From customized shopping to private parties and trunk shows, the personal touch is what drives apparel sales at brick-and-mortar boutiques, retailers report.
“It’s all about relationships,” said Tracy Fowler, who has owned Fashions by Fowler in Cleveland for 31 years. “When people come in here, they feel comfortable. They trust our opinions. They know we won’t sell them something that doesn’t look good on them, because we want them to be happy with their purchase and come back.”
In addition to offering personal styling for all occasions, Fowler hosts local fundraisers, fashion shows, and private birthday parties for customers. She also reaches out to the community on social media: An overhauled website is set to debut, and every Sunday, Fashions by Fowler hosts a show on Facebook, “Keeping Your Pretti,” which showcases new merchandise.
“Also, we are blessed with old school, downtown window displays,” said Fowler, noting that her eye-catching windows attract significant foot traffic.
Perhaps the savviest move to boost apparel sales was Fowler’s recent decision to add a small consignment section to the 4,000-square-foot store. “Consignment is just the biggest thing that’s happening right now, and it’s what gets a lot of people to come in here,” noted Fowler. She explained that in the era of fast fashion and tight budgets, many people feel they have enough clothes already — but bringing used garments in for resale often results in additional purchases.
At Dottie Couture, a family business with three Indianapolis-area boutiques, stylists set aside time for private appointments with regular customers. General Manager Kristen Adamson said some are looking for a special occasion look, while others need to accessorize an outfit or overhaul an outdated closet.
“Our stylists will pull special items or put things aside for customers,” said Adamson, whose sister, Brooke Magdzinski, owns the chain. New arrivals are highlighted on displays arranged by a team of merchandisers, Adamson added. “The displays showcase our styling, keeping it all accessible and letting people see what’s new,” she explained. “A lot of people come in because of something they’ve seen on social media or on our website.”
There’s an intimate, congenial feel to the store, where employees all wear the merchandise themselves. Regular customers get invites to “friends and family” private shopping events, or choose the stores for their own parties and fundraisers. At pop-up events for jewelry vendors and fashion brands, shoppers get to meet and mingle with designers.
It’s obvious that boutiques are more than shopping destinations; in today’s digitized world, stores function as communal spaces, offering familiar, diverting pleasant refuge from the cares of work and family. “That’s an experience people can’t find on the internet,” said Jennifer Houde, manager at Augusta Twenty in Greenville, S.C. “People come in for the social aspect. A lot of them will come in once a week just to see what’s new, or to re-style pieces they already have.”
To make the most of that impulse, the August Twenty team displays apparel by style — modern in one section, bohemian in another — on neat racks alongside coordinating accessories like handbags. “Our customers don’t want an item; they want a head to toe look, so we help help them put outfits together,” explained Houde. Increasingly, shoppers come into the store and ask for a look they’ve seen on the boutique’s Instagram site.
Whatever the starting point, Houde and her team take a personal approach to maximizing apparel sales. They’ll pull a range of items they think will work for the client, giving them options to try and zeroing in on an individual’s style, rather than focusing on trends.
“Many women come in unsure of how to put things together or how to really dress for their body,” noted Sarah Casterton, manager at Lizard Thicket in Mesa, Ariz. “Some are new moms with no time to shop. We really listen to the customer, try to help her figure out what works for her.”
Patrons of Lizard Thicket, which is based in Georgia, always find plenty of options. That’s because the store gets limited quantities of new inventory frequently, “so people know they’re always going to see something new,” explained Casterton. Her team arranges fresh, color-coordinated displays each week to showcase new arrivals; Casterton describes the apparel mix as “similar to Anthropologie or Free People, but much more affordable,” with most tops between $30-$60.
Beyond novelty and affordability, Lizard Thicket succeeds with a personal touch. Casterton and her colleagues welcome clients by offering glasses of water, carrying items to the dressing rooms, and assisting with styling outfits — an approach that typically increases sales.
The vibe is different at Coast Apparel, a menswear boutique in Greenville, but the winning formula is similar. “Our employees pride themselves on product knowledge, and are able to answer any questions customers may have about the fabric or fit of garments,” said Manager Bradly Allamon.
That personalized expertise has in turn bred a loyal clientele that comes in regularly to shop Coast Apparel’s classics — button-down shirts, Anglo shorts and the like. The downtown location, one of two in Greenville for the 10-year-old brand, also gets plenty of walk-in traffic, said Allamon, which is why the store displays its wares in easy-to-navigate fashion.
“Presentation is everything,” the manager said. “People may wander in without much expectation, pick up a T-shirt or fall in love with the collection. I think it’s important to have a variety of products and a variety of price points so we’re not like locked into one type of customer.”
Allamon encourages his team to layer outfits on display fixtures — a T-shirt under a vest or button-down, for example — to show the versatility of Coast Apparel’s collection. “I like to keep it easy for the customer,” he explained. The store has distinct dressier and casual sections, with appealing color stories that encourage the purchase of entire outfits.
And like every brick-and-mortar boutique nowadays, Coast Apparel increasingly relies on the internet to connect with real-life customers. “Keeping things that are new in front of our social media audience is just crucial for staying relevant,” Allamon said.
Dresses or Skirts?
Which Sell Better and Why?
The verdict: Dresses rule the more formal side of the closet. “They’re just so versatile,” noted Kristen Adamson, general manager at Dottie Couture in Fishers, Ind. “You can pair a dress with a belt, jacket, with booties. You can make it casual or dressy depending on the shoes or jewelry.”
“You don’t have to find something to match when you put on a dress,” observed Tracy Fowler, the longtime proprietor of Fashions by Fowler in Cleveland, where dresses outsell skirts.
The same is true at Augusta Twenty, a boutique in Greenville, S.C. “Dresses sell much better because it’s a full outfit, so people don’t have to think about it, they just put it right on,” said Manager Jennifer Houde.
But skirt outfits are a growing trend. In Mesa, Ariz., Manager Sarah Casterton sells a lot of mini skirts paired with sweaters at Lizard Thicket, part of a Georgia-based boutique chain. “We’ve also seen a lot of midi skirts, which are a bit longer,” Casterson added. “But dresses have always sold well, and they always will.”