In 2008, at the height of America’s recession, Becky Finn exited the corporate doors and said farewell to her top executive retail career in New York City. She exchanged her view of the bright and busy skyline for quieter waters on the sleepy town in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Determined to enjoy her surroundings, she planned on just coasting through life for a bit. But, not one to sit on her hands, Finn began to drum up a business that would keep her outdoors. Picnics! The one word popped into her head one day and what happened next is a story about a woman in love with nature, and later with a city that stole her heart.
I met up with Finn at her Picnic Fashion store in downtown West Palm Beach this week. Her wit and sense of fashion is contagious, and so is her laugh. A warm and sensitive woman with a passion for product, Finn’s life may not be always a picnic, but she’s determined to see it as such.
Becky, tell us the story of Picnic Fashion. How did it begin?
We are actually celebrating its third holiday season here in West Palm Beach. But before this, we were in Cape Cod, Massachusetts for five years, where my husband Michael and I lived before we moved back to Florida. We actually moved down in early 2015. I finished the season there in Cape Cod, packed up the truck and down we came. And then I was able to open for the 2015 holiday season. And it’s been amazing!
And what brought you back to Florida, and specifically to West Palm Beach?
My husband was moved here for his work. He’s a musician for the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach.
Looking at your store, you definitely have a touch for finding those unique pieces, like these blue glasses with white sailboats printed on them. So, what inspired you to open Picnic Fashion, and what is your buying process for all these wonderful pieces that you have in your store?
I started thinking about the business in late 2008 – 2009. It was the height of the recession. People were talking about scaling back, taking staycations, and my husband and I were living in Cape Cod at the time, but both had just exited super high profile careers. We just wanted a little time to relax.
And did you?
Well, I couldn’t relax for too long. And I just started thinking about the beauty of my surroundings, and how I could spend some more time outdoors as possible, however, without compromising my status and my taste, so that I could entertain in the style that complimented my personality. And I thought, “Gee! Picnics could be fun!”
So when you started thinking about picnics, were you actually thinking about things like parks or camping gear?
No! I didn’t start thinking of camping gear or colors that are more male-related things like hunting, which is not bad. People that have those types of items make great companies.
But, it didn’t reflect your vintage taste.
Right. So, I wondered if the merchandise existed that represented what I wanted to do. Items like those that you don’t have to worry about taking on a deck and when the wind blows… crash! So, I made a list of anything I could imagine that you could take on a picnic, and it was rather extensive, as you can imagine, including some of the things that are here in the shop.
So, where did you go looking for those things?
I took a trip to New York City with a shopping list, much like you would if you were going to a grocery store, and said, okay, here’s what I need. And I was able to find, beyond my wildest dreams, things that reflected what I wanted in my picnic store, including picnic baskets, unbreakable tableware and glassware, gifts, books, candles, etc.
How did the vintage look happen?
It kind of happened by chance. That’s my husband and mine personal taste. So, when you think of a picnic, people kind of think of an old timely vibe, whether it’s English countryside or Yogi Bear in the State Park. So, I thought, how can this vintage style be part of this whole concept? It was born, and we found this little spot in Chatham, Massachusetts. Which, it’s so strange, because I’ve had a lot of people from Chatham, who have either relocated here or vacation here, come in and say hi.
So, when did you launch the first store?
In May 2010. And this one [downtown WPB] in October 2015. And here we are today. It’s been a lot of fun.
You mentioned you were working in Corporate America before you decided to open up your own shop. Tell us about that experience.
I was in corporate retail for many, many years. I actually started my retail career at Burdines at the Dadeland Mall in Miami, when there was a Burdines in South Florida. I started as a salesperson, then I was promoted to an assistant buyer. I worked in the downtown Miami store in the late 70s, when Miami was very different from the city you see today.
What made you move up north?
My husband is a musician and he was accepted at The Juilliard School. We moved to New York and I transferred to Bloomingdales. I was there for 12 years. And then I was recruited by Victoria Secret, and I was there for 19 years. I’ve done everything from filling in stock and counting from a dusty stockroom, all the way to the executive vice president level, planning strategies five to ten years out, thinking about a global organization, and everything in between.
So what’s your true love?
Product. I just love product. I love looking at it. I love the selection and edit process.
What’s the best part of owning your own business?
