|Dan and Shira Epstein atop Mt Rainier|
For Shira and Dan Epstein, business is a family affair. Shira’s grandparents started Champaign Surplus almost 60 years ago, and it’s remained in the family ever since. In 1947, following the close of WWII, Shira’s grandfather finished his Naval service based out of Navy Pier in Chicago and returned to his pre-war retail appliance and repair trade, adding in post-war military surplus and camping mercantile in downstate Champaign–Urbana. The store found success and became a fixture of the community—and the family.
Shira’s parents took control of the store in the late ‘70s, and she grew up navigating the crowded stockrooms and running up and down the worn corridors with her brother. She still looks back on those formative years with a smile. “We would ‘help’ our long–tenured cashiers check customers out after school, spend hours playing underneath my dad’s and grandfather’s desk, or run around the warehouse playing hide and go seek.” Whether or not she knew it then, those years spent in her family’s store would come to define her childhood. “Back then it was an old school surplus and camping store—which made a pretty amazing place to play! And made for being exposed to many outdoor family adventures.” When it came time to choose her path, however, Shira opted for one outside what had essentially become her home. She left Champaign to study design and business, a path that would be varied and multifarious—but would eventually lead right back to where she began.
In her time following college, Shira worked as a graphic designer and Art Director around Chicago, and returned to grad school part time for her MBA. When she met Dan, she had been running her own Design and Marketing firm for five years—still a long way away from her retail roots. Dan had studied accounting and finance in school, and started his career utilizing his CPA. By the time they first began dating, Dan was the corporate controller and Senior Vice President of Finance for Leo Burnett ad agency. But Dan’s true passion lay in his outdoor and mountaineering adventures, which he’d been undertaking more and more frequently leading up to his meeting Shira. He was spending a lot of time (and money) in local Chicago outdoor retailers, investing in a hobby that would eventually become his life.
Dan’s father had encouraged him from a young age to find a way to work for himself, and when he discovered that Shira’s family owned a multi–generational outdoor retailer, it seemed like more than a coincidence—it was fate. After their marriage, the pair decided to merge their career paths into one; they moved to Champaign–Urbana and in 2010 purchased Champaign Surplus from Shira’s parents.
From day one, Dan and Shira’s passion for their new venture grew. That passion’s roots traced back to their local community; Champaign–Urbana proved to be a mecca of culture and a source of support for the couple. “We are extremely passionate about our local community,” Shira says. “Champaign-Urbana is an amazing place to live, with a great energy and micro–urban flair. There are lots of special people here doing extraordinary things, both related to the outdoors and our business and otherwise. We love that we are able to be a long–standing local destination where people can come feel at home while they are shopping and that our business allows us to give back to our community in lots of ways.” Dan and Shira support local businesses, as well as similar outdoor specialty retailers nationwide, and they love to feel that same support in return. Rather than encourage competition, this unique community embraces the support of other independent retailers—a facet Dan and Shira adore.
Within the company, Dan and Shira both offered unique strengths that would prove useful in their new field. “Dan and I have very complimentary skill sets that work effectively together and balance out,” Shira says. “The right and left brain of our store, so to speak. He is the finance, inventory analysis, data and accounting silo, and I am the branding, marketing, merchandising and HR silo.” Those unique traits, along with a willingness to change and keeping a keen eye on data (both within their store and the industry), helped them navigate the murky waters of their new career. That willingness to change is key to their success. “We try to never be complacent and work to continuously improve. We’re quite willing to hear feedback and take on change,” Shira notes. That concept applies to their strategy and their store. “The one thing that is certain in the current retail environment is that staying fresh and nimble and experiential is an absolute must. Our view is that it never hurts to try new things to see what works.”
And trying new things is just what Shira and Dan had in mind when they contacted the Mann Group. Though Champaign Surplus has always been a success, Shira and Dan were facing some serious growing pains last year when they reached out to the Mann Group for guidance. What followed was a surprisingly valuable experience. “Working with the Mann Group has been absolutely invaluable,” Shira says. “The insights, feedback and training offered by Dan, Leslie and the entire Mann Group team has made a huge impact on our business and what we have been able to achieve. We initiated the Strategic Planning process with Dan Mann last May, and are continuing to work on the many important resulting initiatives. Dan Mann came and conducted in–store G.E.A.R Training for us this past October, and we have implemented the methodologies on our sales floor to much success.” With plans to attend Mann U in the coming months, Champaign Surplus is destined for even more retail greatness.
In truth, Dan and Shira Epstein have discovered the perfect recipe for success: a respected and time–honored retail space, combined with genuine passion and tenacious work ethic, with a dash of the Mann Group magic—and voilá!
Get to Know Dan and Shira of Champaign Surplus
When we are on vacation, all we want to do these days is relax, sleep and unplug!
Our favorite Retail Sales moment is when we have the opportunity to outfit someone for a special trek or adventure they’ve been preparing for and/or dreaming about — and then being able to follow along on their adventure via social media or hear all about it from them upon their return.
If we are camping, our 5-year-old son is our favorite companion and our original Whisper Lite one-burner stove is the one thing we can’t go without.
When we think of specialty retail, we think of all of our amazing colleagues that are part of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance.
Our favorite long hike is any hike in Canyonlands, Utah or the Muir route up Mt. Rainier. We hope to make the walker’s High (Haute) Route hike from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland and the A.T. our new favorites someday!
When interacting with a customer, we think the moment when you get someone into exactly the right product for them, and you can see how happy they are to have found just what they were looking for… even if it is different than what they first expected when they walked in is the best “aha” moment.
Of all our accomplishments in retail, we are most proud of the nearly 70–year–old family heritage of our store, where each generation has brought a new energy and unique perspective to growing the business and making the store a special place in our community.
When we are outside, you’ll most likely find us playing in our yard, a park, or out running & cycling.
My favorite item I sell is Shira: Hmmmm. At the moment, pretty much any Sorel boot and the BuckshotPro bluetooth speaker/flashlight combo. Dan: Any fun camping gadget.
A great night in always includes good single-malt scotch and a movie.