- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

BENTONVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Because he knew Bentonville, Bill Oakley said, he never doubted his retail success.

Oakley opened a Spice & Tea Exchange franchise in August 2012 just off the downtown Bentonville Square. It’s a small space stocked with, as you would expect, a wide assortment of spices and teas, which create a distinctive aromatic experience.

When Oakley, 56, retired after 27 years with Kimberly-Clark, he wanted something to do in his “retirement,” so he decided to open a retail shop. He read about the Spice & Tea Exchange in a magazine and liked the concept.

Oakley contacted the company’s headquarters and asked about opening a franchise in Bentonville. The company was hesitant, but Oakley convinced the executives that the store would not only survive but thrive, the Arkansas Business (http://bit.ly/1NDM7lD ) reported.

So far, he has been proved correct as sales have risen steadily in the three years since the exchange opened.

“They were a little skeptical at first because they were here about four years ago for a site visit,” Oakley said. “They were 50-50. I was confident. The museum had started, and (the city of Bentonville) had done a lot of renovation on the square by that time.

“I’ve beat my projections and I’ve shown growth every year for all three years. I’m very happy with the way things are going. I see it continuing.”

Oakley knew the Bentonville downtown area was about to undergo a transformation. He has lived for the past 10 years in the downtown area and was on the board of directors of Downtown Bentonville Inc.

Oakley wasn’t always such a fan of Bentonville. He said the first 10 years he lived in the town - well, he hated it.

“We drove to Fayetteville for everything, or Tulsa,” Oakley said. “Now, in the last five years, I never go to Fayetteville, unfortunately, or Tulsa. We have everything we need right here.”

Oakley was so sold that he said he would have opened the store only if he could obtain a Bentonville location. He leased a building on A Street, just behind the Chamber of Commerce office, from the city’s Parking Authority.

“I saw the potential of downtown, and I knew the direction it was going,” Oakley said. “They’ve opened up all these restaurants, and along with restaurants you need a little retail. That’s why I went the retail route. I had no alternate location, either. If it hadn’t been Bentonville, then I would still be with Kimberly-Clark.”

Monica Kumar, the newly named executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc., said the vendor community of the city - orbiting the retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. - helps support specialty shops such as Oakley’s Spice & Tea Exchange and Bobby and Paula Critselous’ Three Dog Bakery, which recently opened.

“Having the Home Office, in many ways, has given impetus to a variety of small businesses to grow and flourish in the area,” Kumar said. “Wal-Mart brings in such a variety of different people from all over the country and all over the world. It creates spaces for eclectic businesses.”

Many of the imports come to northwest Arkansas expecting to have the same type of lifestyle choices available in the communities they left. It’s one reason why many of the cities in northwest Arkansas are spending so much time and energy on developing trails and walking communities and the like.

Oakley said Wal-Mart or vendors have brought prospective employees into his store during their “wine-and-dine” tours of downtown Bentonville.

“I love the different customers that come in,” Oakley said. “I love seeing people from all over the world come in and shop. They take pictures of the store. Five years ago, downtown Bentonville at 5 o’clock was a ghost town. Now it wakes up at 5 o’clock.

“Now on a Friday or Saturday night, there is a waiting list at the restaurants. When there is a waiting list, that’s when I get busy.”

In its first week of existence, Three Dog Bakery has been busy. The franchise store makes and sells all-natural dog treats and food.

Paula Critselous and her husband, both of whom are 50, wanted to do something together and in northwest Arkansas since their two children attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. When Bobby worked for Morgan Keegan in Memphis, the family used to visit a Three Dog Bakery in nearby Collierville, Tennessee.

“We’re empty nesters,” Paula Critselous said. “We loved going there. My daughter used to say when she grew up she wanted to work there.”

Critselous said the couple looked at a Rogers location near the Promenade Mall but had their hearts set on Bentonville. The location, on Central Avenue, is just off the square and, like Oakley’s exchange, there is a lot of walk-by traffic from visitors to the square or nearby residents.

“It’s the perfect location,” Critselous said. “We were blessed to get this location. Walking traffic is much better for our location.”

Kumar said small-business entrepreneurs such as Oakley and the Critselouses are valuable not only for providing successful businesses but for inspiring the next person who is thinking about doing the same.

“The Spice & Tea store is growing, and Three Dog Bakery is incredibly niche, but every time I walk by it, it’s busy,” Kumar said. “People see it takes a lot of courage to run a small business. The community is supportive of someone taking on the challenge. Everybody wants to see everybody succeed, especially small businesses.”

Oakley said his first-year sales exceeded his projections by 30 percent and rose 18 percent in the second year. Sales for 2015 are currently up approximately 12 percent.

“My business is about half-local, half-tourists, and it has been that way since I opened,” Oakley said. “The more tourism, the more you’ll see the little specialty shops popping up. There have been a lot that have popped up in the last couple of years, actually.”

The success of his store has Oakley enjoying life and work with no regrets. He said that even though he never doubted The Spice & Tea Exchange would work, he was pleasantly surprised at how well things have gone.

Oakley acknowledged that his involvement with Downtown Bentonville Inc. helped him have a better plan - “I knew that something was going to happen down here,” Oakley said - and he believes he timed it perfectly with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opening in November 2011 and the ongoing development of downtown.

“I never at one time said, ‘Oh, my gosh. What I have gotten myself into?’” Oakley said. “Everything fell into place so smoothly.”

Oakley said he has been pushing for other businesses to adjust their store hours to the diverse clientele. The Spice & Tea Exchange is open seven days a week and is open until 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

“I know this is the last place I’d like to be on a Sunday, but I get customers from out of town who say, ‘Thank you for being open. Where else can we go shop?’” Oakley said. “I’d like Bentonville to become a seven-day-a-week, a little-later-at night type of place.”

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Information from: Arkansas Business, http://www.arkansasbusiness.com

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