If it snowed more than 7 inches on New Year’s Day, customers who had bought a fur, leather or other coat at Ribnick Luxury Outerwear in December would have been entitled to a full refund.
Bill Ribnick, president of the Warehouse District business, wasn’t sweating the offer.
He had bought an insurance policy to cover the snow risk.
Bill Ribnick, like his late father, Burt Ribnick, is a retailer with a sense of humor who enjoys the occasional promotion.
“Dad said we had to change with the times,” said Bill Ribnick, 61. “Keep doing what works and keep adding things. We’ve also tried things over the years that didn’t work.
“The goal is the bottom line, but let’s also have some fun. People come in here because they want the product. It’s not like a new roof.”
And business has been fun and pretty good for an unpretentious but landmark outfit that is believed to be the oldest retailer in the trendy neighborhood now known as the North Loop.
Ribnick’s, which boasts a small building and parking lot a couple blocks north of Hennepin Avenue, has gotten a boost as trendy apparel retailers and restaurants have moved in.
Bill Ribnick is the grandson of pelt wholesaler Isaac Ribnick, a Latvian immigrant who started the business a century ago in the hardscrabble blocks north of downtown, which boasted freight houses, factories, storage, food and fabric wholesalers, peddlers and more than a few gin joints.
Ribnick’s is a small-but-growing business of 12 employees with sales north of $4 million.
It has adapted and prospered in an era of consolidation and closings among family-owned specialty retailers.
“Generally, around the country there has been a decrease of independent fur retailers,” said Keith Kaplan, who knows Ribnick’s from his time as an executive with the Fur Information Council of America. “Many of them were family businesses, started by Greeks or Eastern Europeans and handed down generation to generation. But the kids often go to school and become doctors or something else, and they don’t want to go into business.
“And there’s more competition from department stores and specialty [chain] retailers. But Bill Ribnick has been one of those who took over the business and had the vision to evolve.”
Ribnick’s has been evolving since Burt Ribnick came home from World War II, where he served as a bomber pilot and flew 35 missions over Germany with the U.S. Eighth Air Force.
Burt Ribnick joined the family trade alongside his father, Isaac. Burt, a North High graduate who attended the University of Minnesota before the war, persuaded Isaac to diversify into retail through buying and selling used furs.
As a boy, Bill Ribnick can remember driving the rounds with his dad, who would buy newspaper ads across the Great Plains and Canada. They would buy used mink, fox and buffalo coats for cleaning and resale. Bill also can remember driving 50 years ago with Isaac, who died in 1970, to ranches to buy pelts.
They often would stay for dinner with longtime suppliers who had become friends.
Ribnick’s has long stored furs for the season. That also guarantees customers will be in the store at least twice a year.
And it still holds trunk shows in regional markets such as Fargo and Bismarck, N.D.
Bill Ribnick, a business major, was in graduate school when Burt asked him to join the business in 1979.
Burt was personable and an innovator. He spent up to 10 percent of sales, which came to about $100,000 at the time, on newspaper ads in which he often appeared. He lifted the strategy from “Fred the Furrier” in New York.
A striking guy with a wide smile, Burt held his granddaughter in his arms and announced two “additions” in one ad from the early ’80s: baby Lauren and 2,000 square feet of additional retail space.
“Now I can show you over 2,000 fur coats and jackets — including many designer labels — at 30 to 50 percent below retail prices,” Burt Ribnick claimed.
Burt, who died in 1993, and Bill Ribnick had bought a garage next door, knocked it down and nearly doubled Ribnick’s retail footprint to 5,000 square feet on N. First Street. The Ribnicks owned their space, and competed on service and discounts against department stores and a couple other furriers in better neighborhoods.
As the Warehouse District gentrified into the North Loop and added high-end housing, eateries and more retailers, Bill Ribnick adapted.
“We evolved because the neighborhood evolved, but even before that we had expanded into leather and cashmere and down coats and sheepskin, or shearling,” Bill Ribnick said, friendly, albeit a bit more reserved than his ad-posing father.
When Bill came into the business, the store was a destination for affluent customers seeking long mink coats. Now, two-thirds of the customers are affluent empty nesters and young professionals, many of whom live in or near downtown. They want a variety of styles, fabrics and prices.
You can still drop a ton on a long mink coat. However, the bestseller this season is sheared mink in a variety of colors on one side that reverses to waterproof taffeta on the other side. It sells for about $5,000.
“Our customer base is not just the wealthy,” Bill Ribnick said. “We sell a range of price points. And some people need some time to pay for the merchandise.”
Meanwhile, the fourth generation is onboard.
One of Bill’s children, Justin, 32, works alongside his dad in the family business.
And he’s a whiz at social media marketing and understanding the outerwear tastes of his generation.