Independent clothing store owners strive to offer a personalized shopping experience
For many Calgarians window shopping usually takes place inside a heated mall filled with chain stores so opening a small neighbourhood clothing store can be a risky business. But independent store owners say the challenges are greatly outweighed by the relationships they have with their customers many of whom they know by name.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
In the first year of operation small business owners are faced with long hours and an array of stresses including budgeting and staffing — all with the future of the company on their shoulders.
Krista Hopfauf says she left an administrative position behind five years ago when she bought Rewind Consignment Clothing (currently in a pop-up location at 1412 1 St. S.W. during flood repairs at its 1002 Macleod Trail S.E. location) because she wasn’t feeling fulfilled or challenged enough. A year and a half ago she took over another consignment shop called Better on You (1222 8 St. S.W.).
“It takes time but it’s pretty fun” says Hopfauf. “It’s pretty eclectic because you can sort of create your own style of stuff which will attract a certain customer.”
Kyle Van Der Velden is at the beginning of that journey. His new store in Inglewood North American Quality Purveyors only sells brands made in North America an idea that had been brewing for years. Once he decided to go for it he says it took about a year to get it up and running and he estimates the amount of money he’s personally invested is in the hundreds of thousands.
The kinds of people who regularly shop in independent clothing stores seem to go there because they know exactly what to expect — a no pressure environment where the clothes suit their style and they can get the one-on-one help that may not be offered in a mall.
Ursula Wegen moved her family to Calgary after working in a management position for 18 years and says she just couldn’t imagine going back to the corporate world. She opened Under the Bridge in 2003 a small boutique in Bridgeland. She and her daughter Kristelan Scholes are co-owners.
Wegen says they have women come in now who started shopping there in their teens. “They’ve got their university degrees or they got married and they have kids. That’s the best part of what we do. It’s like a family reunion when someone comes in” she says noting that even a lot of the customers know each other.
Wegen and Scholes say they do not pressure-sell and instead encourage women to come in and browse through the racks just to clear their heads after a hard day or to chat in the corner with girlfriends even if they don’t make a purchase.
Hopfauf says price is a big factor for her customers. “People are looking for something different but they don’t want to deal with that mall chaos where it’s overwhelming you don’t get help usually or you’re spending more money than you want to or maybe than you have.”
Small shop owners also have close relationships with their suppliers and consigners which gives them a wealth of inventory knowledge to share with customers and to cater to specific styles. Van Der Velden for example spent months researching suppliers and shares their stories on postcards hanging from the store’s hand-made wooden shelves.
Laura Newson a 23-year-old Sunnyside resident says she frequents locally owned clothing stores in nearby Kensington for the lower prices and a “more enjoyable shopping experience.”
“It feels more like you’re walking into a friend’s closet and you’re trying on all her clothes. You’ll say ‘ooh I like that’ and just go try it on” she says.
Newson also considers it very important to support local stores and their owners. “I think one of the things that makes the Kensington neighbourhood so vibrant and so successful is the fact that it’s built around small locally owned businesses.”
She argues that Calgary needs more businesses like these to become more popular among shoppers.
Those who have taken the brave step of opening such businesses have their own ideas about what it takes to succeed in a mall-dominated world.
Van Der Velden says he believes that in order to survive in the local retail market you have to stand out. “Try something new” he says. “Do something that’s not being done right now or do it way better than the other people who are doing it. Calgary needs more variety.”
Hopfauf says that she tries to keep up with the corporate competition by selling the same brands at as low as half the price.
“I probably made a lot of mistakes in the first year… but you learn from your mistakes you just have to. That’s part of opening a business… you persevere.”
She adds that it’s important for local businesses to support each other and to be advocates for the community.
Scholes says carrying products that the customers want and not necessarily what’s trendy is what has paid off for her and her mom. “When they’re happy we’re happy” Scholes says. She adds that evolving and reinventing yourself based on customer needs and growth is also key.
Wegen says “I can’t see myself doing anything else and I’ll do it until the day I die.”