Local boutique owner speaks out about luxury merchandise, customer service and those wildly popular discount websites

image courtesy of Fleur Boutique

Fleur Boutique, true to its name, which means flower in French, smells like there might be a garden hidden inside.  The delicate scents of gardenias and lilies linger in the airy, art gallery-like space.  Sunlight pours in through large windows, illuminating stark white walls and furniture and sparkling on floor-length mirrors peeking out of changing rooms.   The only color in the store comes from the rainbow of jewel-toned merchandise, which lines the walls, covers the tables and fills the cabinets.

Fleur’s owner, Ginny Stanton, 28, of Durham perches at a gleaming white desk in the corner of the store, located in Meadowmont.  A candle flickers, emitting that same sugary-sweet scent of flowers.  There is no cash register to speak of.   A large white piece of furniture behind her is home to a well-organized supply of wrapping tissue, shopping bags and binders.

Stanton wears her shoulder-length blond hair tucked behind her ears, revealing large, intricate gold earrings.  Her bright pink blouse matches the monogram on her Tervis Tumbler, from which she sips water through a straw.  She has a bright, easy smile, but when she speaks about her business, which she bought three years ago, she’s serious.

“When I bought the store, the economy crashed kind of afterwards,” Stanton says.  “So I think I’m lucky that I’m still standing here today.  I’m proud of myself for being a new business owner and being able to get through that.”

Though these are hard economic times, Stanton keeps customers coming back by offering a range of products from designers such as Loeffler Randall, Hunter Dixon and Milly.

“I want to be a specialty store, so I do try and find lines that no one else has in the area,” Stanton says.  “Then I get them exclusively, meaning I can have them in Chapel Hill and no one else can.  If there’s at least one person I can think of in my head that I know would buy clothes from a line, then I can get it.  I have to think beside myself.  I love all the clothes in here because I buy them, but I have to make sure my customers are going to love them, too.”

Stanton says her boutique caters to females aged 25-45.  She also has customers in their 60s and customers who are undergraduates at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Products in her store range from $18 underwear to $500 dresses.  The bulk of her inventory is $250 to $400.

“I like the stuff at Fleur,” UNC-CH undergraduate Sarah Ross says.  “They have some great things, but I don’t shop there unless it’s for a really special occasion.  The clothes are out of my price range for what I wear every day.”

In addition to hard-to-find clothing, Stanton also offers hard-to-find customer service.

“I’m in the store 99% of the time,” Stanton says.  “I’m the owner, and my customers know me.  They want to shop with me because I know what they like.  I know what size they are, and I can pull things for them.  I’m happy to do after-hours for people.  I’ve come in on Sundays before.  I do whatever I can to accommodate a customer and have developed relationships with them over the years.  They trust that I’m not going to let them walk out with something that doesn’t look good on them.  My name is behind it.”

Owning a small business, especially a high-end boutique, comes with challenges.  The recent popularity of discount websites such as Ruelala and Gilt Groupe, which buy overstocked merchandise from designers and resell it for around 60% off retail price, does not sit well with Stanton.

“Luckily by the time the products are on these websites, I’ve pretty much sold out of what I’ve had,” Stanton says, a frown creasing her brow.  “I can’t discount merchandise that way.  I can’t survive that way.  I can’t make any money that way.  It’s hard to know that my customers can go and get the same top they like, maybe in a different color, but for a third of the cost on these sites.”

Meanwhile, Ross, who buys on discount websites at least once every couple of weeks and checks out their sales every day, says the low prices and convenience of shopping from her computer can’t be beat.  She enjoys the in-store shopping experience, but with so many sorority-sponsored events to attend, she can’t justify a new, full-priced outfit from a local boutique for each occasion when she knows she can find something much cheaper on the internet.

When Stanton describes the other problems associated with owning a small business, however, her optimism returns.

“I have months where I typically have higher sales than I do other times of the year, but everyone has that business,” Stanton says.  “I can kind of gauge, based on that information, when things should be better and when they shouldn’t be really good.  So financially, it’s tricky because you never know.

“I do see things picking up again,” Stanton says.  “Customers that stopped shopping for a little while are pulling out their wallets again.  I’ve had to drop my inventory a little bit and figure out what I really want.  I’ve had to pass up on buying some more expensive things in order to manage the business and keep it floating.”

Stanton says she has good relationships with the owners of Monkees and Scout and Molly’s, two other high-end boutiques in the Meadowmont Village shopping center.  Because the three stores carry different things and have different customers, the competition among them is minimal.   Stanton says the stores support each other by bringing a variety of customers to the area.

“I love my discount websites,” Ross says.  “But if I have the time and money to shop for a nice cocktail dress, Fleur is definitely somewhere I’ll look.”

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