It’s an all-too common retail tale of woe: Women in search of that elusive boot or perfect heel come up short and, regrettably but inevitably, move on to make other discretionary and needed purchases. If it can’t be found, it simply won’t be bought.
About a decade ago, Terri Holley was not only such a frequently frustrated shoe shopper, she knew legions of others who were shopping in vain. A master consultant with the New York-based Connaught Group at the time, the Chattanooga, TN, resident was working with women to craft the perfect head-to-toe look from its Carlisle clothing line, which included putting together entire wardrobes for her high-end clients. However, her local shoe market often failed her when it came to finding the brands and styles she knew her customers would love. So Holley took the proactive approach and opened her own boutique, Embellish, in November of 2005.
It was the perfect combination of skill sets for Holley, who has worked in retail since she was a teenager and had graduated from the University of Alabama with a finance degree. “I feel like I have a great eye for fashion, but I can also do my own books,” she offers. “A background in matters like inventory management is important.” In fact, the buying aspect has been the hardest part for Holley to master, even though it’s a labor of love. She still second-guesses some of her merchandise decisions—even ones made years ago. “I still buy things and wonder why I went after them,” she says. “But as long as 90 percent of what I buy is working, I’ll be okay.” While Holley says she is guilty of investing in a few trends a little too soon, she’s jumped in with other brands, like Cordani, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman, at just the right time. “They have consistently been some of our best-performing brands,” she explains. “I also feel that we bought Tory Burch and Sam Edelman just as they were really gaining stronger momentum in the market, and they have certainly performed well for us.” She echoed the same sentiment for Pedro Garcia, one of the store’s most recent successful additions.
Embellish first opened on Chattanooga’s North Shore, what Holley describes as a quaint neighborhood with an “eclectic retail environment,” nestled in a desirable, historic residential area. Holley says the initial years were prosperous—until 2008’s recession hit and forced big and small retailers all around her to fold. Holley knew in order to avoid that same fate, she’d have to make some changes. While her peers started paring down staffs, that was the one option Holley would not even consider; she loved her staff and its dedication and “didn’t want to do anything to sacrifice service.” So she found other ways to cut costs. “I stopped all advertising,” she remembers. “I didn’t take one penny out of the business. Everything we made went into the store. Even with buying, I managed my expenses very closely. That is part of what saved us.” Bills, inventory, payroll and other essential costs stayed in the budget, but Holley didn’t spend on anything that wasn’t necessary for day-to-day operations. Her sacrifices allowed Embellish to stay afloat. After that down period, she says Embellish has gotten back on track, experiencing double-digit growth over the last few years, due in part to a more positive economic climate in Chattanooga and a very fortuitous change of address for Embellish.
The Big Move
Back in 2009, when the economy hit the skids, Embellish moved a short distance geographically (4 miles), but it has made a world of difference. The new digs were the city’s Warehouse Row, a Civil War fort-turned-warehouse-turned-retail center. Previously, the space was occupied by high-level outlet stores like Ralph Lauren but the concept failed to lure enough customers. Developer Jamestown LP, owners of spaces like Manhattan’s Chelsea Market and Atlanta’s White Provision building, purchased the property and sought a new mix of retailers—Embellish along with high-end accessories store Amanda Pinson Jewelry and luxury home goods retailer Revival. The three shops fit the upscale vision the developers had for the space. “It was a really positive thing,” Holley notes. “We were able to act as good stewards for the community and we felt like the building needed a revitalization.” More importantly, the stores created a collective vibe, sharing some customer overlap. “We definitely found that we created this synergy. We feed off of one another,” Holley says.
Embellish’s new space is large and inviting, with brick lining the interior and exterior. Holley decorates the store with flowers and stylish overhead lighting fixtures, and shoes and handbags are displayed on cream-colored shelves that coordinate with one of the store’s walls.
Beyond the great location, inviting decor and an enticing selection, Holley swears by three retailing rules helping achieve success: a loyal client base, a personable, well-trained staff and sound financial management. “It takes all three, daily,” she explains. In contrast, Holley has seen many of her peers open stores “for fun,” just to cater to their friends. But a store like that rarely lasts. “You have to run it like a business,” she notes. “You need to maintain a professional relationship with your clients. If you work hard and manage your expenses, you can be successful. But it takes all of those elements.”
