By Larisa Olson
One day in the gloomy yet vaguely hopeful winter of 2016, a man stumbled into Chantilly Lace looking a little disoriented but motivated. It was his first time in a lingerie establishment, and he was selecting a Valentine’s gift for his wife. We got to work choosing something a little sexy but a little cute. We found the perfect cami set & I started to wrap it. Life was good.
I was only several months into new ownership of the 20+ year Wilmette lingerie shop that could almost be referred to as “a cult classic.” My background isn’t in lingerie, or retail – it was a totally random opportunity and I took it. So the conversation turned to the topic of why I purchased Chantilly Lace.
He told me that he and his friend talked about me often when they jog. And basically they just couldn’t see why I bought this place or how I could possibly succeed. He also offered the observation that I needed new wallpaper, new carpet, new lighting. He looked around like the shop was just a truly pathetic sinkhole.
Now I’m a pretty tough cookie, but to have an apparently successful, handsome, local husband say this to me – the single woman from the city, the outsider – well. It was not a good feeling. In fact, it might be one of the most terrible experiences I had in 2016. It really brought me down. I thought – “oh my God! People are jogging around Wilmette discussing how my business is going to fail?!?” What a nightmare. It felt so bad I didn’t even tell anyone about it for a long time.
I got into retail right when retail is dying. And some people were expecting me to lay down and die too. But unbeknownst to many, Chantilly had a very strong foundation to build on.
My late mother’s voice came into my head. “Oh Larisa! That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Just keep on trucking.”
But he did know what he was talking about. His raw, unfiltered voice represents a common perspective – one that could have been / could be hurting my business to a certain degree. If success was being measured by corporate standards, my business must have looked like a total failure. It lacked shine and polish. The branding was not crystal clear. The shop looked like a relic of the 1980s.
But what he underestimated was the value of heart. There’s nothing as powerful as a can-do attitude, and making customers feel comfortable and valued in a kind environment. The lack of “bling” isn’t even noticed when the relationships and product are strong enough. The truth is, I’m not even convinced the majority of women want bling and polish. When you’re a well-seasoned woman, you know all that glitters is not gold.
Beyond that, there is a real need for experts nowadays, not to mention human interaction. Women love walking into a boutique and getting suggestions: “I think I know the perfect thing for you” can be much more efficient than countless internet purchases and returns, and online reviews from women who have a totally different body than you.
And while department stores and chains may sparkle, they often have over-extended young women with a low level of expertise. Furthermore, because they are so focused on turning over the inventory seasonally, they probably only offer 10 – 20 choices in your size. (If they’re even able to determine what it really is!) At Chantilly we are constantly diversifying and trying out new styles and brands: we usually have dozens of choices in your size. We’ve created a vast collage of options so we can make sure there’s truly something for everyone. And we can do this because we don’t have to embrace any corporate formulas or play by any corporate rules.
Back to the sales trajectory: for several months after The Jogger’s visit, sales weren’t looking so hot. Winter and early spring sales continued to double consistently over 2015, but we still weren’t busy enough.
Sometimes I would tiptoe dejectedly over to a neighboring business owner, lollygagging in self-doubt. She advised: “You’re doing everything right. The windows look great. The store looks so much better. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Come April get ready to be in your shop all the time because your business is going to take off.” That was such an optimistic prophesy. But April came and went. It was exactly the same as January, February, March. Same exact number. I thought. Oh Jeeze. I want to do more business than this. I want to be a success. I want people to jog around Wilmette and talk about my success story not about my loser story.
Then May came and it happened. Chantilly Lace became a really successful shop. The numbers sky-rocketed. At times customers were over-flowing from the dressing room into the stock room to try things on. Referrals came in like wild fire. And though I always have that itch to do even better, the numbers have stayed consistently strong every month since May. Even The Jogger’s beautiful wife happened in and wound up with a lingerie makeover.
And as painful as it was, I’m thankful that The Jogger’s blunt assessment became an opportunity to improve the business and overcome self-doubt. Once my business took off, I started making the improvements he suggested.
To close the 2016 chapter of the continuum, at Christmas I got a very meaningful message from a very elegant messenger. A local man came in for a gift. He was impeccably dressed in business attire. The shop was busy. Most likely a little messy too. As I rung up he said, “You’re achieving great things here and you should feel very good about that.” I felt like I had finally been granted a reprieve.
So what are your goals this year? What do you really want to happen that seems impossible but you secretly suspect that if you stick to your guns and put in the time, you’re going to see it happen? What do you want? Let your intuition guide you and don’t back down. Block out the noise and stay on track — but don’t forget to take detours into the local shops.
Larisa Olson is the owner of Chantilly Lace, a lingerie boutique located at 1144 Central Ave, Wilmette. Click here to read a previous DailyNorthShore.com article about the boutique, and call (847) 256-8077 or visit Chantilly’s website or Facebook page for more information.