Visit one of RDU’s newest retailers with distinctive North Carolina roots
Raleigh-Durham International Airport celebrated the opening of 15 new retailers in its main terminal on Thursday, including familiar names such as Hudson, XpresSpa and Vineyard Vines.
But one of the new stores, Root & Branch, is unlike anything you’ll find in any other airport, thanks largely to Pam Blondin and Jessie Williams.
Blondin, owner of the downtown Raleigh retailer Deco, and Williams, a jewelry maker with two Edge of Urge shops in Raleigh and Wilmington, have drawn on their knowledge and connections with North Carolina artists and craftspeople to fill the airport store with locally made gifts.
“We really didn’t want this to feel like a cool airport store,” Blondin said in Root & Branch on Thursday. “We really wanted this to feel like a cool store that happens to be in an airport.”
Blondin said she and Williams got involved with the airport store at the suggestion of Loren Gold, the executive vice president of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, who said he wanted to see more local flavor in airport retail. Gold introduced them to representatives of the Marshall Retail Group, a Las Vegas company that operates stores in 16 airports.
Blondin and Williams spent a couple of years talking and planning with MRG. If they were going to be involved, they wanted the store to feel like theirs.
“MRG were willing to go outside the box a little bit,” Blondin said.
“But so were we,” Williams finished.
The two women own just 10 percent of the business, but they set the tone for the store and chose most of the products on the shelves. Big sellers include Ella B. Candles made by a Charlotte company and branded with names of local places and neighborhoods, and Edge of Urge jewelry.
David Charles, MRG’s president who was in town for Thursday’s event, said the partnership with Blondin and Williams gives Root & Branch an authenticity that you won’t find in a typical souvenir shop that sells postcards and T-shirts with local sports teams on them.
“To get real, true products, you’ve got to have that local connection,” Charles said. “You can’t cookie-cutter this.”
Root & Branch opened in September, and Blondin and Williams say sales in the airport outstrip their Raleigh stores. One quirk of airport retailing: the shop’s busiest hours are between 5 and 7 a.m.
Root & Branch carries mostly small gifts — items people might be inspired to buy for a friend or loved one on a whim and can fit into a carry-on bag. Williams said some of the artists have had repeat business from travelers who buy an item at RDU then get in touch directly later.
“I’m able to give the makers that I’ve been featuring and fostering for years even more exposure, in an international airport, which is super cool,” she said.
Blondin said they’ve had to make concessions to being in an airport, including leaving out gifts with suggestive or profane language that are common in Deco.
“This company has some pretty funny things with F-bombs on them,” Blondin said, pointing to a rack of dish towels with G-rated art and slogans on them. “And they were best sellers in my store at Christmas time.”
Other retailers that opened in Terminal 2 in recent months include 5th & Sunset, City Market News, Corsa Collections, InMotion, No Boundaries, Raleigh-Durham Duty Free, Swarovski, Tech on the go, TripAdvisor and WRAL Travel Store.
In another retail change to come, the Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Terminal 2 will close Feb. 3 and will be replaced with a BurgerFi restaurant by mid-summer. Airport officials say the Five Guys was doing strong business, but that the company that holds the lease on the restaurant space had decided to sever its relationship with the chain.