Customer service is secret of The Popinjay’s success

Strong advocate for downtown Olympia calls for more support from community to keep vibrancy of businesses alive

Staff writerApril 13, 2014 

Popinjay owner Janis Dean, holding store greeter Scamp, has actively pursued projects to improve the downtown Olympia core for years.



    • Owner: Janis Dean.
    • Location: 414 Capitol Way S., Olympia.
    • Years in business: Although Popinjay has had as many as three locations, it is best known for its downtown Olympia store, which opened 27 years ago.
    • Type of business: Retailer selling gifts for home, body and life.
    • Employees: Four.
    • Online: The-Popinjay.
    • Advice to business owners: You may not be able to compete on price with a bigger business, but the small, independent business can always compete on service.
    • Did you know? Dean was born and raised in Scotland, near Glasgow. She left the country at 21 to travel, then met her husband Stephen in Canada before coming to the U.S. She was inspired to get into retail after being impressed by a local store in Scotland near her high school.

Take note, business beginners. This is how it’s done.

The gift store Popinjay, which has had a store in downtown Olympia for 27 years, has survived the ups and downs of downtown, weathered the recession, and when many businesses were adjusting to the realities of the slower economy, Popinjay produced its best year in 2010 and then had its best fourth quarter ever last year.

How did the business do it?

“If you’re going to work for me, you have to look after the customers, look after the merchandise and look after the store,” said longtime owner Janis Dean, 65. “Then I’m totally taken care of.”

But that first one — customer service — is key, said Dean, reminding business owners that it’s one of the few ways that a small, independent business can compete with a bigger business.

And she’s constantly thinking about it, even after all these years, saying she’s planning to make a change to the front counter to improve customer wait times, Dean said.

Popinjay got its start on Yelm Highway and eventually grew to as many as three stores, including about 10 years spent at Capital Mall.

The downtown store has been a fixture since 1987, she said.

Dean also has been active in downtown causes. She is a past president of the Olympia Downtown Association, serves on the Parking & Business Improvement Area board and has been involved in marketing downtown, including bringing flower baskets to downtown around Memorial Day.

“There’s something so welcoming about flowers,” she said.

Downtown, too, has had its challenges, and Dean called the current state of downtown “pretty fragile.”

Like many, she was stunned by the closure of Wind Up Here, a longtime toy store.

Still, she likes doing business downtown because she is surrounded by other independent businesses, rents are manageable and downtown store hours are good for employees who can’t work such a long day.

Downtown, she said, has a core group of supporters, but it needs more.

“We need to grow the number of supporters because normal is not quite enough for a vibrant downtown,” Dean said. “We need more support from the community at large.”

“Use it or lose it,” she added, or downtown is going to lose it’s vibrancy.

Popinjay is known for selling women’s accessories, such as jewelry, but also for the deep selection of chocolates that it sells at the front counter.

“Surprise your wife and make her melt,” said longtime customer Dennis Adams of Olympia about the chocolate. “That’s the way to do it.”

Adams has been shopping at Popinjay since the store first opened on Yelm Highway. In addition to the chocolates, he also praised the unique selection of cards, recalling that whenever he sends a card to someone, he’s inevitably asked about where he got it.

“If you want a store to remind you about why to shop in downtown Olympia, then Popinjay would be the store,” Adams said. “Dean knows you and welcomes you as part of the family. It feels good to spend money there.”

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403

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