Along those lines, Holley plays a part in every aspect of the store’s day-to-day operations, from crunching numbers to vacuuming the floor. She never asks an employee to do something she’s not willing to do herself, which is why she doesn’t hesitate to take out the trash or analyze the store’s finances “from daylight to dusk,” five to six days a week.
Holley, originally from Mobile, AL, has lived in Chattanooga for the past 15 years, on top of the three years she spent living in the city during the early ’90s. She knows the city, she knows its women and she knows what they want out of their footwear. Style-wise, they lean upscale casual. They’re in the market for shoes like wedges that they can pair with jeans one day and a sundress the next. Her customers crave a shoe that looks good, feels good and holds its value even better. Brands that fit the criteria, like Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Cordani and Pedro Garcia, are top sellers. You won’t see her clients in a sky-high stiletto or edgy platform heel. Rather, they tend to hit the middle ground between high-fashion and high-comfort. “They’re very fashion-forward but with a slant toward a more classic, conservative style,” Holley observes. “They’re a little more timeless.”
Her customers like to strike a balance price-wise, too. “It’s a relatively affluent community, but it’s very conservative in its spending,” she observes. “Inherent value in a product is very important. If they’re going to splurge, they need to see the value in the shoes. They’re not the type to buy once and wear once.” Holley recalls a recent customer who purchased three pairs of shoes for around $1,000. She talked through the pros and cons of each style with Holley before eventually deciding to scoop up all three. “Our customers like to justify their purchases,” she offers.
It’s interactions like those that Holley says keep her customers coming back. “I try to be honest and sincere. I’m not just being a salesperson,” she says. “I am here to sell a product, but if I think something doesn’t fit right or look good, I’m not going to sell it.” And her staff does the same. “I tell my staff that I’d rather have a customer leave empty-handed than leave with a product that’s not right. The customers appreciate that.” In fact, Holley believes her store’s customer service is what really sets it apart from other boutiques. She doesn’t have an online store, which she grapples with daily, but feels she ultimately made the right call. “I believe we’re doing something right,” she offers. “We’re providing an experience that isn’t available online. We take care of our customers and always stand behind our products. The high-quality customer service really makes a difference.” The staff, Holley says, goes “above and beyond” every day, whether it’s talking a customer through a purchasing decision or staying after hours to sweep up. “Their combined work ethic never ceases to amaze me,” she states.
Holley notes that there is very little turnover as far as her staff of six full-time, part-time and contract employees goes, ensuring knowledgeable and helpful customer service. She looks for hardworking, energetic employees with their own personal style who can bring a fresh perspective to the store. She only finds potential candidates via word of mouth. She has never had to fire an employee, and anyone she hires goes through a rigorous process including at least three interviews, a very thorough background check (during which Holley “grills” any references she finds) and extensive sales training during which employees are educated on everything from designers and styles to sales tactics.
It’s all necessary to sustain the honest, ethical atmosphere Holley has cultivated over the years. “People stop by and see us even if they don’t plan on buying something,” Holley offers. That hospitality often extends beyond store hours. Embellish hosts in-store events like clothing line previews, trunk shows for brands like Stuart Weitzman and Cole Haan and book signings, as well as private shopping events that Holley donates three times a year to local charity auctions. The highest bidder receives two hours of shopping time with a group of friends after the store closes, including complimentary wine and cheese as well as a discount. “It’s a really nice event,” she says.
For now, Holley plans to hold Embellish to just one location, but she hasn’t ruled out opening a second store some day. “It just hasn’t felt right yet,” she explains. “There are a couple of markets I have my eye on. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.” In the meantime, she plans to own the business for at least five more years, but beyond that, she envisions someone else taking the helm, perhaps an employee or one of her daughters, Ann Elizabeth, 23, and Sara, 19. It would be especially fitting for Ann Elizabeth, who currently works with Sam Edelman in New York. Holley doesn’t force it, though. “They might not be interested,” she says. “There is no specific succession plan, though I do have some in mind.”
When Holley does eventually retire, it will be her co-workers she misses the most. She says the “biggest blessing” is the women she gets to work with every day. “I’m sort of mentoring them, but they have taught me so much, too,” she says. “They’re the most wonderful women in the world.”