By Sara Karnish

In a typical year, apparel is a reliably strong seller. Whether looking to fill a wardrobe with classic pieces for business or seeking out one or two fun, trendy items to give a lackluster wardrobe a boost, apparel can be counted on to draw customers into boutiques. But 2020 has been anything but typical, causing retailers of all kinds to reimagine all aspects of their business. It posed new challenges for clothing boutiques owners to find new ways to deliver the same or similar top-notch personalized service customers were used to, or to carry clothing styles they had not focused on before. As customers’ clothing needs changed dramatically, boutique owners have had to change with them. Kirsten Berghoff, owner of Sadie Grace Boutique in Greenville, Ohio, summed it up this way: “There have been lots of pivots in our retail lives.”

Merchandise framed by a window at Humble & Kind. The owner said not to be afraid to step out of your comfort zone when choosing merchandise.

Buying apparel is largely a sensory experience. From analyzing the cut, color, and style of a garment to critiquing one’s own reflection in the mirror, to handling the fabric and examining the materials, customers are more in tune with what looks best on them than ever before. Berghoff said she’s tried to do much of the work for her customers while her store was closed to in-person shopping for several weeks. She’s found social media to be an invaluable way to connect with new and existing customers. “One of my biggest tips for selling apparel is to physically put it on—just show a customer what it looks like on a body. I’ll do this myself or have girlfriends who will come in and try things on. I’ve started doing fit videos on Instagram and Facebook Live. Once a week I’ll do a Facebook Live stream where I’ll physically put on the clothes, talk about how they fit and why I would size up or down,” she explained. Ashley Hinterberger, owner of Humble & Kind Boutique in Altoona, Pa., added setting a goal and staying true to it has served her well when it comes to selling apparel, and taking the occasional risk can have its own rewards. “Offer what you can stand behind, and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone,” she advised.

Ashley Hinterberger, owner, Humble & Kind Boutique in Altoona, Pa. Hinterberger recommended offering
merchandise that you can stand behind.

Customers have shifted to more casual attire due to spending more time at home and less at the workplace. Lisa Daniele, owner of Polished Boutique in Branford, Conn., said “basic staples such as tees, leggings, seamless camis, and undergarments such as bramis and bralettes” are among her current best-sellers, as well as “fit for comfort options such as cardigans and anything with a soft, cozy touch.” Daniele’s best tip for selling apparel is to utilize multiple ways of displaying product to maximize exposure. “Also, offer promotions such as BOGO specials to encourage more units per transaction.”

Lisa Daniele, owner of Polished Boutique in Branford, Conn., during a live sale, an event that is held twice a week. Comfortable apparel is selling well for the store.

Going forward, Daniele predicted comfort will be a recurring theme into 2021, with customers used to staying home. “Matching sets and oversized fits will probably stay popular,” she said. Kay McCarthy, owner of The Phoenix in Richmond, Va., said “comfortable tops and cozy sweaters” are current best-sellers, and Berghoff noted lines like Cut From the Cloth and Dear John Denim are selling well at Sadie Grace Boutique. “They are great-fitting lines, and I have a following for both lines,” she explained. “I’m also selling a lot of Molly Bracken, which is a higher-end line and such a different look for me. We’re also selling a lot of BedStu leather, which we’ve had for about a month. I’m noticing that people are looking for better quality pieces and are willing to pay a little more to keep them longer.” Hinterberger said basic black leggings are currently their biggest seller. Berghoff said it’s difficult to predict what trends will emerge for 2021, but also feels more shoppers will lean toward leisure/casual wear—“It’s hard to know until we see where COVID is going.” McCarthy has a similar prediction—“No one is really going out on a limb in terms of fashion forward ideas.” In contrast, Hinterberger said she expects a bit of a throwback, with the 1990s resurgence to continue, with chunky sweaters and relaxed fit denim style known affectionately as “Mom jeans” to still be in demand.

A view of the sales floor at Sadie Grace Inc., in Greenville, Ohio. The owner has found social media to be an invaluable way to connect with new and existing customers.

Boutique operators use several methods to create a streamlined flow in their store for customers to browse and buy easily and safely. “We limit the amount of shoppers so no one feels like they are in someone else’s space, and we put arrows on the floor to try directing the traffic flow,” Daniele said. Berghoff has personal shopping appointments available before and after hours for customers who want to shop privately. Besides changing operations in the store, Berghoff says she has increased her online presence to maintain contact with customers. “We built a website in a matter of months. We never had that before, and now we have it up and running. We do a lot of shipping, and a lot of Facebook Live. That all probably saved our business. We have a broader range of customers now.” Next to store “flow,” merchandising is one of the key elements that helps to boost sales. This gives store employees the chance to show off their creative sides by arranging unique displays that put the products’ distinctive features front and center. A good display is clean, neat, full (but not too full so the customer is overwhelmed), and organized—“Nothing too cluttered. Have a nice color story. Tags tucked in, hangers facing the correct way, and everything sized small to large,” Daniele advised. McCarthy suggested merchandising the items in such a way that it’s easy on the customer: “Make it look inviting and give them ideas for how to put things together in a unique way.” Similarly, Berghoff suggested making the most of forms and mannequins: “I sell 90 percent of my items by selling them off a mannequin or model.” It’s not unusual for a customer to buy the whole ensemble worn by a mannequin.

Nicole McCoy, an employee at Humble & Kind, photographed with a display. Basic black leggings are currently best-selling for the store.

Creating an easy, safe shopping experience continues to be a top priority for boutique owners. Many say 2020 has reinforced the importance of supporting local businesses. Berghoff said it’s been one of the positives to come out of a challenging year: “In my community, we’ve really seen a resurgence of Shop Small/Shop Local. I’ve actually had some of the best months as far as sales. That’s been one of the best things to come out of COVID—people have realized they have to shop small.”

Winter items on display at Humble & Kind. The owner predicts chunky sweaters and mom jeans to still be in demand.