What can local luxury boutiques tell us about the future of retail?
The lights go down and the guests take their places – the Proenza Schouler show is about to begin. We’re not in New York, or even fashion week, but in Charleston, South Carolina, and sitting next to a handful of editors you might expect is a row of ladies dressed in head to toe in the New York label. They are not celebrities, influencers or merchandisers, but real shoppers, who get to experience the brand’s latest first-hand in large part thanks to Stacy Smallwood, the founder of Hampden Clothingwhich brought together a group of customers and friends to celebrate the store’s 15th anniversary through a parade experience that many of its regulars have never had the chance to take part in before.
After two years of closures, blackout mandates and disrupted buying cycles that have hit small businesses particularly hard, local but impactful fashion boutiques like Hampden – which sell luxury fashion through a regional lens and bring a level personalized attention to interested buyers who would otherwise be relegated to shopping online — are taking things a step further.
“We can’t avoid bad things happening in life. It all depends on how we approach it,” says Smallwood. “If we sit in fear, we can’t move forward. One of the most important things that allowed us to grow so enormously after Covid is that we acted by staying in touch with our customers, because we we care about them as people, first and foremost.”
Prioritizing relationships with buyers and key brand partners, as well as taking a minute to streamline their designer roster and sharpen their retail perspective, has paid off for these luxury boutiques spread across the country. . For a number of them, a break in activity was an opportunity to reset and refocus.
“We haven’t stopped moving since [we opened] December 1, 2017,” says Coeli Hilferty Boron, co-founder of the New Orleans-based company Pilot and Powell. “It gave us a moment to sit down and go through the paperwork, organize our office, stay in control of our house.” Pilot and Powell has lower overhead than, say, a department store, she explains — that and the direct connection to shoppers and customers has helped cushion any potential difficulties during the pandemic.
“I think being a small retail machine makes us slightly more efficient,” adds co-founder Kathryn Bullock Joyner. “We can react much faster, we can change course easily. It’s Coeli and I who make all the decisions.” Smallwood echoes that sentiment, “The best thing about working with a specialty store is that I make the decisions. A lot of times if you work with a department store, it’s like shooting Titanic. .”
Part of this efficiency was reviewing relationships with brands and tailoring purchases to customer needs. Rather than just selling sweatpants amid the pandemic, these boutiques have found ways to reach out to their customers while maintaining their identity.
“Fashion is about evolution, and we have to keep evolving,” says Smallwood. “We still bought seventeen new brands this first season that we started buying again.”
For brands that have long occupied space on Hampden’s floor, Smallwood made sure to work together to build and strengthen partnerships. “I’ve spent my time making phone calls with brands asking them, ‘How can I help you?'” she says. “‘It’s not my mission to kill you to save me, because if we get through this together, we’ll both be better.'”
A direct line to customers has also proven to be a crucial element of success, with boutiques often going beyond the traditional retail role to cater to specific customer desires.
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“He gives people endorsement boxes. He brings things home, picks them up,” says Bullock Joyner. “It’s offering all the luxury of having someone who knows and anticipates your needs, rather than [browsing] online or in a department store.”
For Telsha Anderson, Founder of New York’s youropening a store in the midst of the pandemic underscored the need to create a cohesive identity and an engaged community that can exist both in person and online.
“We’ve formed a community of intentional buyers,” says Anderson. “Our digital presence and brick-and-mortar complement each other in colors, themes and languages, allowing our customers to stay connected whether they’re out of state or just around the corner.”
Retail market trends predicted a boom in online shopping as a side effect of the pandemic, but for these stores, boosting their online presence did not necessarily translate directly to increased online sales. Even after bolstering Pilot and Powell’s website during the pandemic, Hilferty Boron and Bullock Joyner felt a somewhat amusing side effect: “Clients were using it as a tool when it was kind of precarious to go out in public. , searching online to make sure we had things they were interested in even before we went in,” says Bullock Joyner. Some went so far as to print out pictures of what they saw online and bring them in the store, according to Hilferty Boron.
Smallwood saw something similar with her clients, who would use Hampden’s site as a lookbook, from which they could send images to her stylists. “The website is such a great connector for conversations,” she says. “Even though the transaction is not online, it allows stylists to show the products to their clients and start a conversation about what we have and [which] new creators are coming.”
This connection forged across digital and physical spaces has created a sense of intimacy that many high-end shoppers seek in their shopping experience. Access to traditional luxury brands and emerging labels with personalized advice that can be given directly by text, email or in person allows them to participate and be part of a larger community, built around these spaces physical.
Guests at Hampden’s Proenza Schouler show included a mix of local supporters and longtime fans of the store who came from across the country to support. These shoppers may have discovered Hampden on vacation or while visiting the area, but were ultimately drawn to both its sartorial angle and the customer-retailer relationship it offered. For these shops, it’s more about building a long-term community than making a one-time sale.
“Every time a customer comes to ta for the first time, I hope they leave with a sense of inspiration and a new level of discovery from designers in the fashion industry,” says Anderson. . Beyond its own website, developing a brand identity and community on social media has also helped drive growth: “A social community is huge when building a new platform. content creators with engaging individual communities are drivers for products and small businesses.”
Through their unique one-on-one interaction with customers – whether in the dressing room or via a simple DM – these boutiques can aesthetically gauge what their customers might want in a way that larger retailers cannot. So when going out to market, small stores can experience more shopping choices.
“It is to know [our customers], knowing their closets and anticipating their wants and needs,” says Bullock Joyner. “We are always looking for emerging designers, but we will also take the risk of choosing the most esoteric piece. We won’t go as safe as a department store because it’s much more salable. We can buy one just thinking about that person.”
It’s this community pull — knowing who’s getting married, who’s engaged, or just looking for something a little out of the box — that keeps shoppers coming back to these stores. And as these consumers increasingly expect an experiential element in their shopping experience, it’s these thoughtful details that have made all the difference.
Disclosure: Hampden paid for my travel and accommodation to attend the Hampden Clothing x Proenza Schouler show in Charleston, SC.