RALEIGH — Ashley Harris always knew she wanted to open Vermillion, her designer clothing boutique in North Hills. What she didnt know was that just three years after opening shed have to radically alter the way she did business.
Like many local business owners facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Harris, 34, realized she had to change her strategy to survive. As a result, she says, shes emerged from the recession a better business owner with a store poised for growth.
Vermillion is just so much stronger now than before the recession hit, said Harris, who opened the store in 2005. I am so thrilled with how our business is growing. I dont see it ending any time soon.
After a stagnant year in 2008, sales at Vermillion dropped about 40 percent the following year.
Harris and her husband, C.P., who doubles as Vermillions bookkeeper, decided to streamline the stores operations. They took out loans to cover cash flow, cut inventory by almost half and started taking a closer look at the performance of the designers they were carrying.
Clothing at Vermillion can range from a $40 T-shirt to designer pieces that cost thousands of dollars, Ashley Harris said.
Buying those super high-end items is kind of a risk on our part, said C.P. Harris, 36. A recession is not the time to take that risk. We still carried those designers, just maybe not their mink coat.
Vermillion reduced the number of splurge items it carried in an effort to adjust to more cost-conscious consumers. The store also helped its customers buy more strategically by conducting on-site closet consultations.
After a two-year recovery period, the Harrises say the stores sales are back to their 2008 levels. During that time they welcomed twin girls and accrued a mailing list of about 2,000 subscribers. And theyve stayed true to their ultimate goal: to provide designer clothing and knowledgeable customer service.
Relationships are such a big part of our business, even with the designer, Ashley Harris said. Our customers are so loyal to us. They really stuck with us and made it happen.
The Harrises are now making plans to boost store inventory with works by designers such as Zac Posen, Celine and Jason Wu, which have continued to sell. And they havent ruled out future expansion.
If were able to weather that storm, hopefully well be able to continue to grow, C.P. Harris said. We feel good about how we handled it. We matured as business owners."
Successful boutiques today must give their shoppers a good reason to buy because every purchase is being scrutinized, said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York.
One of the best things that they can do is look at everything in their store and say, How do I present this in a way that passes that cautious pause? Corbett said.
Specialty shops can do this by highlighting the uniqueness and versatility of items, pricing items smartly and adding value to every purchase.
Whats great about a boutique is because its just one or two stores, you can execute really well. You just need the ideas, Corbett said. That comes from watching everything around you and translating ideas to your store.
Other Triangle businesses have also revamped their strategies to better connect with customers who have become more cautious with their spending.
Chapel Hills A Southern Season, which was bought by a new ownership group in August, is going back to its roots of interacting more frequently with its customers on a personal level.
What we need to capitalize on a store level is that human interaction, said Christine Lang, the stores general manager. A Southern Season, when it started out, was very customer driven and was a huge product innovator.
Lang said the store is also rebranding its online presence and streamlining its operations.
Bonnie Lau, the 40-year-old owner of boutique pastry shop Miel Bon Bons in Carrboro, said she worked with her clientele to find desserts that would fit both their budgets and their taste for premium sweets.
Lau opened the store, famous for its handcrafted chocolate and other fine desserts, in 2008 after moving from San Diego. She said she immediately noticed a difference in the price-consciousness of her customers, especially after the recession took hold.
The price point is an issue for a lot of people, concedes Lau, who said she uses only the highest-quality ingredients in her offerings. We had to mark up the price at the right standard to be able to keep the store running.
Laus creations can range from a $3 cupcake to a $15,000 cake. A four-piece set of gourmet boxed chocolates is priced at about $10.
Lau gets about 80 percent of her revenues from caterings, so she began offering wholesale pricing to customers whoordered large quantities to keep her business afloat. She also began looking at her customers budgets up front to find ways to be flexible without compromising quality.
People are more willing to explore different options, Lau said. They will compare, and many times theyll call back and say, Well, I have this offer from this bakery, would you be able to work with us?
Laus strategy worked, and as a result she is looking to expand the pastry shop. She said she is planning to add a second location in the Triangle, possibly in Raleighs Five Points, that will be outfitted with a bigger kitchen and more seating space to meet growing demand. She hopes to open the new location by October.
Lau said she will keep the Carrboro space open. But then again, closing it was never really an option.
This is my jewel, she said. If I close it down, my customers will be so upset theyll protest. We have to keep it open.