BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
It all began around the Sommerschield’s dining room table in 1981. And since then, Hoohobbers has been Chicago’s go-to destination for gifts for infants and children, thanks to the involvement of now three generations of one of our city’s cleverest and most attractive families.
And that catchy company name? We asked co-founder and design and production chair, Judy Sommerschield, what Hoohobbers means: “It’s our family word for ‘whatchamacallit.’”
The story began when Judy and her husband, Bill, who continues to manage finances and vender relations for the company, noticed that their three children—Courtney, Billy, and Ashley, all Latin School students at the time—were seated on phone books at the table. Judy relates:
“Bill wondered why someone hadn’t invented a portable booster seat. Then, voila, the Junior Director Chair, still probably our most popular item, was born. There was nothing like it on the market.
“The ability to make plastic look shiny and attractive had just been developed, so we were able to manufacture a chair that was lightweight, sturdy, and good looking. The company was originally called TYKE, so this was the TYKE-HIKE chair.
“Our products were in the original Crate & Barrel on Wells Street, and we had a built-out section featuring our products in the State Street Marshall Fields. We later changed our name to Hoohobbers.”
Every member of the Sommerschield family has been involved in making the company the leading source of portable and durable gifts for children, whether it is their Moses baskets lined in lovely linens, which have been passed down now to second generations, or the fun yet practical Crayola-colored personalized chairs, rocking chairs, and sleeping bags for kids.
Parents who once sat in their own director’s chair in the playrooms of the past are now purchasing them for their own children.
“Our daughter Courtney Eber was on the staff for 10 years, helping to convert Hoohobbers from a wholesale to a retail business. She and I designed all of the product collections and managed client relationships. She is still closely involved.
“Our son, Bill, and daughter Ashley both advise from a finance and business perspective. And our daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Sommerschield, owns a business called Virtual Visability. She has just completed a makeover for our website. We couldn’t be more thrilled.
“And, of course, the grandchildren are our photo models!”
What is it like, Judy, when a whole family takes on an enterprise?
I really can’t imagine having built a small business that has survived in this hard retail economy for 36 years without having the involvement and support of our whole family. We used to take the children to trade shows in New York when they were young, and they helped us work the booths, take orders, and charm clients. Every member of the family has ideas on Hoohobbers from design and product offerings to the look of the website.
Do you do lots of the design work?
I am still the lead designer. It is one of the most fun parts of my job. Picking new fabrics and putting them together to create Moses baskets and sleeping bags is a blast.
In regard to the chairs, it is fun to look back and see old colors that were hot at the time. We had a good turquoise/hot pink chair in the ‘90s. We had prints in the ‘80s. Now we stick to solids but adapt the colors to bring in a modern twist.
Over the years, what have been your most popular items?
A tough call, but the Junior Director Chair, I think, has to win. That said, our rocking chair and Moses baskets have quite a following. We recently paired down our product offerings to focus on Hoohobbers key products.
What are people looking for right now for baby gifts?
Our clientele has always been upscale consumers looking for products that are unique and well made. I really believe that the fact that we still manufacture all our products in the USA matters to people as well.
Our clientele likes the ability to send personalized gifts with a name or monogram. We have increased our color options and font styles to give our customers many choices. We hear over and over from customers that they gave a Moses basket and were the hit of the shower, or they give one of the chairs for each new baby born, and they are known for it.
We have been very blessed to have clients who have supported us for over 30 years.
Having created for kids for three decades and being a terrific grandmother as well, Judy has become a leading baby whisperer and advisor on all things parenting.
Do you think new parents are more or less frightened to bring baby home from the hospital than when you were a new parent?
These days there are so many books, blogs, websites, and friends with opinions and advice. You used to only have the advice of a few friends and your mother. So, I think it can be overwhelming for new parents to sift through the advice to determine what will be best for them and their baby.
Parenting isn’t easy. One can only hope, whether you read all the books or wing it, that the experience will be absolutely wonderful—but expect to be tired.
You use such wonderful colors. Do babies notice color?
The original colors of the chairs were primary, but over the years we have brought in variety, and we try to stay on trend. In the past few years, it has been gray, so we offer gray options in all products.
We stay on trend with fabrics through research and advice from fabric suppliers. Years ago, the word was that babies only saw black and white. We did a whole collection that was black and white.
When do you think babies start sensing the world around them?
We make baby products, but we certainly aren’t doctors. Taking a poll of the moms in our family, we all feel our babies responded with smiles and the ability to follow us around the room with their eyes much earlier than expected. I suppose we don’t really know, but I think it is earlier than we think.
How has retailing changed over the years both in terms of the internet and when people give gifts?
The change has been overwhelming. Having been in business since 1981, we have really witnessed a complete shift in retail. We started Hoohobbers as a wholesaler selling to upscale baby and gift stores.
We started to realize the major decline of brick and mortar stores about 15 years ago and, luckily, created a website on the early side of the trend. We now primarily sell our items through our website.
We miss the actual stores where people could see the products in person, but as we all know, internet shopping is the way people now prefer to shop.
Have you always been creative?
I have always had my creative side. My children remember the Halloween costumes I would think up and sew by hand. They also joke that their teachers must have looked forward to what the next Judy Sommerschield project was going to look like when they showed up with their presentations at Latin!
So yes, I was always creative but would have never guessed I would have had the opportunity to run this business making parents and their children happy for so many years.
How lucky for their always expanding clientele that the Sommerschields are a family that truly know how to work and play together.