Businesses that give back to the community here in Naperville aren’t that hard to find, and one proprietor who has been actively making a difference is Donna Smith, owner of Occasions — an artist-inspired gift store that features works created by creators hailing from Mexico, Israel, Italy, Portugal and more, as well as from the United States.
Smith launched her first store in 2007, and said that from the beginning, her business plan “included being involved with the community and giving back.”
“I think retail is something in my blood, and I’ve always loved working with people,” Smith said. “I’m a believer that businesses need to work with their local community and it’s important to develop a relationship that’s a two-way street: you give to local charities and schools and churches, and in turn, those people need to support their local businesses.”
Smith owns two stores, including her downtown location on Washington Street and another location in Naperville’s south end at the English Rows Towne Centre. Smith became an entrepreneur somewhat late in the game, having spent a number of years with Marshall Field’s, the May Company — a department store Smith said was similar in some ways to Kohl’s — and 15 years as a stay-at-home mom.
“I went to college at the University of Cincinnati and got a degree in marketing,” she said. “I always loved retail and went to work from 1982 through 1986 with the May Company. After that, we moved to Chicago and I became a buyer for Marshall Field’s as well as the assistant store manager at their Water Tower location.”
Smith stocks her store with as much locally produced work as possible and says that three criterion are used when selecting merchandise.
“First, I support local artists as much as I can, because those people are the ones who need to have a market but who also live and shop here,” she said. “I try to look for unique things you won’t find with a mass merchant and also things that offer quality for the price. I realize many people are on a limited budget.”
Smith might have honed her retail chops with her two department store positions but her charitable side was developed even more thanks to her 15 years of being with her three kids at home, which she said gave her plenty of volunteer opportunities.
“I did a lot of volunteer work with the schools as well as a lot of community activities, and I knew if I ever started a business one day that working with charities would be a part of the business plan,” she said.
One of Smith’s recent events was a “Clean your Cupboards for Charity” event, where her store took in “gently used dishes” that were then given to a second chance retail shop. Katie Wood, executive director of the Downtown Naperville Alliance, said Smith is one of many independent merchants in Naperville “who understands the importance of business and the common good of the community.
“Donna gets that and there are a number of businesses here in the downtown area that gives as much and as often as they can,” Wood said. “The fact that her store offers these unique items that you can’t find at home while you’re sitting in from of the computer is good for our downtown area. Occasions adds to the mix and is one of the important pieces to the puzzle.”
Wood adds that hopefully, customer loyalty is fostered by Smith and others giving to local organizations. Smith said about 10 percent of her total business winds up being earmarked for charity and that while many organizations drink from the same well every year, she isn’t concerned about always being asked for donations.
“We try to support all five of the area high schools as well as four in Plainfield, and if there is a senior event, we’ll make a donation,” she said. “We also give gift cards for products, and support groups like Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation. Local businesses have to support others in the community, and hopefully those people come back and shop in your store. I personally have been seeing customers like that coming back here for over 7 years.”