From raising sheep on the family farm to running a storefront business, the couple behind this Belvidere-area specialty store know and provide the best in sheep-based products.
Paul and Jane Zeien often stopped by The Complete Sheep Shoppe, when it was in Sycamore, Ill. The store specialized in sheepskin and wool products. Little did the couple know they would someday own it.
“The store has been around since 1984, and we knew the original owners very well,” Jane says. “When they decided it was time to retire, we thought, ‘This store could be a perfect fit for us.’”
The Zeiens were already raising their own Shetland sheep on a quaint parcel of land in the quiet countryside north of Belvidere. In 2007, the couple opened the Illinois Wool & Fiber Mill, selling yarn and roving (material that becomes yarn when spun) that they made themselves with wool from their own sheep.
“We realized there wasn’t a fiber mill in our area, so we started up a small store with what we could make ourselves,” Jane says.
With the space and equipment already on hand, Jane and Paul felt certain it was a good move to buy The Complete Sheep Shoppe in 2011 and combine it with the mill. The couple now considers purchasing the Shoppe to be one of the greatest business decisions they ever made.
Four years later, the store, now housed at 10828 Caledonia Road, in Belvidere, sees returning customers, online orders from across the country and plenty of people visiting for the first time.
“We consider ourselves an attraction,” Paul says. “We’re not in a strip mall – we’re on a farm. People have to come find us. But when you get here, you can see the sheep, tour our fiber mill and learn something new. We enjoy making educated consumers out of our customers.”
Right after purchasing the Shoppe, the Zeiens began to network with various manufacturers in the wool industry – a key component to the store’s growth. The couple contacted Woolrich, Pendleton Woolen Mills, Everest, Venario and other top companies about selling their products at the Shoppe, and in return, the couple received invitations to manufacturer showings in the Chicagoland area.
Despite having a small, individual store, Paul and Jane formed partnerships with these big-name companies and quickly expanded the Shoppe’s product line. They also continued solid relationships with already-existing partners, such as UGG.
“Usually, large manufacturing companies like that only work with big-box stores that can sell a certain minimum,” Jane says. “But we made a great connection with a representative at Woolrich, and he was able to connect us to other companies in the industry. So even though we can’t sell the same volume as a big-box store, these large manufacturing companies still work with us. It’s all about relationships.”
Thanks to successful networking, the Shoppe represents many big-name companies and carries a wide range of products. Hats, scarves, skirts, jackets, boots, sweaters – most everything is derived from wool or sheepskin.
The Shoppe even sells products to help with medical needs, such as Wool Wax, a hand cream made with lanolin – the oil that’s in wool.
“It’s a miracle-worker for chapped hands,” Jane says. “We have a lot of people who come to our store specifically for this, and we send it across the country.”
Shoppers can also find yarn and roving that Jane and Paul make themselves with material from more than 30 on-site sheep. Guests can watch as washed wool goes through the picker, a machine that opens up the wool’s fibers; then moves to the carder, a machine that brushes out the wool into roving; and into the pin drafter, a machine that finely combs the roving fibers so that they’re nice and straight. Finally, Paul and Jane put the roving through a spinner, which turns the roving into yarn.
“We can make the yarn wider, thinner – whatever you need,” Paul says. “It’s a neat process for our customers to watch. We like to give our customers an experience when they come shop at the store.”
Oftentimes, the Zeiens will seek out new manufacturing partners and products based on what customers ask for. The couple doesn’t hesitate to research a single customer’s request.
“One day, someone came in and asked for Alaskan mittens, and they showed us a picture on their cellphone,” Jane says. “We asked our representative at Woolrich about it, and he was able to connect us to a company making those gloves here in the U.S. They’re called Yukon mittens. If you’re going outside to snowblow or shovel your driveway, those gloves are incredibly warm. We have them here in the Shoppe now, and it all started with a customer.”
Many of the Shoppe’s products are made in America, though the Zeiens also try to sell products from around the globe to help out cultures in need. For example, the Shoppe carries a line of Everest hats and skirts that are hand-knit in Nepal.
“After they had that big earthquake, it’s nice to support them,” Jane says. “And our customers mention how they like what we stand for – they like how we have a good mission.”
While the Zeiens don’t guarantee the cheapest prices on their products, they do guarantee a wide selection of high-quality items. Everything sold in the Shoppe is made to last.
Jane believes variety and quality greatly distinguish the Shoppe from competitors.
“Why drive to Chicago when you can find the best products here for the same price?” Jane says. “You aren’t getting tricked with us. You can go to a big-box store and find supposed sheepskin products, but often they’re synthetic. They look similar, but it’s usually suede or calfskin, which is cheaper material. Everything in our store is authentic, long-lasting and of much higher quality. Our customers know this, and they appreciate it.”
And when it comes to customer service, Jane doesn’t mind spending as much time as necessary helping shoppers find what they like. She’ll scatter boxes and boxes of boots around the store, if it means helping a customer find the right fit.
This individual attention and care pays off, since new customers typically hear of the Shoppe from word-of-mouth. And since farmland outside the store stretches as far as the eye can see, good reviews from customers can’t be undervalued.
“Getting the word out that our store exists, and that it’s worthwhile to come out, is probably the most difficult obstacle we face,” Jane says. “If you’re a small business like us, you have to be advertising. It’s also important to use social media – Facebook, Twitter – and for what we specialize in, it’s helpful to participate in area craft shows. But I’ll tell you, endorsement from word-of-mouth is unbelievably helpful, and you don’t get that without great customer service.”
As a final tidbit of advice, Jane advises all business owners to take customer comments to heart.
“The best thing you can do is listen to what your customers have to say,” Jane says. “That’s what we’ve done, and we’ve grown based on what our customers are interested in. They have the best ideas.”