By Karen Appold
How can you entice customers to choose apparel at your store over the competition? Diana Mitchell, volunteer manager at Anne Arundel Medical Center’s gift shops, Annapolis, Md., works with high-end vendors to bring in quality apparel that is name brand. “It allows us to cater to patients, visitors and staff,” she said. The latter are the number one purchasers of apparel, buying it either for themselves or as a gift.
Offering a variety of products for pregnant women and new mothers works well at Women’s Boutique at Inova Fairfax Women’s Hospital, Falls Church, Va., said Melissa Bohon, an associate. The store sells breastfeeding apparel in addition to labor and transition gowns, including bras, tank tops, pajamas and comfortable pants and leggings that grow and shrink with a mother’s body before and after pregnancy in a full spectrum of sizes. It also carries traditional breastfeeding support items such as covers, pillows and scarves.
“Moms-to-be and new moms have the opportunity for a personal shopping experience by trying on different sizes and styles,” Bohon said.
The boutique, which is almost 1,000 square feet, is slowly adding items to its inventory in an effort to accommodate as many women’s needs as possible. In the future, it will carry a mastectomy line of support apparel for oncology patients.
Cindy Batten, president and owner operator, Lakehouse Outfitters, Log Cabin, Texas, advised carrying apparel that complements your customers’ lifestyles. “Once you know your target, introduce solution pieces or lines they will connect with,” she said. “We started out by only selling graphic tees that spoke to our customers’ love of lake life. When we saw consistent results and how much our customers enjoyed shopping apparel, we introduced another line of soft and comfort yet stylish clothes by Yala Designs that was perfect for a weekend at the lake.”
Another tip is to buy sizes that run the gamut. “If a vendor has a small opening order limitation, think about your display and the impression you want to make,” Batten said. “Edit your selection to one or two garments to allow for color and size selection so you have the appearance of being well-stocked.”
Use Customer Service Skills
At Anne Arundel Medical Center’s gift shops, the manager and the volunteers through the auxiliary program are all knowledgeable about the merchandise. “They make recommendations if someone is looking for particular items and try to upsell,” Mitchell said. “This is a big help, because the customer is getting a true recommendation or suggestion from a volunteer who is spending her time here at the hospital.”
Batten asks customers what brought them into the shop and who they’re buying for. “If you ask the right questions and then listen, the customer will direct you to the right product,” she said.
Staff at Women’s Boutique at Inova Fairfax Women’s Hospital ask women questions about their current or impending life situation so they can suggest appropriate products. “We ask what they know about their upcoming birth, such as whether they will be having a Cesarean-section or traditional birth,” Bohon said. “We point out that the Pretty Pushers gowns are hospital approved and a great alternative to standard hospital gowns. They allow women to be comfortable and give medical staff access to necessary areas during labor.” Furthermore, “most moms who pump use a double electric pump and need access to both breasts at the same time and the Pretty Pusher gowns work great in this instance.”
Cynthia Cannon, owner, Sunrise Boutique, Clinton, Mass., said it’s important to know your product and your customer. “We don’t try to upsell to someone unless we know they are a returning customer and how they shop,” she said. “We usually don’t suggest add-ons unless the customer says they are looking for items to complete an outfit.” Her goal is for customers to feel comfortable at her store, whether they buy something or nothing. “It doesn’t bother me if someone comes in and looks around and leaves; I am a browser myself. They will tell others about my store, which will bring in other customers.”
Cannon fully dresses mannequins, from shoes to hats. “A lot of people don’t have the time to really shop anymore; many like to see what we put together and if it’s appealing, buy the whole outfit,” she said.
Window displays, which Cannon changes every three weeks, are responsible for 10 percent of the 2,000-square-foot store’s business. “We are located next to a movie theater, so we have a lot of late night walking traffic,” she said. “Oftentimes, a women will notice something and their husband or boyfriend will come in later and buy it for them.”
Window displays feature one or two color palettes at most, or a theme. “I think this results in a cleaner, neater display,” Cannon said. She’s also found that that using props creates an artistic appearance and helps to increase sales. For example, she has used an antique school desk and six-foot tall antique Buddhas to draw attention to the window.
Mitchell has found that vendor reps have great ideas on how to stage and display items, and oftentimes uses their display cases. Furthermore, visitors get to know name brands and look for vendor displays.
If it’s a T-shirt display, Batten uses color and graphics to tell a story and cross-merchandises shirts with complementary items. For example, recently the store had a collection of T-shirts that spoke to women who love to fish or are in a relationship with an avid fisherman. They were featured in a display peppered with other fishing-related gift items to give customers more than one suggestion if they were looking for a gift. “Many times, we’ll have a customer come in looking for a gift and because the displays are so creative and diverse, they end up buying something for themselves that they wouldn’t have seen if it had been displayed on its own,” she said.
Advice for Smaller Stores
Although the three gift shops at Anne Arundel Medical Center are between 2,500 and 4,000 square feet, Mitchell would advise a smaller store to use every inch of its space. “Our store manager and volunteers are very particular with how apparel looks,” Mitchell said. “It needs to be color coordinated and organized. It shouldn’t be too overly cluttered or messy, which will deter someone from looking through it.”
Batten also has a large store boasting approximately 3,200 square feet of retail space, but offers this advice. “Have your sales staff wear the apparel sold at your store,” she said. Furthermore, “use dress forms and bodices; be creative.” She uses vintage wooden crates found at flea markets and yard sales as bases for displays and attaches the molded dress forms to add interest and stability, which enables her to deck them out. Tops, scarves, hats and jewelry such as necklaces and a choker show well on shirt-form displays.
Hats typically do well when displayed in groups and when cross merchandised with apparel. “Think of your closet—when selecting an outfit it’s nice to be able to see everything you have that might complement the outfit of the day,” Batten concluded.