Rob Willington says the Home for Christmas store he and his wife, Bette, opened three months ago in Whitefish is as much a ministry as it is a retail business.
“Our emphasis is not so much on selling as it is trying to establish that home-for-Christmas feeling,” he said. “It’s sharing love, fellowship and kindness.”
With that sentiment in mind, the Willingtons are more apt to guide shoppers to their dining area for a piece of complimentary carrot cake and a cup of tea than to make a hard-core sales pitch about their merchandise.
The store is among the newest additions to the Mountain Mall in Whitefish. It’s located in the former American Bank space and has a storefront near the mall’s main entrance.
The Willingtons are no strangers to the Christmas retail business. They have opened Christmas stores from one end of the country to the other in locations such as Newport Beach, Calif., and Long Island, N.Y. At one time they had 13 Christmas retail stores going at once.
Rob used to operate a wholesale showroom in New York City and with 40-plus years in the Christmas retail business, he knows the industry. The self-described “king of cozy” said the winter climate of the Flathead Valley bodes well for the ambiance the store offers.
Born and raised in British Columbia, Rob has fond memories of vacationing with his family in Glacier National Park. When the opportunity arose to open a store in Whitefish, it seemed like a natural fit, he said.
The Willingtons travel the country in a motor home and live in Whitefish part time; their home base remains in Portsmouth, N.H.
Last year the couple set up a Christmas store for the season at Kalispell Center Mall, and they have a kiosk there again this season near the JCPenney store.
They’re hoping to keep the Whitefish store open nine months of the year.
“We think this could be our flagship store. The spirit is right here,” Rob said. “The mall has been very gracious to allow us to keep our own hours.”
Home for Christmas is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is closed on Sunday.
Christmas items run the gamut in the decorative store, from battery-operated LED lights that can be displayed underwater (in vases, for example), to hand-crafted museum-quality replicas of historic sailing ships. The Santa Claus figurines and American-made Thomas Kinkade lighted tapestries are favorites with shoppers, along with snow globes, children’s books, ornaments, Christmas-themed lodge furniture and collectable pieces by Mr. Christmas.
“We try not to compete with Walmart or Costco,” Rob said. “We try to buy American. I have certain contacts in the industry that I’m loyal to. I focus on quality and loyalty to those who have been good to me.
“We don’t mark things way up; we price modestly,” he continued, explaining that philosophy is a challenge when competing with the big corporate retailers that seemingly have everything on sale all the time. The most effective strategy, they have found, is offering hospitality and treating everyone like family.
Also popular at the store is a snowflake necklace that comes with the story of the snowflake: Just like people, no two flakes are alike.
“We remind children they’re each an original masterpiece,” he said.
The Willingtons have given away close to 500 snowflake necklaces over the past three years to children they have sensed needed something special.
“Sometimes it’s clear a family is here just to look, not to buy,” Rob said.
The Willingtons strive to create an atmosphere that brings people back a step in time, to the days when the Christmas season wasn’t a crush of people at the big box stores and life moved at a slower pace.
“There’s no rush here,” he said. “We want to slow it down, make people feel at home.”
During their off-season, the Willingtons get involved in charity work. They often help out at family camps, and Rob once ran a boys camp.
For now, though, life is all about Christmas. “We love Christmas. The Christmas story is the greatest event in the creation of the world,” Rob said. “And we love children. You have to love people in this business; you can’t fake it.”
For more information, go to www.homeforchristmas.co.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Icy Craft angel is on display at the Home for Christmas Store.