Spoiler alert: this is a feel-good story in a year when good news is hard to come by.
Margot Zigmont was all set to open Tea & Oranges, her first retail store in her hometown of Summit, N.J., when the pandemic hit. She’d just finalized a lease for a 1,400-square-foot space right off Springfield Avenue, the town’s main shopping street, and was prepared to open her doors in the middle of March.
“As soon as I got my certificate of occupancy, all nonessential businesses were shut down,” she said.
But Zigmont wasn’t about to let that deter her and immediately set out to put all her inventory online and quickly get comfortable with e-commerce and social media. She managed to master curbside pickup, local deliveries and other operating strategies necessitated by COVID-19 to “keep my head above water,” she said.
It worked, and by the time she was able to actually open the doors to her women’s accessories and apparel shop on June 15, she’d already found a customer who had embraced her mix of unique and stylish pieces.
When she first tossed around the idea of opening her own store, Zigmont had envisioned it as a shop filled with footwear, accessories and jewelry. She saw it as the New Jersey version of Scarpa, a women’s boutique in Charlottesville, Va., where she’d worked when she was living there and attending college.
Her first idea was to open a branch of Scarpa, but when she approached the owner, Amy Gardner, with the idea, she got an unequivocal, “God, no.” But Gardner did encourage Zigmont to open her own store and was willing to offer advice and guidance.
Gardner’s first suggestion was for Tea & Oranges to offer apparel as well as accessories. “She said it turns faster” and would attract more frequent visits from customers.
Zigmont listened and today, the top-performing brands in the store are Raffaello Rossi pants and Frank & Eileen updated basics. She describes these popular lines as “staples that elevate a women’s wardrobe but are casual enough to wear every day.”
She believes in offering “classic yet stylish” pieces for the fiftysomething demographic of women who call Summit home and these two brands turned out to be her “two biggest lifesavers” when she opened Tea & Oranges. They also represent the way she thinks about fashion. “Fast fashion is not my thing,” she said, adding that she leans more toward versatile, updated basics that can be washed 100 times and still look good. “I’m of the mind-set that style is more important than fashion,” she said.
The mix at Tea & Oranges also includes Il Bisonte bags, Soko and Verre Modern jewelry, shoes from Gola and Coclico, and even Poet in Hangzhou candles.
The brands she selected have limited distribution, which means customers won’t find them at the nearby Mall at Short Hills.
In addition to Scarpa, Zigmont worked for a lingerie shop called Intimacy before joining Timothy Pope, a stylist and wardrobe consultant for high-net-worth individuals, for five years. It was during this time that she said she developed her aesthetic.
But it was a bout with Hodgkins lymphoma during college that truly defined her as a person.
“I thought I’d get a big job on Wall Street, but I got cancer instead,” she said. Zigmont wound up in New York, working at JP Morgan, and it was there that she met the man who would eventually become her husband. After their second child, they moved to New Jersey, ultimately settling in Summit.
For five years, Zigmont worked at the local yarn store — “I’m a crazy knitter,” she said — where she honed her skills at retail. “It gave me insight into the not-so-glamorous side of running a shop,” she said. It was her husband, Michael Zigmont, head of a New York hedge fund, who convinced her to open her own store.
So while the timing might not have been ideal, Tea & Oranges has found a niche and achieved more success than Zigmont could have envisioned when she opened during a pandemic. “I beat my sales goal in June and every month since then,” she said. “In September, October and November, we made one-and-a-half times our goal. I was very conservative in my financial projections when I was writing a business plan and I projected volume like we did at the yarn store. So I’m excited to have underestimated what we could do.”
She’s also busy enough to employ six people to work in the store, the first of whom she hired just as the pandemic was at its worst in the spring. “I thought my head would fall off,” she said with a laugh.
But surviving a life-threatening illness changes a person and it has made Zigmont grateful for every day and every success. She’s also grateful for the women of Summit who have patronized her store.
“I’m in a community that is generous and supportive and wants small businesses like mine to succeed,” she said.
Her goals for the future? “I hope I can continue to grow and attract women from the surrounding areas to shop here. I don’t see myself opening a second shop. I like the interaction and really knowing my customer.”