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Boutiques Find Profits in an Essentials Economy
Posted: November 24, 2010, 5:30 p.m., EDT

Retailers can carve out niches by knowing their customers and offering exclusive versions of staple products.

By Meghan E. Murphy

Boutiques Find Profits in an Essentials Economy
Boutique retailers can create profits by tailoring products to their customers’ style preferences.
Photo by Cris Kelly
In a time when customers are going back to basics, many boutiques that once relied on fanciful and fun purchases for profit might need to shift gears. Yet even in a down economy, boutiques are finding new profit niches by offering unique options for essentials, such as food, leashes and toys.

“When we first opened, we tried to be everything to everyone,” said Deb Dempsey, co-owner of Mouthfuls in Denver. “During the economic crash, we’ve swung more toward the practical.”

Boutiques are creating broader customer bases and profits by focusing on high-quality foods and supplements as well as offering the trendiest leashes and harnesses.

Making a Boutique Unique

While many boutiques sell high-quality, trendy versions of staple products, the big-box stores also offer food, leashes and chew toys, so why would a pet owner head to a boutique?
That’s the question boutique owners may need to answer when deciding on new product lines and developing their sound profit niches. Boutique retailers reported that right now, they focus on reasonably priced, high-quality items that can’t be found in other stores or online.

“Almost everything I sell distinguishes us from another store or chain,” said Kerry Scott, owner of Good Dog Goods in Oak Bluffs, Mass.

Scott carries an entire line of privately labeled pet supplements and bakery goods. Combined with Good Dog Goods’ focus on selling only the best-quality products, the private labels assure that customers come back to the store or order directly from her newly redesigned website, Scott said.

Even if it’s not a private label, boutique owners should always focus on offering options that aren’t available at larger stores, said Jeffrie Silverstein, owner of Raising Rover & Baby in New York City.

“I have a lot of dog foods that you can only get from me,” he added.

Silverstein works with manufacturers to create leashes, collars and harnesses designed for his clientele with his store’s label.

He also prefers to work with manufacturers that don’t sell direct to customers, such as New York City-based Bessie & Barnie, a company that makes custom designer beds, leashes and harnesses.

“Customers go in stores now with their iPhone, and they see that they can go directly to the manufacturer for cheaper,” noted Mindy Kahn, who co-owns Bessie and Barnie with her husband Barry. “We don’t sell on our website online, so that really supports the boutiques.”

Social Networking Enhances Retailer-Customer Communication

From announcing events to showing off new products, boutique owners are increasingly turning to social networking websites to advertise their businesses.

“Social networking is very successful both with driving customers into the store but also driving people that aren’t in our area to our website,” reported Deb Dempsey, co-owner of Mouthfuls in Denver.

AdreAnne Tesene, owner of Two Bostons Pet Boutique in Naperville, Ill., said she posts to her Facebook site every day. She dragged her feet at first, but her husband and store co-owner, Andy, finally prodded her in that direction.

Now the store has almost 2,400 fans. Tesene posts events, such as the dog wash challenge she held this year. She highlighted a dog shampoo in the challenge to encourage pet owners to come back and shop.

Tesene said she’s often shocked at how many people come in to see a new product that she posted on Facebook.

“It’s a really fun way to build community,” she noted.

Even those new to social networking see its potential. Kerry Scott, owner of Good Dog Goods in Oak Bluffs, Mass., started a page recently and already has more than 400 members.

“This is the wave of the future,” Scott said. “This is the new way of communicating.” —MEM

Loyalty and Flexibility

Finding manufacturers that work with retailers to design custom products can help boutiques discover new profit niches.

A pet owner in Martha’s Vineyard often looks for a different style than one in New York City or Naperville, Ill. Tailoring products such as leashes and beds to the styles that customers of a specific boutique love can be essential to creating profits.

Silverstein said flexibility is essential when considering a new product line for a store during the slow economy. Boutique owners are especially cautious now about ordering too much stock and keeping price points lower, he noted.

Silverstein added that he has worked with manufacturers to design great products that also fit what his customers are willing to pay.

“If I tell them I need beds to retail at a certain price, they’ll sell me fabrics that will work,” he said.

Manufacturers such as Debbie Weiss, who owns Poochee Designs in New York City, help boutique owners create lines unique to their stores.

Once the design is in place, Weiss promises exclusivity. She won’t sell to nearby stores and doesn’t offer her product online.

Silverstein, who carries Poochee products under his store’s label, said he appreciates Weiss’ loyalty.

Another area where manufacturers need to be helpful is in minimum opening orders, according to Silverstein, who added that boutiques have to be able to test a new line at a lower risk, especially in a tough economy.

Kahn said Bessie & Barnie works very hard to help stores get the right line. While it requires a minimum initial order, the company offers a retailer different designs if an item doesn’t sell at first.

“We work with the store and play with the orders until we get a design that works,” Kahn said.

Knowing Customers

Successful retailers might want to keep tabs on items their customers like in order to find new profit niches. Several boutique owners reported that they must keep their ears open and know their pet owners well enough to find the right products for their stores.

AdreAnne Tesene, owner of Two Bostons Pet Boutique in Naperville, Ill., noted that her store tracks lost sales, which are customer requests that products in her store did not fulfill. She takes these lists to trade shows to find products that meet her customers’ needs.

At Mouthfuls, the staff is always communicating, whether in quarterly meetings or a simple daily note, about products that pet owners request, Dempsey said.

Once a boutique owner has those requests in hand, the challenge is finding the right products and manufacturers to meet the demand.

Tesene said she does a lot of research to ensure the products she carries are of the best quality.

She also makes sure her staff is well trained on the products in the store. At times, she’s found that customer requests aren’t filled simply because an employee didn’t realize the right product was in the store, she noted.

Tesene added that she’s always working to educate her customers and employees, and that this education is the reason her customers choose her store over Internet purchases.

“We’re the ones who can explain the benefits of the products that we have in our store,” she said. <HOME>


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Boutiques Find Profits in an Essentials Economy

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Reader Comments
Nice well written article with some practical advice.
Keth, East Dorset, VT
Posted: 1/7/2011 8:32:08 AM
this was a great article and I wish I could have read the part that was
covered up. There was good information about boutiques and how
we work to be different than the big box stores.
Susan, Oklahoma City, OK
Posted: 12/13/2010 10:09:43 AM
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