Retail Reality

As the “shopping experience” for many becomes more about key strokes and load times, Lian Dolan profiles two local female retailers who still earn their sales the old fashion way.

BY: Lian Dolan

“This is a tough business. This is not for sissies,” says experienced business owner Karen Brandt.

What could she be talking about? Manufacturing? Construction? The competitive world of medi-spas? Nope. Retail, people, retail. The old fashioned world of swapping merch face-to-face, bricks and mortar style. Next to “writing the great American novel” and “winning Powerball,” opening a little shop and being your own boss is right up there in terms of career fantasies. Whatever your passion, from comic books to ironic t-shirts to high-end jam (Yes, that is a product category), many of us would love to find a little corner of real estate, set up shop and make it our own. It looks fun, doesn’t it? I mean, really, how hard could buying, selling and offering water to customers really be?

Lulu BrandtAccording to Ms. Brandt, a co-owner of Lulu Brandt, a retailer of lovely women’s clothing that’s been a Pasadena institution for 26 years, it’s a hands-on work experience that includes everything from cleaning the store to steaming clothes for days to long hours on your feet interacting with customers. And don’t even get me started on the schlep, schlep, schlep. Brandt confirms what I already suspected. “It’s not playing with pretty clothes all day. It’s not glamorous.”

Okay, I’m already out. I don’t even iron my own clothes. I couldn’t possible spend the day getting the wrinkles out of other people’s clothes.

Retailer Carmel Chow agrees about the hands-on aspect of retailing. She and her husband have owned Foothill Tile & Stone for 17 years after careers in the production side of the fashion business. The couple sell hard surface materials, and if you watch enough HGTV, you know that includes all the beautiful stuff you want in your kitchen and bathroom once that linoleum finally gets ripped out. Their clients are architects, designers and homeowners with lots of repeat business. “The minute you feel you have caught up there are ten more projects in front of you. You never sleep, taking care of employees and fulfilling client needs. It’s a 24-7 affair.”

Foothill Tile _ Stone CompanyBut both women agree that the moment you find the customer exactly what they want is the reward for all the physical labor. For Chow, she acknowledges that remodeling is a stressful experience and Murphy’s Law can kick in, adding to the chaos but the payoff comes “when the customer puts their trust in my decisions, knowing that the design and material we’ve put together really work for them. Knowing that they love the design is the best.”

Being a women’s retailer comes with a hefty degree of emotional investment as well. Nothing is more personal a purchase than clothing and Brandt, who describes the relationship she has with her customers as ‘intimate,’ says that she has learned to read her customers so well, she knows when they are not in a good place to shop. “Sometimes it’s not the right time to buy. Women come in and I know that they don’t feel good about themselves or something is happening in their life that is too much.”
Oh, I know. And I’m thinking about that unfortunate jeans purchase of 2012 after a three-hour root canal. I could have used some of Karen Brandt’s counseling then.

But Brandt elaborates on the moments when women return with ‘investment’ pieces from a decade ago that they are still wearing or just to tell her that the outfit she put together worked perfectly for the special event, whether it’s a wedding or memorial service. It’s clear she feels privileged to be a part of her customers lives. “We know our customers really well.”

And that appears to be the key element in the success of both businesses. Each have survived a long time in a economic climate that has become Big Box Everything and under attack from Internet retailers that will deliver everything from cold milk to a Maserati. (Seriously, who skips the test drive and buys a Maserati online? This makes me sad.) Phrases like “building a relationship,” “understanding the client” or “creating trust” come up time and time again in our conversations. Listening is the key ingredient to all of these strategies. Chow puts it succinctly. “Understanding the client, their style, their budget by listening, listening, listening.” Brandt adds, ”Sometimes our clients come in just to talk.”

Sitting in the elegant Lulu Brandt showroom, I can picture the scene completely. The store is so warm and inviting, I may start showing up here just to gab. Sensing I’m being drawn in by excellent customer service and lighting, Karen Brandt takes the opportunity to advocate shopping locally. A longtime SGV resident, she says, “It used to be that Pasadenans thought all the style was on the Westside. But we have everything we need here in terms of clothing, florists, food, home goods. We have a very keen understanding and appreciate the lifestyle in Pasadena. Shopping locally is a chance to re-invest in the community on a daily basis.”

Well said. I’ll take that water now.

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