When Fraser Ross opened his first trendy Kitson clothing and accessories store in West Hollywood in 2001, it was a magnet for celebrities and the paparazzi that stalked them, a most unlikely retail candidate to capture the attention of New York publishers. But one decade and an additional 12 stores later, Kitson has emerged as a valuable specialty outlet for publishers, with book sales topping $1.6 million last year. “Our turn on books is 11 times a year,” says Ross, who moved to Los Angeles from Toronto after establishing himself there as a retailer by running Ice, his first specialty store. “Kitson carries about 400 titles, which might not seem like a lot, but when a book is hot we easily sell 1,000 to 1,500 copies of it. It’s a huge add-on business. Clothing has become risky, but our book sales keep growing. The books at Kitson provide entertainment shopping for the whole family,” Ross says. And sales keep growing; this January the chain sold $100,000 in books, five times more than last January.
You won’t find literature or history books at Kitson, but a carefully conceived and constantly changing assortment of children’s books, cookbooks, humor, dog, marijuana, and whimsical erotica titles. “I draw the line at fiction,” says Ross, who stocks books in the $9.95–$29.95 price range and has an eye for “non-Kindle-like books” that are least likely to be downloaded online. Kitson’s bestselling titles last year, all of which sold well over 1,000 copies, were Go the Fu*k to Sleep, How to Raise a Jewish Dog, My Quotable Kids, and How to Live with a Huge Penis. The chain stocks several books with the F-word in their titles. “ ‘F’ translates into lots of sales for us,” says Ross, who points to a stack of What the Fu*k Should I Make for Dinner, another hit for Kitson. Books are stacked high all over the store, mixed in with different merchandise and arranged by theme.
The chain’s flagship store is the 7,500-square-foot location in Santa Monica Place, an upscale mall three blocks from the beach, where Ross also has a Kitson Kids store. Other locations include Malibu, West Hollywood, Newport Beach, Irvine, and Santa Barbara, and Ross plans to open in San Diego, Hollywood, Honolulu, and San Francisco this year. In addition, Kitson scored a much coveted space in Terminal 7 at LAX; it will open in March in partnership with Hudson News. Ross currently employs 300 people and has a warehouse in West Hollywood.
Although an inveterate reader of newspapers, Ross admits he doesn’t read many books. He is first and foremost a self-financed businessman, although he is close to closing a new round of private equity financing. Once the deal is signed, Ross plans to expand Kitson (which is his middle name) on an international level. Last year he hired Chris Lee to be Kitson’s first CEO. Lee, who was senior v-p of the Forever 21 chain, says his intention is for Kitson to double in size every year. Lee calls Fraser “the Mozart of merchandising. We can build a great company around a great merchant.” There are already eight Kitson stores in Japan and one in Taiwan; these are part of a licensing partnership with Itochu in Japan.
Sitting in the food court at Santa Monica Place, Ross’s eye goes naturally to the shoppers carrying his sky-blue Kitson bags. He notices the age demographic, but also the store names on the other bags they’re carrying. “I like to see where else Kitson customers shop because it tells me about their shopping DNA,” he explains.
Ross buys books only through gift distributors, primarily Stephen Young Associates. Kay West, their Los Angeles rep, says Ross’s intuition about books is second to none. “He’s passionate about what he does, and can always spot the next trend or kitschy title before anyone else,” West says. It was books, in fact, that helped Kitson get through the recession, and Ross believes publishers should take specialty stores more seriously. He’d like to participate in a focus group for stores similar to Kitson with a group of New York publishers. “They need to pay more attention to pop culture and the younger generation,” he says. “There’s so much potential there in books.” As Ross places his hand on a stack of 1,001 Facts That Will Scare the S#*T Out of You he adds, “Entertainment is the future of retail.”