Classy Kat

Downtown store scratches out a niche for high-quality children’s gear

KAT AND KITTEN <br>Jill Maresich-Stephens’ daughter, Alexandra, helps her know what customers want in Kat’s Meow. Alexandra usually stays home with her grandma. A typical 2-year-old, “she terrorizes the store,” laughs Maresich-Stephens.

Jill Maresich-Stephens’ daughter, Alexandra, helps her know what customers want in Kat’s Meow. Alexandra usually stays home with her grandma. A typical 2-year-old, “she terrorizes the store,” laughs Maresich-Stephens.

Photo by Tom Angel

Cat call: The phrase “the cat’s meow” is a time-honored bit of slang that means “the best of the best.”

It’s a feast for the childhood imagination at Kat’s Meow. Kids walk into the downtown Chico store and head straight for the ever-expandable Brio train sets, the sturdy dollhouses, gleefully loud musical instruments or glittery dress-up clothes.

Owner Jill Mardesich-Stephens has created a store where children can get classic cowboy getups or their parents can give them a jump on their French lessons with the talking Little Linguist Machine.

Like a child, 5-year-old Kat’s Meow keeps outgrowing itself. The move just a few months ago to a larger, front space at the Garden Walk Mall is its third home downtown. “We just continue to expand the baby furniture and equipment” and the toy selection, Mardesich-Stephens said.

Mardesich-Stephens, like plenty of her classmates, “graduated from Chico and didn’t want to leave.” Her mother owned a women’s clothing store in Gridley that had earned a following. So, in 1995, Maresich-Stephens opened a store that at the time included both adult and children’s clothes, plus gifts. The kids’ stuff proved most popular, so she started stocking her store with more of that—plus “phenomenal employees.”

She tries to keep her store on the cutting edge of what kids—and their parents, who control the pocketbooks—want.

Mardesich-Stephens , whose husband works for a prefabricated metal building company, gained new insight on the business of kids’ gear when her daughter, Alexandra, was born two and one-half years ago. “It’s more hands-on,” she said. “I know what kids are liking; what they’re into.”

For example, it’s getting to be au-revoir time for blue-bereted Madeline. But Thomas the Tank Engine is chugging along as heartily as ever. “Thomas is still hot,” Maresich-Stephens said, and at the same time “a lot of the old-fashioned toys are coming back.”

As companies reintroduce themes—such as Goodnight Moon or Raggedy Ann and Andy—that meant something to earlier generations, nostalgic parents and grandparents are snapping them up. “I think parents can relate to what we enjoyed and give that to their kids. It seems like every generation is living a more complicated life,” said Maresich-Stephens, who is 30.

Manufacturers are turning out educational toys and more wooden trucks and blocks than plastic and electronic “gizmos,” Mardesich-Stephens said. To many of today’s parents, Babar is infinitely better than Barbie. The John Deere toy line has proven popular in the North Valley. Spring has brought out yard toys, both plastic and metal rakes, shovels and more.

Girls lately are into “frilly things"—the pink and purple dress-up clothes are selling well. As far as clothes, she said, “little boys, I think, could care less.”

Also, anything for newborns—especially the Kushies brand—"flies off the shelf,” Maresich-Stephens said. She admires what the European companies are producing: high-quality clothes in bright, bold, fun colors. “I try to stick with mostly cotton and natural fibers for babies—comfortable,” she said. Kat’s Meow is bringing in a new preemie line and continues to add parenting books, nursing supplies, lotions and the like.

Kat’s Meow carries boys’ clothes from newborn to size 7 and girls’ to size 10. (Yes, it has training bras.)

Mardesich-Stephens has tried and discarded some products—like the more mass-marketed toys—that just didn’t sell. “It’s all trial and error. You have to second-guess the customer always.”

Mardesich-Stephens doesn’t dance around the fact that much of the merchandise at Kat’s Meow tends toward the high end, with prices to match.

People who shop—even window-shop—at Kat’s Meow want “the quality, the special looks.” She’s seen new parents, disappointed with the cheap strollers they got at their baby shower, come in to upgrade to the more prestigious—and durable—Prego line.

There’s little, bitty socks for $12.50, a knit jumper for $45.50, a $70 everyday dress—costing enough to worry if you get baby spit-up on them, but often too cute to resist. A blanket of Asian silks and velvet lined with leopard prints, for $119.95, reaches a niche market, and Maresich-Stephens knows it.

Some shoppers walk into Kat’s Meow, see a couple of the higher price tags, and turn around and go to Target, where prices and quality are lower. Others save the store for gifts-only status. But Mardesich-Stephens said “quite a few” parents get most of their child’s clothes from her store. She also gets a fair amount of customers who don’t even have a baby yet; they’re building their hope chest.

Also, she added, not everything at Kat’s Meow is in the upper price range. “People may not think it, but you can walk in here and find a $5 gift, or you can find a $200 gift. … You can get a $20 baby gift really easily.”

She’s not even surprised anymore when customers complain loudly about the prices, “or they try to barter with me.”

“Customer service is what it’s all about,” says Maresich-Stephens.

“Everyone’s tastes and preferences are so different,” she said. “The adults go straight for the clothing … and the kids go straight to the toys. The kids really give their input, especially the girls.”

Her favorite is the dolls—quality but still playable lines like Madame Alexander and Corolle. “I encourage the baby dolls—the innocent play,” she said.

Mardesich-Stephens’ philosophy of child-rearing is simple: “I think that just to be real loving and calm and always let them know that you’re there for them. Spend time with them while they’re little—have fun with them.

“They grow up so fast."