Growing up in an extended family of business owners, Chicago native Yvette Dudley always wanted to run her own business one day. But it took being laid off after 20 years working in corporate America’s technology and banking sectors to get that dream started. Dudley’s passion for connecting women and exchanging ideas drew her to the retail world with the opening of Soultry Shoes in 2008. “I knew whatever I chose to do had to be something I had such a passion for that I could eat, drink and sleep,” Dudley says. “And nothing brings women together like shoes and handbags.”
For nearly 10 years, women have flocked to the 1,000-square-foot boutique located in the city’s gentrifying Pilsen arts district (rotating works by local artists adorn the store walls) for the quality yet affordable shoes and handbags from All Black, Franco Sarto and Poetic License, among others. The boutique’s art gallery feel features 11-foot ceilings, track lighting, wood floors, warm and cozy earth tones, couches and even an outside patio. “It doesn’t feel like a typical store,” Dudley says, adding that the setting is designed so people will want to visit repeatedly.
Dudley keeps her customers coming back with not only a great selection, but a dedication to bringing the diverse community that surrounds her store together with shoe parties, wine nights, book signings and gallery shows. She also rents out the space for painting parties and fundraisers. “In the age of Amazon, it’s essential that boutiques create a positive, memorable experience for their clients,” Dudley says. “I want people to be able to let their hair down and engage in conversation. People talk about, refer friends and shop again and again at places that make such an impact.” —Aleda Johnson
What are your leading footwear brands? Vaneli, All Black, Franco Sarto and Poetic License. I’ve also started carrying cowboy boots from Volatile. A lot of my customers love them.
Who is your target customer? She’s primarily between 29 and 55 years old and seeks classic, traditional styles. Every lady working in the business sector needs a good Mary Jane, a pump and a flat.
How’s business of late? It’s been up and down this year. The community is growing by leaps and bounds, which is good. But this is a very old neighborhood with mom-and-pop stores trying to keep up with the new stores coming into the area.
How is Soultry Shoes competing? This business is about relationships and service. It’s great to be able to point and click but there’s nothing like having a relationship with someone who knows what you like. They walk in and you can say, “I’ve got just the thing for you.” You also need to be creative with your space and think outside the box to draw new customers in and keep them coming back. Amazon just delivers the package, really. That’s why I think it’s essential that boutiques create a “positive memorable experience” for customers. If you do, people will think of you when they’re in the market for your product or even just wanting to spend some money.
What are some outside-the-box examples you’ve implemented? We’re very active in our local community. We’ve participated in clean-up neighborhood campaigns and activities that support kids’ programs. We host Girls’ Nights, book signings and networking events where women of different walks of life can get together. It expands our network and enables us to get to know better the people that we serve. Often, by the end of the night, they’re exchanging business cards. It’s an affordable way to bring in new clients who bring their friends without any advertising.
How important is social media in getting the word out? I’m getting better at it. I use Facebook and Instagram for promoting events. However, a large portion of my clients don’t do much with social media, and I didn’t want to lose them by focusing too much on that and not enough in-person engagements.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your business right now? Balancing my store responsibilities with my involvement in the local community. I have to start managing my time better if I want to see things I’ve been working on come to fruition. Over the course of my community involvement, I’ve seen many businesses open and close. It’s hard to watch their dreams fizzle. I’ve tried to help point them in the right direction and while I don’t want to entirely pull away from that, I have to focus more on my business.
What are your future goals? One, I’m working on my own accessories line, which will have shoes, purses and totes. Two, I want to have a second store that offers unique items from smaller designers near Chicago. They’re doing such great things, but they’re not in many stores yet. Third, I want to use my store as a small business incubator to showcase new products. Four, I would like to have an online presence to help move my business forward.
What’s the best part of being small business owner? That you’re able to create whatever you want, and you don’t have to ask anyone. Just put it out there and see what happens. Being able to connect with people is also great. When a customer who has had a bad day walks out of my store feeling like a new person after a little retail therapy, it’s just the best feeling. I’ve held many events where someone made a life-changing connection, like at our fundraiser for prostate cancer research that connected a woman whose husband had the disease to the top doctor in Chicago. You don’t get that type of interaction shopping online. I may be old school, but I believe people want connection at the end of the day, and a retail space allows you to do that.