The funny thing about owning my own business… well, I was never that person who said, “It was always my dream to own my own business! It was not! It just wasn’t! [laughing] But when it came time to scale back, I thought, “What if I just develop the concept and…I think people will like it because enough friends and acquaintances did, and I’ve done my research to know that there’s a market there. But how am I going to like being in a store?” I mean, the last time I had rung up a purchase in a register was in the 80s, so… it’s that interaction with the customer that I knew I would enjoy doing. Nothing happens until the customer says, “I like it, I’m going to buy it!” I have to tell you, it has been the most rewarding part of owning my business. It’s the personal connections you make with customers. And gift selection, party planning, and talk and meeting with all their extended families, watching them grow as people, and as their families grow and they bring their friends. That’s the biggest surprise, and it has been the biggest reward, is dealing with people on a daily basis.
“The lifestyle that West Palm Beach has, in particular, embraces you. It encourages people to get out, walk, bike, do water sports, and even to be in your yard. I have an herb garden in my backyard. I’m not the athletic type, but I do love to be out, going to art and craft shows—anything that is outdoors is my best day off.” —Becky Finn, owner of Picnic Fashion
What made you select West Palm Beach for your store location?
Well, I had the luxury of coming down here while my husband was in transition to his business here in Palm Beach. I looked in the island, and then started looking in West Palm Beach. I casted kind of a net—about 30 minutes from where we lived. I looked in Delray Beach, but the more that I saw West Palm Beach, the more that I liked it. It just seemed like the vibe was right for me to be in West Palm Beach.
You didn’t like Palm Beach?
Palm Beach is beautiful, it’s actually gorgeous, and it’s extraordinarily seasonal. I had just come from a very seasonal business, where Cape Cod kind of rolls up the carpet after Labor Day, and there’s a long period of time where there really isn’t the seasonal traffic that you need.
How did you find this centrally located spot on S. Olive in downtown West Palm Beach?
Well, I looked everywhere. I looked in Antique Row, in Northwood, in Clematis Street, and I had my eye on this building. I thought that it was the perfect location, and the perfect size. Some of the places I saw were either too large or too small.
And so, like Goldilocks, you picked the perfect size.[laughing] Yes! And this store was it. I chose it, and the funny thing is that I was prepared to tweak the assortment. I always tell people that I downplayed the lobsters and up played the flamingos!
How’s your store’s traffic?
Funny thing, I thought everybody would drive to the shop, and what I didn’t realize is that I have a built-in market that has turned into a built-in loving community, which I can literally see passing by out my window. The amount of high-rise condominiums, from all different price points, all different demographic, all different ages and incomes—the amount of walking traffic just blew me away. It’s just been wonderful. I’ve had people come and say, “Thank you so much for being here.” And they’re not just telling me that because they need a candle and a greeting card, or a hostess gift or because they’re on their way to a luncheon or a party, but for just taking a stand and be an independent retailer.
Especially in a time when a brick and mortar store is really being challenged to maintain.
Yes, and have a point of view and a purpose.
Definitely, with the increase of the online shopping, retailers are finding it hard to compete with the “I can shop in my PJ’s if I want to” kind of mentality. Do you have a website?
Yes, and I’ve been so privilege because there’s an organization called Shoptiques, which was founded by a young Russian woman who is now an American citizen. Her story is one of an amazing entrepreneurship. One day, she was shopping in a European boutique and thought, “How can I tell my friends about this place? And how could they even be able to shop here?”
So, what did she do?
Over the course of six or seven years, she has built, and she’s on the Amazon platform, a collection of over 5,000 boutiques worldwide that it’s not discounted, and it’s embracing the individualism, and I am happy to be on the Shoptique’s platform.
That’s wonderful, and do they take care of all the shopping experience for the customer?
Yes, of course, and they make sure there’s no fraud, and the customer pays for the shipping. And you can buy from different boutiques while you’re on there, so you might buy one thing from me and then from a shop in London. Then the individual shop owner packages up and sends it. I’ve sent picnic baskets to Australia, I’ve shipped stuff to Canada and to the UK, that I’d never would have had the scope to be able to do it.
Do you feel like you are part of a cool club?
Oh, yeah! [laughing]
And how did you meet the owner?
A customer recommended me. I still don’t know who it was. Her daughter worked for Shoptique. You have to be invited to apply, and so, I just got a call one day from a woman who said, “My mom was in your shop and she thought you’d be a perfect fit. Can you schedule a phone interview?” And I did, and then they accepted me.
And the rest is history…[laughing] Yes, and it’s been good!
Who’s your typical customer?
