Theresa Collier likes to say that she flies by the seat of her pants—and she may well have when she first opened her store—but her decisions to develop the store by jumping into new things were very strategic and methodical. Theresa’s boutique, Plum, is a picturesque shop on the equally picturesque island of Bainbridge Island in Washington. Although she got her first taste for running a store when the Bloedel Reserve public garden asked her to open a gift shop, she took a leap of faith and opened her own shop in 2014.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for 20 something years. I can do it… I don’t want to get to 60 and find out that it’s a dream unrealized.”
Located just a short ferry ride away from Seattle, Plum sees a mix of locals and tourists, which requires an owner as observant, flexible, and creative as Theresa. She knew the type of store she wanted and brought Asian style and her pristine aesthetic to the neighborhood. Visual calm is what she calls it and that experience begins on the sidewalk, which happens to be one floor down from the shop’s front door.
“I’m ruthless about street appeal,” she said and lists three important aspects of it: “Clean/bright and have it visually compelling in terms of your signage… And if they can, have structure out there. We have two water features in bright, plum-colored pots and we have these living walls that entice people and attract them to come up.”
This is even more important when your shop door isn’t on the sidewalk. Every two months, she changes the lights over the deck that leads to Plum. In the fall, they were vinyl orange lanterns, currently, they’re big silver snowflakes, and in the summer, sunhats come out with red, white, and blue ribbons around them.
“People stop and they take pictures or they’ll do selfies or take posts of the deck with the Plum sign in the back.”
Having a spot or space that is selfie-worthy leads to more visibility on social media. That’s FREE PR!
In the beginning, Theresa said she was all about using her contacts (or her social network, if you will) to bring people in. Having worked in development, she had a substantial list, but she didn’t rely on it. Although she admits to not having the wherewithal to do social media right away, she had some great instincts. She capitalized on her newness and made sure to be consistent with her branding.
“We will always offer gift wrapping and have the ribbon and the plum bag ready,” she said and they encourage customers: “You’re welcome to sign up for our email list.”
Her list has approximately 950 names and a high open rate, which means she has an engaged audience. That’s music to any owner’s ears! But Theresa wasn’t about to rest on her laurels. She thinks of her company as a laboratory—a place to try out new things and constantly evolve. You’ve heard me say it before… fashion is always changing, we should, too!
A year and a half ago, Theresa launched into the world of social media. She knew she didn’t have the experience, but she still went for it, learning as she went along. She started with Facebook and Instagram and hired someone to run it for her.
“I was learning a lot from her and then also at the same time spending a couple hours each night trying to learn about social media.”
She learned Facebook from another employee and then even learned Hootsuite on her own! That is moxie! She even has a tiny little mascot that appears consistently in various outfits and locations: #plummouse. Next up for her is video and using social media as a sales platform. She knows she has to learn these things. Her philosophy is “just get out there and do it.” She knows it has to be good, consistent, and on-brand, but it doesn’t have to be super perfect.
“Just get it out there!”
In fact, she’s already ventured into video and found that boosting one of her videos about using facial rollers got people calling and coming in for them! As she’s experimenting in the virtual world, Theresa is also experimenting in her store with staff and with customers. Almost two years ago, in order to increase sales, she increased her staff, her marketing (social media and emails), and increased her inventory by 20%. For her staff, she added spiffs and bonuses, which keeps things interesting in-store because they’re not always structured in the same way. For example, one spiff might be the result of making more than you did at the same time last year, or for every higher-end item sold or item that requires a lot of skill and information to sell, you get a spiff. Then come the bonuses which could be $1000 during the last quarter of the year if they make 20% over the last year or $500 for 10-15% over. She even tried mid-week bonuses where the best sales team gets $100. I’d say Theresa likes to keep her staff on their toes and reward them for their efforts!
In order to monitor these sales, she utilizes a POS system to get metrics on which department is performing and on inventory status. This is part of how she decided to adjust her inventory. She looked at her available space and pared back her home goods inventory—which wasn’t selling as well—and increase her apparel inventory—which didn’t require as much physical space to display—by 20%. She’s also ruthless about markdowns and turns. Given her preference for a pristine store, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Theresa will happily mark down the item twice and then she’ll donate it if it doesn’t move. Not only does she refuse to keep a difficult or old style item around cluttering up her store if it doesn’t resonate with her customers, she doesn’t want to tie up the dollars in an item that could be reinvested in something that would work.
Neither does she allow old ideas to linger either. Despite her store’s small footprint, Plum is host to a number of popular and innovative events. The fascinating thing is: the events don’t really have anything to do with fashion aside from the fact that they’re in her store. They have more to do with lifestyle.
“It’s usually related to whatever I think will work for us. How can we get people in the door? How can our Plum customers have a good time?“
December, for example, saw an event around a book called The Art of Pie from a nationally renowned author. People came for pie tasting and a book signing, but also got to know Plum. Events like this and the monthly community art walk that they participate in help support the strong word-of-mouth publicity that has been the foundation of her early marketing. The free and highly curated events also include mini meditation, salt scrub making lessons, dim sum tasting (for obvious reasons, food is always a big hit), the art of furushiki, and a scarf tying class. In fact, the scarf tying has segued into a social media video. Check it out!
Planning these events, of course, takes time and money, but Theresa considers it part of her marketing budget and it’s paid off. Between the unique events, giveaway goodie bags with coupons, and a raffle, people are very grateful. They come in, enjoy the event, and still try on and buy things. I highly recommend trying to develop events like this because aside from any sales that happen, it’s priceless to be included in people’s social media, create a positive association with a wider network, and have social proof that is hard to produce otherwise. A specific rave on social media that features pictures is worth much more than a positive review on any rating site. That’s not to say you shouldn’t solicit those, but it’s worth the effort to think creatively because the unique things like this are what make brick and mortar shops stand out from all the faceless online stores.
In a world where brick and mortar is seen as competition to online retail, physical stores have the upper hand because while we can use online resources to help our brick and mortar sales, online stores cannot necessarily use our brick and mortar tactics to help them with theirs. But we have to give the store experience that extra flair! It’s like I said in an article last year, it’s all about the in-person connection! The New York Times reports in this article that social interaction is critical for mental and physical health. We all know that at some level, so why not contribute to that social interaction in the store? It makes for a very welcoming environment.
And if there’s anything Plum strives to be, it’s welcoming to everyone. There are husband chairs, items featured to keep men interested, and even a well-known and well-curated selection of books. This was a fabulous idea of Theresa’s. Although she sells more clothes than home goods, the books and other items not only keep the men interested, but they also serve to slow people down as they enter the store. And when they slow down, they look around more carefully, increasing the likelihood of making a purchase.
Not that there’s any reason for anyone to rush through Plum. Theresa has successfully created the pristine and calm space she wanted. Her aesthetic revolves around the idea that visual calm means:
“Having empty space is just as important as filled ones.”
Having that space—whether it’s planned from the start or created by doing away with unsold inventory—can allow you to blossom. Coincidentally, the store’s name, Plum, is short for Plum Blossom, one of the first blooms after winter and it’s a symbol of strength and resilience. Maybe it’s that very strength that Theresa pulls from to get her gusto for trying her “laboratory” experiments! Do any of her ideas resound with you? Let us know in the comment section below!
How to find Plum
124 Winslow Way E
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110