They might just come out of it stronger than ever.
These boutiques, or specialty stores, as they’re often called, have a few powers the greater industry often lacks. Because they cater to smaller clientele, they’re able to develop very strong relationships with their customers. Not only can they then receive a mountain of feedback, but those same customers are also likely to support their businesses in tough times.
Due to the power of these relationships, boutiques are a pretty good gauge of how the fashion industry is performing as a whole. We tapped four of our favorite boutiques in cities from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Oakland, California, to share their insight on how they’ve adapted their own store practices and how they see the current pandemic affecting both specialty stores and the fashion industry as a whole.
Stacy Smallwood of Hampden
“Fashion is about change. It’s about risk and who has the balls to stay in it.”
Where a specialty store has power over a larger department store is their ability to nimbly adapt to their environment. “We can listen to the customer, we can change course, we can react, and we can move forward,” says Smallwood. Hampden is featuring curated product edits on their social media channels and website that speak to their clients’ current needs. For instance, she ran one consisting of bottoms with elastic waists, proving how many designers are sneaking this once taboo tactic into elegant, modern pieces.
Additionally, they’ve shifted their strategy to focus on forging a connection with their customers as opposed to sales. Smallwood is trying to use this new digital surge as a platform to help ease women into the luxury space, which many are intimidated by. “Most women struggle with what to wear every day,” she says. “Anyone not in the fashion business struggles with it.” She has decided to launch a new membership platform titled the Hampden Style Set, which will offer styling videos, membership perks, 15-percent-off discounts for one purchase a month, and interviews with designers explaining their lines and how they came to be. Smallwood is working tirelessly to encourage more transparency in what some would call a rather intimidating industry.
Sherri McMullen of McMullen
The pandemic has placed an added value on the importance of expanding into the digital space. The launch of their newly renovated e-commerce platform could not have come at a better time. In terms of social media, they’ve held IG lives with designers, allowing them to explain both their own story and the stories behind their collections, shifting attention away from the current levels of panic. She’s even been trying on merchandise in her home for social media, propping up a camera and shooting on an automatic setting. McMullen acknowledges that her followers are enjoying this newfound element of humanity not typically seen in the luxury space.
“I think the women who love fashion are still going to love fashion regardless of what they are going through, but what does that look like when you’re not outside?”
For this same reason, she is not panicking about having to attend market appointments virtually. “I think that if you know the designers, then you know the collections and you understand the fit of things,” she explains. She looks to technology as the force that will allow the industry to adapt and push forward for the next few tumultuous seasons.
Laura Vinroot Poole of Capitol
“I think our business really changed in 2008,” says Vinroot Poole of implementing tactics she learned from the recession. “We spent a lot of time bringing things to clients’ closets rather than having them come in-store.” In a place like Charlotte, most of the business for their boutique is local. Therefore, the Capitol team prides itself on how well they know and understand their clients. Before they even thought about sales, they were checking in on their clients and making sure that they were doing OK. “I think that more than anything...what we’ve focused on the most is our relationships,” explains Vinroot Poole.
“It really helps to have real relationships with people and for them to have been to your store and to know that it’s a legitimate business that they believe has the ability to survive this.”
One of the biggest concepts the team is trying to focus on is staying relevant. A luxury boutique that sells designer gowns and fancy shoes could easily come off as out of touch at a time like this, and Vinroot Poole is cognizant in her efforts to avoid that. “[We’re] making sure that we’re acknowledging what is going on,” she says, adding that from her 22 years of experience, the team is acutely aware of what they are good at. While they are adapting to stay relevant, they are trying to still play to their own strengths as opposed to jumping on the bandwagon of social trends.
Ashley Vermillion Webb of Vermillion
Vermillion Webb shared that though they are not selling at their normal rates, they are still turning over product due to increased sales efforts from the entire team. “I mean we busted it,” she says. “We worked so hard.” With the changing circumstances, they are implementing initiatives that they probably wouldn’t have considered a few months ago. “If you would have told me I was going to do an Instagram video, I would have wanted to get my hair blown out, I would have maybe gotten my makeup done, I would have for sure taken a shower. Now we’re like, ‘let’s just do it.’” Typical decorum doesn’t apply as it once did. Vermillion Webb has found that people want this realer aspect that they are getting from their social channels.
“Desperation breeds such creativity and momentum.”
Along with finding new ways to get creative, the team has also been working on shifting their business strategy. “A shoo-in for us is a trunk show, which I’m doing because this is inventory I don’t have to pay for unless I sell it,” she explains. “I would love to get back to normal, but we’ve learned a lot, and there’s things we’re going to do differently going forward.”