers, which was more creative but involved an hour-long commute, so she stepped back to work for a design studio store in La Grange, much closer to home. Just a month into this role, Sullivan got what she says was the opportunity of a lifetime, one her new boss said she should take. 

A Retail Leap

That’s when the retail outlet for Willow Tree Design dropped into Sullivan’s hands. The shop, located next to a carpet store in a strip mall, had a history as a window covering studio already, and the real estate belonged to the carpet store owner. When the original owner of 20 years decided to retire, the shop went through some stops and starts, and was eventually offered to Sullivan. She agreed if all client files stayed. They did.

Willow Tree Designs
Willow Tree Design houses home accessories, some furniture and a window treatment center, along with Sullivan’s design services.

With her background, Sullivan understood the window treatment business, and she also had interior design expertise. “The opportunity to have this store fell into my lap,” she says. “We would have been idiots not to take it.” While she says it’s a small space, the shop gives Sullivan the room she needs to showcase product and meet with clients, whether for window treatments or full design jobs. “I do everything from somebody’s wood blinds in their bathroom to gutting the entire house,” she says. “No job is too small.”

One of the initial challenges in the new space was getting up to speed on the retail side of things. “We didn’t borrow any money, but as our business has grown, we’ve been able to do more, and get more people into the store.” Getting people into the store has been one hurdle Sullivan sees shrinking as the business becomes more established. People who knew of the original business, referrals from the carpet store and her own growing clientele have increased her foot traffic. Sullivan also throws an annual holiday party, complete with decorations, drinks and food, hosting up to 70 people at the annual event. 

“I’m not in a town where people will stroll by,” she says, noting that it can still be a surprise when people wander in. “There’s a lot of traffic from the carpet store or designer friends that don’t have the same buying accounts. A lot of my customers will come in for those wood blinds and then realize I do so much more,” she notes. In addition to window treatments in the shop, Sullivan has reupholstery and drapery services, as well as furniture — some of which she refinishes — and accessories. The aesthetic in the shop is relaxed, she says, noting that she veers away from having a specific style, which allows her design customers the room to express their own styles. “I don’t inflict my personal taste on people,” she says, noting that during the holidays, however, the shop is adorned with Christmas decor and pillows that
she is reluctant to take down when the season ends. 

When asked what she sees as the best advantages of her leap from interior designer to retailer/interior designer, Sullivan says the shop gives her much-needed structure. “I go to work every day and it helps me to be more disciplined. I also have a place to meet my clients and share samples.” 

Instead of starting at the client location, they start at her showroom. She asks her potential clients to bring ballpark measurements and pictures of the room they are considering changing. Starting client conversations at the store also allows her to share available options, particularly in the window treatment side of the business. “Nine times out of 10, customers end up picking something different than what they came in for,” she says. “It helps to have the displays, and it helps me upsell because I have all of the fabric choices.” She can ask about draperies and pillows and more. 

“We’ve had a chance to sit at the table, relax, and customers get to know me a little better,” Sullivan adds, establishing an important first connection. “I’m going to sell them what’s best for their room, their needs and their family,” she says. “I’m looking at the best way to serve my client’s needs.” 

Her Willow Tree Design retail space allows her to do just that.