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Gatherings on the Prairie

By Lori Thielen

Rob Dudley often wondered about people who just one day walked away from seemingly great jobs with no real plans in place. Then one day he woke up and became one of those people.

Gatherings on the Prairie
Gatherings on the Prairie carries traditional products with broad-based appeal including home accents, gifts and antique reproductions.

“I worked for Wal-Mart almost 20 years and managed the store here in Junction City for six years,” Rob says. “I had always wondered about this phenomenon of people leaving high paying or high profile jobs, but it was an uncomfortable feeling for me because I knew I still had a lot of years I needed to work.”

When Rob talked to his bosses, they thought he might be going through a slump and suggested he wait 90 days before making any final decisions.

“At the end of the 90 days I felt pretty much the same way,” Rob says. “But I didn’t have an exit strategy.”

He had been able to save enough money to get by for a year, so he quit his job and tried to decide what to do next. A favorite hobby was collecting antiques, many of which he purchased from an individual in Central Missouri. Through that connection, Rob eventually made a trip to Nell Hill’s in Atchison, Kansas, to a shop owned by nationally known Mary Carol Garrity and carries antiques, home furnishings and giftware.

“I happened to go there for the first time on a holiday open house day,” Rob says. “It was filled to capacity and was literally one-person-in, one-person-out. It was the first time I’d ever seen so much stuff displayed creatively and not in rows. At Wal-Mart everything always had to be in rows. I thought to myself, this is what I want to do.”

Rob Dudley and Rick Munson
Rob Dudley and Rick Munson, co-proprietors of Gatherings on the Prairie LLC

Rob then spent the next year working on a business plan. He even got to meet with Mary Carol Garrity to get insight on starting his own business, which was not easy to arrange. Rob, along with co-proprietor Rick Munson, opened Gatherings on the Prairie LLC in Junction City in September 2003. The unique store carries traditional products with broad-based appeal including home accents, gifts and antique reproductions. Rob acknowledges that some of the items they now carry such as floral, lotions, candles and seasonal items were never in a business plan, but the business has evolved to meet the demands of their customers.

Starting a new business seemed more real after the first time they went to market to purchase inventory for the store. The first market they attended covered 4.3 million square feet and Rob says he was completely overwhelmed.

“The location in Junction City wasn’t done yet, so my garage was packed full of stuff after I got back from market,” Rob says. “I didn’t know how much to order so we had about 130 lamps at the start and many of those stayed stored in the back room for a long time.”

Once the store location was ready, the next challenge became preparing for opening day.

“My biggest fear was what if no one comes on opening day,” Rob recalls. “The local paper did a huge article and we sent out about 400 personal invitations. Our big concern was how to reach the right people. I knew I was trying to cater to a much higher clientele than what I was used to at Wal-Mart.”

As it turns out, 100 people walked through the front door in the first 10 minutes of being open. Today the business continues to grow, which is something Rick attributes to satisfied customers, low prices and word of mouth.

Rick, who also co-owns a real estate business and stays involved with his family farm, credits Rob’s experience at Wal-Mart with helping them keep prices low.

“Rob has an innate ability to choose things that people want and at good price points. Consequently we’re able to pass that down to the customer,” Rick says. “We get people from places like Kansas City, Wichita and Denver who always make comments that the prices are so good.”

Both owners agree that having a retail store is hard work. They consistently change the variety of merchandise they offer and go the extra mile for their customers.

“The challenge is to match up style with good quality and good price,” Rob says. “We have to be able to offer a different experience so people will come back. I also try to carry products that no one else is carrying. The more different you want to be, the harder you have to work.” 

That different experience comes through the unique items they carry as well as their particular attention to customer service. One might find Rob or Rick helping customers carry out their packages, making a gift certificate look like a piece of art or offering food or beverage for special holiday events.

Rob attributes much of their success to simply listening to their customers, though they are reluctant to get too extravagant on some things.

“Wal-Mart taught me that every penny counts,” Rob says. “If it doesn’t help generate revenue or enhance the shopping experience for the customer, then I probably won’t spend money on it.”

This is one reason they delayed buying shopping baskets for a long time because they didn’t expect it to contribute to their bottom dollar. Instead, they’ve found the recent addition of shopping baskets has helped generate revenue because normally customers stopped shopping when their hands were full.

Their success has been great enough that Gatherings on the Prairie LLC was named an Emerging Business of the Year by the Kansas Small Business Development Center in March 2006.

“I’m always working, analyzing and dissecting every little thing,” Rob says. “But I love this new life.”

Gatherings on the Prairie is located at 615 N. Washington in Junction City, Kansas.

 

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Last Updated April 6, 2009
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