It’s funny where life can take you. Before opening his store Commonplace in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and establishing his in-house brand of home goods This That, Zach Peterson was a compliance analyst at a law firm who had minimal retail experience. In 2016, he took his online only shop that launched only two years prior and turned it into a physical storefront. Nowadays, he curates a rotating collection of everyday objects that seem ordinary but are thoughtful, beautiful, and/or minimal in design (though most of the time, they’re a combination of all three).
We caught up with Zach to learn more about the evolution of his store, the lessons he’s learned since opening it, and which items you should probably pick up for your own home…
Why did you pick this storefront?
Space was a major concern of mine when selecting our storefront. Not whether there would be enough, but making sure not to go too big too quick. It seemed there were endless options for spaces over 2000 Sq. Ft., but I had a harder time finding smaller spaces that would provide less risk. We’re really happy with where we ended up – tucked away in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. Milwaukee is a small city with a pretty established industrial identity, but it’s minimal traffic and affordability make it a great place to live and start a business.
Where did you get the name for the store?
I knew the products the store would stock would all be simple in nature. Whether a home item or accessory, most of our inventory consists of staple items we all use often, and most are limited in frills. With a lot of brainstorming on that idea, Commonplace was chosen. I like to think we sell a lot of ordinary items that once you interact with them and see them in the right environment, you fall in love and begin to understand their value.
Has it changed much since it opened? How?
So much. We opened so fast and for the first year were making do with old displays from a pop up we did the previous summer. After that year we worked with our frequent collaborator Ryan Tretow to remodel the whole shop to what is seen today. Our inventory has also shifted more and more towards home & design goods, with less focus on accessories.
What’s one of the challenges you have with the business?
Early on, the store had too high of an average price point. I still think we likely lost a few people in our market those early months with some sticker shock. Since then, we have aimed for more balance so that hopefully we have something for everyone’s budget.
What other stores have you worked in before opening this one?
Other than a high school job at a big box retailer, none. Before Commonplace I was a compliance analyst at a law firm. Life is full of weird turns.
What’s your favorite item in the store right now?
A little biased, as this item was designed by our friend Dylan Adams for the shop’s original product brand This That, but I really love the Corkscrew Wall Hook. It anchors the front of our store and is just a really clever design that is both fun and functional. We have sold these to customers for such a variety of reasons, from book shelf to coat hook, so it’s just a perfect shop item for conversation.
What is this season’s theme?
We don’t typically curate the store to a specific theme, but we have shifted our color palette for fall/holiday to be more focused on earth tones. This can be seen most prominently on our newly tweaked online shop.
Are you carrying any new products and/or undiscovered gems you’re particularly excited about?
We have a selection of ceramics from a Wisconsin local named Ian Wright that we love having in the shop. His pieces have clean lines that pair well with items from our staple brands, and typically feature earth tones that help balance the shop against our more colorful options. His work is not yet distributed widely, but I would expect that to change soon.
What’s been a consistent best seller?
Kinto’s tumblers, both their Travel Tumbler and new Day Off Tumbler, have done really well for us online and in-store. They are the perfect item for hitting all of the various demographics that visit us at the shop.
What’s your process for selecting + curating the objects in your shop?
The shop has been growing more and more in the online market, so how a product will fare in that space is always a point of consideration. Beyond that, it’s largely just making sure to keep a balance of shop favorites and new pieces while always keeping price point in mind. One trick is taking into consideration other taste’s beyond my own. It’s important that the shop keep a consistent identity, but as we are trying to appeal to a larger group in our city, I often have to tell myself to think beyond my personal tastes. Otherwise, the shop would probably end up too minimal and sparse for the market.
Any special events/exhibits/pop ups/collaborations coming up?
We’ll be showing an outdoor inspired furniture collection called Whereabouts by a local Milwaukee designer named Ben Husnick in February. It’s an exciting opportunity to continue to showcase design in the midwest.
Do you have anything from the store in your own home?
I took home a Wire Plant Stand from Menu a few months back that is now featured prominently in my living area.
Does the store have its own line?
Yes! Last year we launched This That, which is our in-house brand of home goods. We have a small line of original products and a few great retail partners in other parts of the United States, including Port of Raleigh, Yowie, Wilson & Willy’s, and The A/D/O Shop. Our Tapered Drinking Glasses have been our best seller and in 2019 we plan to expand that product line into other forms of glassware.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned since opening your store?
It’s important to keep a running list of tasks. I found self generating work to be a greater challenge than expected, so I combat that by trying to keep a complete to-do list, which allows me to quickly move onto the next thing when I finish a project. Without it, I waste valuable time simply trying to come up with tasks to advance the business.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to follow a similar path to yours, what would it be?
If you plan to do most things yourself as if often required at the start, then play to your strengths. Very few of us are well rounded enough to do all the tasks needed for retail at 100%. I myself am not a great networker compared to my peers, so I instead sink my time into photography & brand presentation as a way to try and distinguish the shop. If you’re a great event planner, take on that as a shop identity. There are a lot of ways to make this work, but I think you’ll enjoy yourself more and have greater success if you lean into the things you’re best at and are most comfortable doing.
Visit Commonplace at 3074 S Delaware Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53207!