Cloverdale couple all business with bargain clothes

CLOVERDALE – It looked like a Boxing Day or Black Friday frenzy as antsy shoppers in Coquitlam lined up last month waiting for the glass doors of Duncan Mussbacher’s new 6,000-square-foot baby, Once Upon A Child, to swing open.

As a parent of two active and growing children – joking it’s “your basic million-dollar family, which costs twice that amount to raise” in B.C.’s pricey Lower Mainland – the 44-year-old Mussbacher is cognizant of budgeting and receiving good bang for his buck. That’s why he fully embraced the business model of Once Upon A Child, a North American retail chain that buys and sells “gently used” kids’ stuff.

A sous-chef by trade who cooked for 14 years before hanging up the white jacket to become executive director of retirement homes in Edmonton, Mussbacher and wife Cathy seriously considered investing in a Subway or family restaurant after being transferred to B.C. several years ago.

Then, by chance, he noticed Once Upon A Child during a Google search for business opportunities.

The astute Cloverdale businessman admits the “recession-proof” pitch used by the Minneapolis-based Winmark Corp. – which also franchises Play It Again Sports, Plato’s Closet, Style Encore and Music Go Round – immediately caught his attention.

“All buzz words aside, it makes perfect sense. If you need to cut back on eating out or going out, that’s doable. You can also reduce or eliminate other frills to stay on budget.

“But as all parents of young children know, you can’t stop dressing them – or stop them from growing like weeds,” said Mussbacher, whose seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter fall into that “sprouting youth” category.

So after opening B.C.’s

first Once Upon A Child in Langley two years ago (3,500 square feet, 18 employees, at #104-20121 Willowbrook Dr.), he decided to expand into Coquitlam, hinting that a third store is possible, but was mum on a location. Once Upon A Child also opened last January in Abbotsford and another store will open in Surrey early next year.

Whether it’s finding affordable Halloween costumes, Christmas gifts, back-to-school clothing, shoes, skates, games, brandname fashions, high chairs, stuffed animals, strollers or furniture, Once Upon A Child has it all.

“And by purchasing merchandise directly from consumers, we’re able to offer them lower prices and a great opportunity to receive cash on the spot for items they may have otherwise given away,” said Mussbacher, who stressed his store has fixed prices and is not a consignment operation or as hit-and-miss as Craigslist or other buyand-sell websites. A tour of the clean, spacious, 20-employee Coquitlam store – the largest of the 32 operating in Canada – reveals everything a child from crib to preteen could possibly need, in every size and pretty much every colour. And at least 20 per cent of the inventory is brand new.

There is a safe play area set up for the kids to read, colour, test toys or watch DVDs while parents shop. Adjacent to that is an organized staging area where cleaned goods are purchased, tagged, entered into a database and placed on the shelf. Mussbacher said they handle from 2,500 to 4,000 pieces of clothing per day, and at his Langley store last year they moved more than 4,300 costumes and clothing items for Halloween.

“It’s almost like renting, if you think about it. Kids don’t like to wear the same costume twice, so we buy it back and they get a new one. We sold a quality-material fireman’s costume for $9.50, including a cool badge. That’s a bargain. It wasn’t the

cheap plastic stuff you get elsewhere for at least twice the amount.”

He reels off some of the other “typical” bargains like a $40 brand-name shirt for $7, a $100 snowsuit for $20, a $60 back-to-school outfit for $10, brand-name skates for $25 and soccer cleats for $20. Some of the items still

have the original price tags and packaging, but are sold as used items as required by store policy.

“The inventory is constantly changing and my staff ‘s biggest complaint is trying to leave here without buying stuff every day for their kids.

“About 75 per cent of

the people we buy from are regular shoppers from all income brackets. We figure we’ll have an 11-to 15-year relationship with each parent who shops here, so treating them properly is obviously a top priority.”

There are 300 Once Upon A Child stores in North America.