I have been lucky enough to be a shop clerk and also to have had my own shop. When I was 16, I started my first retail job working in the fabric department of a major department store loving that I could dress up for every shift and be surrounded by a continuous selection of new merchandise. I always loved fashion and thought a career in designing would be exciting. Although that never came to pass, I was able to combine my love of fashion and retail in a two-year college diploma program in Fashion Retailing. My final project was to set up a boutique (on paper) incorporating all the retail principles I had studied…a business/marketing/administration plan along with the buying and merchandising (the 5 “P’s” of retail…product, price, place, people and promotion). It was most enlightening realizing the enormity of the process and how risky operating a business in independent retail truly is. It is with this knowledge that I appreciate the efforts of anyone who has the courage to open and operate a shop in their own vision.
A huge component of the success in independent retail is the people who work with you. I was beyond fortunate with the bright, creative women who worked in my store. My daughter, several of her friends, my sister, my niece and some of her friends and a few loyal customers have worked with me over the years. Many of these women worked part-time while they were students, however, their commitment to the store was always 100%. My gratitude for them has no bounds knowing that I could have never lived my dream without them. Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to reconnect with three of these lovely women for what has become an annual pre-Christmas dinner. They have all blossomed since the store closed…one working as a first-year associate in criminal law, one returning to university after living abroad realizing her dream as a dancer and one becoming a speech language pathologist assistant working with young children helping them find their voice. I couldn’t be more proud of their accomplishments and grateful for the times we worked together.
Coco Chanel was one of the first women in retail. She started her career designing and selling simple straw hats in her first boutique, Chanel Modes, in 1910 at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris. This photo is of Chanel and one of her employees in front of her boutique in the seaside town of Deauville, in Normandy in 1913. This was where Chanel revolutionized the way women dressed by designing fashions made of jersey fabric doing away with restrictive and uncomfortable corsets. Eventually (in 1918) she returned to Paris selling her couture fashions in the boutique located at 31 Rue Cambon which remains the Chanel headquarters to this day. Throughout her career, Chanel took many risks… designing iconic fashions and scents as well as accessories to compliment her designs. She worked hard right up until the time of her death. It seemed fitting that she died on a Sunday, a day that her boutique was closed.
Retail is challenging. Online shopping and big box stores are cutting into the market share and making it all the more difficult for independent business to thrive. My first choice when shopping is always to support local business. Small boutiques mirror the vision of the owner, who is presenting a mini gallery…the pared-down version of the collections they believe would be most appreciated by their customers. Once bitten by the “retail bug”, it’s hard to walk away. I know from experience that these hard-working retailers, with nerves of steel (the real retail superheroes), have many sleepless nights. I hope that as consumers we decide to make a conscious choice with our purchasing dollars and choose to support our local independent boutiques.
Over this coming year, I plan to introduce you to women in my city who own and run their own boutiques. I’m sure you will enjoy their stories as much as I have.