EDITOR’S NOTE: Our Retail Wednesdays series profiles a different specialty retailer each week, in an effort to spotlight success stories and gain insight from shops that are continuing to grow in the face of a challenging economy.
Originally hailing from Big Bear, California, professional snowboarder turned pro mountain biker April Lawyer opened Vanilla Urban Threads in Bend, Oregon in the fall of 2005. The 3,800 square-foot store in the Old Mill District is stocked with a mix of endemic and boutique apparel and accessories for women and men. The store has built a dedicated following both locally and with Bend's booming tourism market, which has translated to a record-breaking summer for the established shop.
Retailer: Vanilla Urban Threads
Location: Bend, Oregon
Interviewee: April Lawyer
Job Title: Owner
What are your top selling brands?
From the surf/skate/snow worlds, year after year it continues to be Billabong women's. I think for our type of store it makes sense. They don't overthink it and they make a lot of easily sellable pieces.
Amuse is starting to move up as well, and we also do really well in both men's and women's with Volcom. On the boutique side, we're finding success with a lot of Australian brands like Spell, and also a brand called August that people have been really starting to gravitate toward.
What have been some of your challenges over the past 12 years and how have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge has been learning how to be a boss and manage people. Also, figuring out the climate here in Bend — it's either feast or famine. You're either slammed or you're dead. You have to learn to really ride the seasons.
Budgeting was another challenge. I promised myself from the very beginning not to let myself get in debt over the business, so I'm really careful to make sure that I don't take credit. I pre-pay for merchandise — if I can't afford it, then I don't need it.
Which tradeshows do you attend?
I do a little bit of everything. There are two different worlds in buying — I'm buying for both the boutique world and the skate world. For skate I do WWSRA, regional shows like Gather, and occasionally I'll do Agenda. On the boutique side, I do LA Market and Project in Vegas. But I try to stay out of Vegas after all those years of ASR, SIA, and Interbike.
What brands make your life easier and how?
I don't think necessarily it's the brands, it's more the rep groups. There are some that definitely do a better job than others. The rep groups that do a good job are the ones helping us navigate the seasons. They're able to change our ship dates and make sure we're not taking on too much product when we don't need to, or help get more product when we need it.
Can you name any?
Clint [Graham] and Eva [Hume] from Volcom are amazing. They've always been so hands on. They're constantly following up and making sure we're getting everything we need, getting us POP, incentives for customers and the employees. Stuff like that is super awesome and goes a long way.
You have a really strong following on Instagram. Who heads that up for you?
I do it, which is really stupid (laughs). I have this inner battle with myself because I know I should farm it out to somebody but I actually really enjoy it. If I had my druthers I would love to just do the marketing. I love it. It does take a lot of time though, so I probably do need to start getting somebody to help me do it.
Events also seem to be a big part of Vanilla — what are your goals in this space?
We've done so many fun ones. That's the part that's so great about Bend is that we do have such an awesome community here. We've done fashion shows and brand specific events, like Bikinis & Bubbles. All the events we do have helped us better realize who our customer is and who is looking at our marketing and seeing what we're putting out there. It's also a good chance to give back with giveaways and stuff like that.
Lately there seems to be a trend of core retailers opting out of carrying women's clothing. What would your advice be for those retailers struggling with women's clothing?
That's a tough question; to be honest maybe it's a matter of putting that effort in. We obviously put a major focus on our women's, but when we do focus on men's as it sells really well.
It could be that they're treating women as an afterthought, so they don't put the marketing behind it, and don't put enough thought into curating it. The other thing I've learned is that women like options – when you just have a little tiny offering it makes it hard, because women like to have a lot to choose from.
I've noticed you don't have an e-commerce platform — have you explored that idea?
I am interested in the ecommerce side, that's something we've thought about for so many years and had in the plans before Parker [her 7-year old son] was born. I'm almost positive that this year is the year we get it going. We have really garnered this following of people.
In Bend we get so many tourists from California, Seattle, Portland, so we have this built-in audience. There are still customers who are make an event of their shopping, but what I'm also seeing are people, especially tourists, who ask to buy online later when they get home.
Also, on Instagram for instance, I'll get messages from people asking whether a specific size is available and I'll write them back, 'Yes, just call the store and we'll get it shipped out today.' But, what I find so interesting is that they don't want to have that human interaction. They want to point and they want to click. There's no way I can duplicate what Vanilla is online, but there's clearly a need to provide online sales. First step is to find warehouse space, which I'm working on this summer.
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