Boutiques go all in on quality to fight e-tailers

Michelle Galvin, owner of Velvet Coat at 105 E. College St. in Iowa City, said boutiques like hers offer a curated, personalized experience department stores and e-tailers can’t match. PHOTO KATHARINE CARLON


By Katharine Carlon

They may not have the army of buyers enjoyed by large department store chains or the endless variety of Amazon, but small boutique owners in the Corridor say they have a secret weapon that keeps their fashion-conscious clientele coming back: a carefully curated, regionally specific selection of quality items chosen with their customers in mind.

“Any fashion business has to stay in tune to what trends are and how they translate to your market. That underlines everything,” said Michelle Galvin, owner of the upscale Velvet Coat boutique at 118 E. College St. in Iowa City. Her ability to carefully edit and tailor the shop’s wares to a busy, discerning clientele has kept it in business since 2000.

“It’s kind of like the farmers market,” Ms. Galvin said. “You can buy food anywhere else, but people like to feel that connection and feel the stories behind the things they’re buying. And from a time standpoint, people don’t have time to try on lots of things and go all over. We offer alterations and can put together entire looks, so there is that kind of curation and attention you don’t find at big stores.”

With nearly 4,000 store closings so far this year, according to a Business Insider analysis, these are perilous times for apparel retailers, with e-merchants taking a larger and larger bite out of consumers’ clothing dollars.

But while the Younkers and Sears of the world absorb blow after blow, small, independent boutiques are thriving by finding ways to stay on trend and making smart buying decisions. According to a June study by the Valassis marketing and media group, 60 percent of consumers still prefer to shop for clothing at brick and mortar shops, mainly because they can touch, feel and see items and compare selections between stores.

“In comparison to the larger chains, I do believe smaller boutiques have their advantages,” said Kandis Weiland, owner of Industry at 4396 Mt. Vernon Road SE in Cedar Rapids. “We carry a smaller inventory so you’re not going to see it on everyone in town … there is no middleman. I go to market looking specifically for the customers that shop at Industry.”

Ms. Weiland said when she hits the market to buy inventory – something she does three to four times a year – she searches for “basics with a twist, clothing that becomes a favorite to wear over and over.”

“We really search for quality brands and individual pieces that will stand the test of time,” she said. “I do my best to stay on top of what’s happening in the fashion industry, but realistically, when I go to market I am looking for those pieces that speak to me on a personal level, pieces that you don’t see every day in Cedar Rapids.”

Ms. Galvin said her customers are also looking for quality, as well as an adept translation of coastal trends to Midwestern sensibilities. In Iowa City, specifically, that implies a certain casualness, she said, walking the fine line of being well-dressed while fitting into the city’s “laid back college vibe.”

“I think my customer wants to stay current and have trends adapted to her look in a way that fits,” she said. “They’re also looking for more discerning details – the linings, the buttons on things. Women wear a lot of different hats throughout the day, from taking kids to school to going to work to stopping at the grocery store. We try to cover all the bases.”

When buying for Velvet Coat, Ms. Galvin said she seeks out vendors who want to work in partnership with the shop, whether that means hosting in-store events, meeting customers, taking feedback to the design team and being willing to trade out merchandise.

“I look for vendors who are really willing to grow our businesses together,” she said. “These tend to be smaller lines, but not always. These more intense relationships make us both a lot more successful, especially at a time when you can buy anything on the net.”

Laura Frey, owner of LA Trends Addict at 1200 N. Center Point Road in Hiawatha, says relationships are key to her buying strategy.

Ms. Frey, who has a second home in California, caught the fashion bug after retiring from a career in real estate and discovering – and falling in love with – the Los Angeles Fashion District, the wholesale hub of the city’s apparel industry. Unlike many small shops that order their products online or at sample shows, Ms. Frey said she makes regular visits to the district, where she has established long-standing relationships with vendors and suppliers “and I can touch and feel the product before I get it in the store.”

Those relationships allow her to order directly from the warehouse that same day, bringing the latest West Coast trends to Iowa within two weeks. She’s also been able to buy directly from vendors who normally only sell to chains like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom.

“It’s because they know me personally,” Ms. Frey said, adding that getting to know wholesale vendors has also helped her save customers money. Nothing in LA Trends Addict is priced over $100 and tops, the item she places most of her buying focus on, sell in the $20-$30 range. “There are so many benefits to actually going there where they can see you eye to eye. Often, I get free shipping, which keeps costs down.”

Bringing the hottest urban trends to the somewhat conservative heartland can be a tricky business, Ms. Frey acknowledged, with some customers only now asking for items the shop stocked when it first opened three years ago. She said she makes heavy use of photos of Hollywood celebrities sporting certain looks to help sales along.“

You know – ‘as seen on the streets of LA.’” She said. “Get the styles the stars are wearing and don’t spend a fortune so next year, if you hate it, it’s not a big deal.”

Ms. Frey said she also consults regularly with the fashion-forward employees of the adjoining salon to ensure locals in the shop’s core demographic of 30- to 50-year-olds will find items appealing.

“People are brutal, and they’ll tell you. [Vendors] also direct me in LA. They say, ‘Midwest? Stick to this. Buy it in muted colors.’ Things like that.”