When Sue Johnson saw the flip flops with the large, foam soles and Swarovski-encrusted thongs, she knew which of her customers would love them.
Johnson, owner of Susans Fashions, a womens clothing boutique in Covington Plaza now in its 17th year of business, took some photos and emailed them to the four women. Soon she had 10 orders for the shoes – all before they hit Susans shelves.
Although department stores may offer larger selections and lower prices, boutique store owners says they provide custom attention and a specialized product that keep customers coming back.
While most business depends on customer loyalty for survival, boutiques seem especially dependent on regulars, as boutique owners garner relationships with their clientele, be it by emailing photos of potential stock or letting a customer know of a new sweater set.
You get to know your customers and what they like, says Laura McCarthy, who owns Coventrys Symmetry. You keep track of what they buy, like personal shoppers. You call when things come in that they like.
As McCarthy is talking about the benefits of boutique shopping, a customer walks in. McCarthy excuses herself to help as the woman looks at a pair of pants. McCarthy pulls shirts off the racks in a variety of colors and materials that will complement the first piece.
There are four boutique stores in Covington Plaza – three of which have been open for 17 years or longer. The reason each store has been so successful, Johnson says, is because of how different each boutique is.
Symmetry caters to the trends, McCarthy says. The store is small and decorated sparsely. It has a minimalist, modern feeling that highlights each piece of clothing.
Meanwhile, its the variety at Jophiels that sets it apart from the other shops, as well as the sheer size of the store. Owner Julie Eckart Clancy says the store was 1,800 square feet when she opened 18 years ago. Today, Jophiels is 9,800 square feet, and it offers shoppers everything from casual wear to formal wear.
Susans, Johnson says, is geared toward a younger market. The store fits so many items into its small space that every time you turn your head, there is a new piece of jewelry or dress to see.
That look that Susans caters to is part of what brings Connie Campbell back. Originally from Fort Wayne, Campbell has lived in Carmel for three years, but she says she still does all her clothing shopping at Susans.
Its kind of like going into a party, she says. Thats kind of how I feel when I walk in there. It just picks me up.
Campbell also says she can buy an entire outfit at one store, and she likes the help Johnson provides.
Some of the things she carries you can find in the nicer (non-boutique) stores, but its the way shes able to put them together for me: the jewelry, the belt, the shoes, she says. Its worth it to me to drive all the way back to Fort Wayne because I dont have to go from one store to another to another and get everything I want.
Clancy tells of a recent customer who shopped at Jophiels for her daughters wedding. She bought everything she needed from the store: outfits for the shower, the wedding, the reception. Five ensembles later, the customer was completely outfitted.
After the wedding, Clancy says, she brought in photos to share.
(She told us), Everything was just perfect. I felt great. Everybody complimented me, Clancy says.
The newest Covington boutique, Belyst, is only two months old and is easily the smallest of the stores, and the brightest. The store is clean and unfussy, with a youthful vibe.
The style, owner Jill Ueber says, comes straight from her own personal taste. Belyst carries items for women of all ages, but she says a lot of her customers are in their 20s.
You come in here, and you find something that not everybody has, she says. People want something where you can really set yourself apart a little bit, something where its more of a personal expression. If you want to express your unique personality through something that youre wearing, you cant go and buy the same T-shirt and jeans that everybody else has on.
Much of the jewelry at Belyst – which is the Swedish word for illuminated – has that one-of-a-kind feeling crafted right into it: All of the shops jewelry is vintage or handmade, Ueber says.
She makes some of the jewelry herself, and some comes from a Chicago designer who uses repurposed materials.
While similar womens boutiques exist in Fort Wayne, not all are not locally owned, so the merchandise might not have the same one-of-a-kind feel. With a corporate structure, Clancy says, the employees arent the ones doing the buying. Locally owned stores can customize merchandise to their customer base, because they know their customers.
Its really nice to go into a store where people ask you about your family, Campbell says. You feel like they really care about you.