A Look at Creating Looks
Selling Complete Outfits at Apparel Boutiques

By Sara Hodon

Apparel boutique operators use a variety of methods to drive sales. Whether a customer is purchasing an entire wardrobe or a single pick-up item like a pair of earrings, every purchase helps to boost the boutique’s bottom line. Ideally, operators take special pride in seeing a customer purchase an entire outfit, from the hair wrap right down to the shoes. Using a combination of creative merchandising and attentive customer service, operators and their sales teams help patrons look and feel their best when they leave their store.

A sofa and merchandise on display at Rebel Magnolia. “Merchandising is always a priority for us because we’re trying to create an experience for our customers,” one of the owners said.

Leslie Matson, owner of Salamander in Milwaukee, Wis., said whether a customer buys an entire outfit or not depends on both the staff member working with the customer as well as the customer themselves. “We have customers who not only buy complete outfits, but wear them out of the store,” she said. “One of my tips for selling entire outfits is to merchandise the store in a way that you’re not only dressing mannequins or dress forms, but adding accessories to create a complete look,” she explained. It’s also important to get to know the customer a bit, and that’s as easy as asking the right questions, such as “What are you looking for?, “Are you looking for an outfit to wear to a special event?”, and the like. “It depends on what the customer wants, but if I’m working with them, I’ll add other pieces. For instance, if they’re looking for a top, I’ll put pants and a jacket in their fitting room for them to try on. If they’re looking at a sleeveless top, I’ll add a jacket for them. I’ll give them the ‘something extra’ they may not have known they were looking for. I’ll bring things in that they may not have asked for, but I know will work.” Her other big tip is to encourage the customer to step out of the dressing room to show off the new outfit. “Many people don’t want to come out if they truly don’t like the piece, but if they’re unsure, I strongly encourage the customer to get out of the dressing room so the sales associate can see them. When they see the complete outfit, they can make suggestions for a scarf or jewelry.”

Merchandise displays, including a unique arrangement of hats, at E. Lane Boutique in Erie, Pa. Customers sometimes buy entire outfits at the store, according to the owner and buyer.

Allison Gorman, owner/buyer at E. Lane Boutique in Erie, Pa., said it’s not uncommon for customers to purchase entire outfits at her store. “The most common item is a shirt, but we have outfit ideas for all the pieces that come in, so we can suggest a pant or bottom to go with a shirt someone is in love with,” she said.  

Laura Horwath, owner/founder of Ferne Boutique in Detroit, Mich., said she also has customers purchase entire outfits quite frequently. 

“Customers love to have an experienced stylist dress them and choose items that fit their body type. Our items at Ferne Boutique are very versatile and can be worn many times. We can add accessories to any look that can be worn with several other pieces that customers already own,” she explained. “Overall, full outfits make customers happy, fulfilled, and it takes the time out of their day to find things themselves. As we are styling customers, we add those accessories to the conversation.”

Rebel Magnolia Owners Hailey Cannon, left, and Lauren Husen, photographed with copper art pieces. The majority of the customers are looking for unique merchandise, not complete outfits, Cannon said.

Hailey Cannon, co-owner of Rebel Magnolia in Saginaw, Mich., said in her experience, “I would say the majority of people who come into a boutique are looking for a really unique piece they can’t find anywhere else. Because of this, most of our sales are for one to five unique pieces of clothing, not necessarily an outfit.” She added, “However, we love to introduce our customers to our brands of denim and accessories and do convert one item sales into outfit sales by showcasing those items to them.”

Displays with outfit ideas at Ferne Boutique. “ …We can add accessories to any look that can be worn with several other pieces that customers already own,” the owner and founder said.

Gorman said one of her most effective selling strategies is to make helpful suggestions to customers for building outfits, and never pressure them into buying something they don’t truly love. “Being genuine, I never try to be pushy but truly want them to look their best, so if I think an extra piece (i.e., jacket, jewelry, bottom) really makes the outfit I will for sure show them, and I tend to get really excited when an outfit comes together, and the customer can see that,” she explained. Cannon said there are two factors that influence upselling an entire outfit. The first is how items are displayed. “Coordinating items should be hung near each other,” she explained. “We also try to create ‘color stories’ or ‘capsule wardrobes’ on our smaller racks. These are items that can be worn on their own, or with each other. So we might display a midi-dress, a couple of shirts, a pair of jeans, a denim jacket and kimono or sweater that all coordinate.” Her second factor is getting to know the customer—their likes, dislikes, and a bit of their personality. This means actually striking up a conversation with them, she pointed out. “We emphasize customer relationships with our employees,” she said. “It’s amazing how many boutiques I walk into and they don’t even greet you, let alone come out to the floor and shop with you.”

A complete outfit on display at Ferne Boutique. Shoppers can have items chosen for them at the store that fit their body type.

Merchandising plays a huge role in upselling outfits because, quite simply, it makes shopping much less overwhelming for the customer. “It’s hard for customers to picture what goes together when there’s so much to choose from in the store,” Gorman said. “Having outfits together draws them in and helps them narrow down exactly how to wear something. A lot of times, when I do my buying I have outfits in mind and what can go with what, so it’s nice to display what I was thinking while doing the buying!” Horwath said she and her team purposely do their merchandising in a way that makes it easy on the customer. “We color coordinate the racks so it’s easy to find specific colors. The table displays are also inviting and very easy to shop. Everyone has their own unique style, so we really have the opportunity to be creative.”

Rebel Magnolia store model Ellie Juengel. One-item sales at this Saginaw, Mich., store can be converted into outfit sales by showcasing denim and accessories, one of the owners said.

Cannon said merchandising is more than just putting a shirt on a mannequin. “Merchandising is always a priority for us because we’re trying to create an experience for our customers. As a boutique
owner, you can’t compete with the convenience of shopping online and having it delivered for free,” she said. “However, you can’t slap some clothes up on a slat wall with a couple round racks in the middle, not greet your customers, and expect them to choose to shop with you and not online. Creating a beautiful and inspiring space for customers to come, and then help them find what they’re looking for, is what will always set successful brick and mortar boutiques apart from their online competitors.”   

Just as every customer is unique, each season brings its own trends and retailers strive to mix the newest, most cutting-edge looks with staple pieces so a customer can mix and match items at various price points and decide where to splurge (for instance, opt for a stunning statement necklace to be worn with a less-expensive top or sweater). Matson said classic denim is still in style and continues to evolve with each season. “I think denim will just always be a strong seller,” she said. “Right now the skinny jeans are still in, but they have details on the seams, and released hems where the seam is let down on the bottom. There are also more shorter, flared looks in denim.” She mentions boho, floral, and gingham are also popular this season.

Apparel displays at Ferne Boutique in Detroit, Mich. Customers at the store love to have an experienced stylist dress them, according to the owner and founder.

Gorman said she is loving the crop pant and wide leg trend. “I think skinny and ankle pants will always be around but adding some pattern and flare to the pants is great to see,” she said. She noted the “cold shoulder” trend in tops seems to be waning. 

Cannon said high-waisted denim, rather than mid-rise or low-rise, is enjoying a comeback, and she says although leggings are still a great choice for athletic wear or to wear with longer tunics, they are no longer as in-demand for everyday wear.

Fortunately, apparel is very much a personal choice, and there are plenty of ways for customers to show their personality, whether they prefer the hottest trends or timeless classics. Matson said she is excited about the “anything goes” approach to current styles. “I love style today—there’s a lot of flexibility,” she pointed out. And retailers who capture those various styles can rest assured their customers will notice and appreciate their hard work when they walk out of their store with a bag containing an entire outfit they saw on a dress form.

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