“Man, I could kick myself for selling that business,” laughs REALTOR® JoAnn Barrett wryly. “I was on the cutting edge of technology and business, but it was labor intensive. We had to write all our own HTML code and programming.” JoAnn and her husband were the creators of the first online toy store and one of the first online retailers, toystore.com. Back then, there was no protocol or procedure for setting up an online business, and when they dreamed up the idea, they had to develop the systems and processes herself. She was undaunted, as it wasn’t the first time she’d used her creative gift to develop a business. “I was an international buyer for Trim-a-Tree at Bloomingdale’s Department Store,” she says. “I worked with small vendors all over the world to create unique and unusual Christmas displays and ornaments.” She met Edith Warner, a cookie-dough ornament vendor with six ovens in her basement in Nyack, NY, and was one of the first buyers to do business with China when President Nixon lifted trade restrictions, mixing the ornaments she found there with foil fans she discovered in Thailand. “I developed my love of presentation and marketing during that time,” JoAnn recalls. “I also learned how to view a product or problem from a different perspective, allowing me to address it creatively.”
After her job at Bloomingdale’s, she stayed home with her children for a number of years. “I loved every minute of it,” she says. “My life was centered around family and home.” When JoAnn moved to Ann Arbor from Westchester County, NY for her husband’s career, she was ready to get back into the workforce. Ever the opportunist, she soon found her next venture.
“Coming here presented me with an opportunity I hadn’t anticipated,” she explains. “There wasn’t a large specialty toy store like the ones I knew in the East.” She hired a couple who owned a toy store in Connecticut, picked their brains for a day, went to the library and researched demographics and how to write a business plan, and developed her plan. Expecting to use the first bank presentation as practice, she was nervous as she approached the loan officer. “I was sweating bullets,” she laughs. “I really thought I was going in for a learning experience of what not to do, but instead he said he thought it was a good fit.” Joann subsequently opened White Rabbit Toys, and her next chapter began writing itself.
“I opened one store, then a second, third, and fourth,” Joann says. “I had 100 employees and the stores were sizable, with at least 3,000 square feet.” She credits her Christmas buying experience with helping her find an edge in the toy industry, and because her job was so much fun, she was always looking out for the next exciting toy. “Most kids beg their parents to take them to toy stores and gift shops when they’re on vacation,” she says with a laugh. “My kids used to beg me not to drag them into toy stores.” As the President of the National Toy Retailing Association, she always visited independent toy store owners when she was on vacation.
“I don’t claim to be brilliant, but I often happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Joann says. “I was in line for breakfast on vacation in Sanibel Island when I overheard a couple from New Jersey peering into a store window saying they couldn’t believe they had Beanie Babies.
Recognizing that it must be a hot, hard-to-stock item, JoAnn went home and ordered a truckload which she stored in the garage, much to her husband’s chagrin as they displaced his car. “When they were such a huge business, big box stores couldn’t get them but specialty toy stores and gift shops were able to keep them in stock,” she says. “I was the only store in my town and when Target eventually started using Beanie Babies and other specialty toys as loss leaders, I saw the writing on the wall.” Joann made the difficult decision to close her stores one by one, and with her Bloomingdale’s and White Rabbit experience, assumed she’d find a job at a big store. “They didn’t want to hire me at 50 years old,” she recalls. “So I took a look at real estate and figured I’d give it a try.”
That “try” turned out to be wildly successful in another creative way. “I got into the industry when the market had stalled,” she said. “It wasn’t a bad thing for me professionally. It taught me how to go out and get business since it wasn’t walking in the door.” The realtor sitting next to her just happened to be an interior designer, so she asked her for advice on staging her listing. The home sold right away. “JoAnn had learned about home staging on a trip to California and realized there was a competitive opportunity in Ann Arbor.
“I began calling expired listings and hired my stager to advise them on things like removing wallpaper and furniture arrangement,” she says. “I would then raise the price and often sell the home within a week.” I built my business and helped her build hers.
With 18 years of real estate experience, JoAnn has seen the market shift, expand, stall, and restart many times. “Houses have souls,” she says quietly. “You have to be true to the soul of the house and take that into consideration when you’re matching people to their homes.” She explains that finding the gems and their unique, unusual beauty requires a creative eye. “If I’m with a buyer there’s nothing I love more than discovering that a red shag carpet is hiding hardwood floors,” she says. “Some agents are successful because they have mastered technology, I think my gift is the ability to connect with people and match them with their dream homes.”