You know, people ask me, “What’s your busiest day?” And I say, “Every day is a new day.” So, it really depends on who walks through the door. It’s hard to say who my typical client is. But I will say this, I have two buckets: 1. A client who is a working person that’s a year-round resident; he or she works and shops in the area; it’s generally between mid-30s and mid-40s; it’s raising a family; and comes to me for gifts and essentials. 2. A client who is a seasonal resident who generally lives in Trump Plaza or Esplanade, or one of the other high rise buildings, and they love to entertain. They have a lot of parties and they need a lot of little gifts. The interesting thing about the seasonal residents is many of them have homes where I came from up north. They’re either in Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, and they see things they like and they have me ship it up to them right when they’re about to leave for the season.
What are some of the hottest items in your store?
I’ll give you an example of something that was unexpected. I sell top quality or what I call fancy plastic glasses. These are drink ware that isn’t cheap, but it’s a one-use type of glass and you can just throw it away. And when I first opened, I had people coming in from these places that have a roof-top pool, which don’t allow any glass. These buildings are gorgeous and people want to have a glass of wine, even if they want to take a swim or sit in the sun. I sold so many condo picnic bags. Because, think about it, you don’t want to take your glasses with wine up the elevator. So, I sell my freezable picnic bags, where you can throw it in the freezer over night, put in some snacks in the morning, with top quality plates, which are sturdy and heavy and won’t get blown off at the tiniest wind. So my Condo Kit is my most popular item.
How about your vintage collection?
Yes, that’s another hot item. We’ve become more and more popular for our vintage collection, like the beautiful cobalt blue merchandise with the sailboat on it. But then the picnic baskets, of course, because those are good for any occasion. From tiny insulated bags that go over your shoulder and you can take to the GreenMarket, to the large picnic baskets.
And what do you like to do for fun?
I really like to be outside and experience nature. Even though I lived in Florida once before, back in my college years, you just can’t underestimate the value of being able to be outdoors, 365 days a year. I love the change of season, and I lived up north longer than I’ve lived southeast, but just the lifestyle that West Palm Beach has, in particular embraces you. It encourages people to get out, walk, bike, do water sports, and even to be in your yard. I have an herb garden in my backyard. I’m not the athletic type, but I do love to be out, going to art and craft shows—anything that is outdoors is my best day off—being stimulated by something that’s beautiful in the outdoors. And, I love to cook!
What’s your favorite cooking style?
My style has evolved since I moved down here, and it’s connected to the weather. With the abundance of fresh produce…my eyes almost popped out of my head when we went to the GreenMarket for the first time. I couldn’t believe it! And I used to be much more of a cookbook or recipe cook, but now I just mix things up. I walk around with my market basket and I’m inspired by what I see.
Especially with the development of the food movement in the area…
Yes, and the fact that all of the produce suppliers are challenged by chefs to come up with new and different ways of presenting vegetables. So my style has become very simple, I guess.
I bet you like to eat al fresco.
Nothing is more beautiful than sitting outside around our pool while eating a salad with great olive oil, balsamic tomatoes, and fresh herbs. I’m hungry now! [laughing]
And then you have all this beautiful stuff to decorate your outside picnic table.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to give a big shout out to the City of West Palm Beach. What I love about this community is… and again, not being connected to it from a business perspective when I visited it before, I was like, “Wow! Things are really changing, lots of things are happening, it looks exciting.” But being part of this community as a business person is just…it’s the energy that this town that’s inspiring. It makes me want to continue to improve and grow, and the courage to test new ideas, to always move forward, to develop and embrace the entire community. You have young millennials to retirees. How can we raise everybody as we move forward, and how can we take advantage of this great opportunity in a boom time? You know, when I first moved into the shop, I saw a couple buzzers when they were doing the re-wiring, and I asked what those were. “Oh, this neighborhood used to be just the worse,” they told me. The door was always locked and if you looked out and you saw the person and you wanted to admit them, you unlocked the door. And now, I see people walking by going to work, to their yoga classes; I see people walking their dogs; I see riding bikes from SkyBikes, and that didn’t just happen.
There was a thoughtful or intention of “How can we lift this up?”
And make it a city that people would want to move to, live in, raise a family, then someday retire and still have a vibrant life. And now there’s so much construction going on. That’s a side benefit. I think I picked the perfect spot! [laughing] We love living in downtown. We can walk to everything. Where else can you live where you can walk to Dramaworks, you walk to the GreenMarket, to music, to the restaurants, to the waterfront…it’s just been a wonderful experience.
It sounds like you are the “glass half full” type of person.
Well, if you’re a business owner, especially if you’re a merchant, you’re always optimistic.
f Picnic Fashion, Life’s a Picnic! Interview with Becky Finn at her Picnic Fashion store in downtown West Palm Beach. A warm and sensitive woman with a passion for her product.