WDAY: The News Leader

Published May 04, 2014, 08:23 AM

West coast inspired store brings new brands to downtown Grand Forks

Swim suits and sandals are a hard sell in the middle of a North Dakota winter, but it’s not impossible.

By: Jasmine Maki, Forum News Service, Grand Forks Herald, WDAY

Swim suits and sandals are a hard sell in the middle of a North Dakota winter, but it’s not impossible.

Hey Ocean, a west coast inspired clothing and lifestyle store, opened in downtown Grand Forks on Valentine’s Day. At first, customers were confused at the idea of a coastal-themed store in the Midwest, but manager Kelly Berntsen said she has learned how to better sell her products.

“We started with the swim suits on that entire wall,” she said. “The color was great, and the thought process was great because it was right before spring break, but then we noticed people would come in, see the swimsuits and some people would be like ‘That’s all you have? OK see you later goodbye.’”

But, she switched the display around and started seeing people stay to shop.

Hey Ocean offers clothing, shoes, accessories and miscellaneous gift items. The store is focused on selling brands that aren’t available anywhere else in Grand Forks and brands that give back to various charities. Some of those brands include TOMS, Icelandic-based Nikita and small companies such as Hot Heads and Sun Bum Skin Care.

The story of Hey Ocean

The Grand Forks location is the second of two stores in North Dakota. The first boutique opened in Bismarck in 2011. Store owner Michelle Kaufman said she had missed the west coast shopping experiences she had while completing her undergrad and graduate degree in Washington State.

“I moved back (to Bismarck) after graduation, and we all know winters can be kind of long,” she said. “I missed that coastal feeling and atmosphere.”

So, she opened Hey Ocean in downtown Bismarck. After three successful years, she decided it was time to expand with a new store and Grand Forks was the perfect fit, size and location, she said. As an added bonus, Kaufman said she hoped to target a new audience of Canadian shoppers since the store has some Canadian influence.

Kaufman often took shopping trips to Vancouver, B.C., where she developed a love for many Canadian brands. When she moved back to Bismarck, she wanted the opportunity to still shop those brands, so she added them to Hey Ocean.

Now, she hopes those brands will attract Canadian customers to her Grand Forks store.

“Our target customer is women 16 to 30 years old, but we have people of every age and background come in,” Kaufman said. “So, we try to buy a range of sizes and brands.”

Behind the brands

With so many new brands (for the area), Berntsen said it’s important for her and her three employees to know the ins and outs of each one. So, before they opened the store she printed off cheat sheets, and they read up on each brand Hey Ocean offers. Now, they can confidently tell customers about the different products and exactly what their money is going toward.

Many of the brands at Hey Ocean give back to the community and charities around the world. Many already know that TOMS provides one pair of shoes to a child in need for every shoe purchased. But, TOMS also makes eye wear, and with each sale of sunglasses or optical frames, the company helps to restore sight to people in need with eye surgery, medical treatment and prescription eyewear. Hey Ocean offers TOMS shoes for men, women and children, and several styles of sunglasses.

Another Hey Ocean brand is Good Work(s), which makes bracelets and donates 25 percent of proceeds to breast cancer research.

And, Krochet Kids, a nonprofit formed in Spokane, Wash., also gives back. The company was formed by three young men who crocheted their own headwear for skiing and snowboarding while in high school. Now, they travel to third world countries teaching others their skills. In Hey Ocean, visitors can see exactly who made their products by looking inside the little crocheted baby booties.

“The name of the person who made it is actually inside, so you can go online and find the money that she made off of this and how she used it,” Berntsen said.

Shopping local, organic

Berntsen said she is always excited to teach people about the different brands when they come in and her passion for these small companies and Hey Ocean shines through.

“I like that I see people that are starting to care about what their money is going for,” she said. “People are looking to shop local, and it’s amazing … (They would) rather spend a little extra money and know that they’re helping someone.”

Berntsen said she is also hoping to do more for the community here in Grand Forks. They recently held a donation for the Humane Society and plan to get involved with the Art and Wine Walk and other community events this summer.

“I love that we really have the ability to run the store the way it needs to be … we don’t have someone in a corporate office in California sitting in an office who’s never been here and doesn’t know the area,” she said. “We’re here for the community, not just here for ourselves.”