* Founded: Aug. 1, 2018, in the former East Ridge Flea Market building at 6725 Ringgold Road.
* Growth: Owners Luke Stewart and Steve Watts are longtime business partners who first operated vendor booths in an antique shop. That experience led them to open The White House, a small cottage in the East Ridge Antique District behind the Cracker Barrel restaurant. When they outgrew that space, they opened two larger stores in the district: Greenbriar Antique Merchants and Redbriar Antiques. They closed those stores to open Chattanooga Mercantile, a 60,000-square-foot space with 300-plus vendors.
* Strategy: Watts says he and Stewart had opportunities to open their concept store at other sites in East Ridge and Chattanooga, as well as other towns in the region. "We knew we wanted this place four years before we got it," he says. "We wanted this store because we knew there were changes ahead for East Ridge," including the opening of outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops in the summer of 2016. "We had already run the numbers — 22,000 people got off the interstate and drove by that building [each day]. We just kind of pestered and stalked [the owner] until we got it."
* Business model: Watts describes the mix of merchandise as "vintage, antiques and interiors," covering every trending style in home decor. There's a waiting list of about 80 prospects, but a vendor who offers something different can move to the top of the list. "We don't want them all full of farmhouse or all clothing boutiques or all American antiques," he says. "We want American antiques and English antiques and French antiques and froufrou and masculine. We want to see all the different points of view."
* Home-style touches: Watts says part of their approach is to offer doses of Southern hospitality to every customer. In addition to decor and clothing, Chattanooga Mercantile houses a florist, bakery, full-service tea room and a man cave equipped with televisions and comfy seating. A cart at the entrance sells sweet tea and lemonade.
* Personalized approach: Each of the vendors has a personalized space, so that no two booths look the same. The customized facades feature everything from exposed beams to metal eaves to picket fences, like storefronts in a small city. Inside each booth, the walls, floors and lighting are as individualized as the products being sold. "We wanted to do a little town," Watts says, "and that's exactly what we did."
* Lessons learned: Chattanooga Mercantile is open earlier and later than customary for such stores (9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday) and is closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. "We give every option that we possibly can," he says. "I just remember everything done to me as a vendor. Those experiences taught me lessons about how I wanted to run a business."
* What's next: There's room to expand next door and in the open space out back, but Watts says he and Stewart are taking a wait-and-see approach before launching any new projects. Among their ideas is another restaurant, a Chattanooga antiques show or vintage pop-up sales a couple of times a year.
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