Owner, Elizabeth’s Shoes & Accessories
You’ve been in business for almost 40 years. How do you account for your longevity?
I started in the Metrocenter in downtown Binghamton in 1984. I was only 24 years old. For the first 10 years, things were pretty rough. We ended up moving to the Vestal Parkway in 1992. Talbots, an upscale women’s clothing store, had announced that they were coming to Binghamton and I felt like I needed to have a well known chain store next to me. Also, I realized I had to do something different, so I decided to expand into cosmetics. Someone had opened a Merle Norman cosmetics studio in the Metrocenter, so I decided to purchase that and put the two stores together and relocate to Vestal Parkway. One of the nice things about Merle Norman is that they’re an American company — based out of California and probably 95% of their products are manufactured right in Los Angeles. Once we moved and combined Elizabeth’s Shoes and Merle Norman Cosmetics we starting expanding into different product lines. Today, if you walk into my store, I can dress you, apply your makeup, accessorize you with jewelry, footwear, a handbag and even sunglasses.
When you first opened, you only sold shoes. How did you know you were ready to sell other products like clothing and handbags?
It was necessity. I opened my store in 1984. And for a business that had no prior history, I think this was part of my initial struggle. I’m not originally from Binghamton and I didn’t know a lot of people. I grew up and went to school in Michigan, so it wasn’t like I had a big family and friend network to help support my business.
My credit managers from the only shoe company that I did business with at the time said, “Elizabeth, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Because if you came into my store and that brand of shoes didn’t fit your foot, I had nothing else to offer you. So, from there I expanded to new shoe lines. So when Talbots announced in 1992 that they were going to put a store on the Vestal Parkway, I knew that was my opportunity to get beside an established retailer. I felt that would give me an anchor in the retail business and my store would supply Talbots customers with shoes.
I’ve never shied away from competition. I’ve always believed that competition is healthy. If you’re afraid of it, then you’re not running your business right.
We’re getting ready for back-to-school and fall fashion. What trends are you anticipating this fall?
One of the things to keep in mind when buying clothing and footwear is you’re always buying one year in advance. I just went to a shoe show and I’m buying for next spring and summer now. But when we were buying fall clothing back in February, we found a lot of corduroy and a lot of “shackets,” a shirt and jacket combined. We noticed this year that the shackets are a little bit shorter. In the past few years, they were more of a jacket length. Now shackets are more of a shirt length. There’s still a lot of raw edge hems on pants and jeans. We’re also seeing a lot of loafers — chunky loafers or tailored loafers. Shoes have come back. For a while all you could find were boots. Skinny legs are out; full legs are back. Everything comes and goes.
Tell us about the handbag trade-in event you hosted.
Brighton Collectibles, one of my jewelry brands, offer different promotional ideas for their small independent retailers to participate in. You as a customer can trade in an old handbag that you’re no longer using and receive $25 -$50 off the purchase of a new Brighton Handbag. We take those handbags and donate them to the local YWCA. They have a dress-for-success program, which helps women have an interview look. We’ve done this event for at least 12 years, if not more.
What is the most important thing you can do to keep a small business competitive?
It’s more than just having current inventory. When a customer finds a product line that they like, for example skincare and makeup, they become loyal to that brand. I stopped being just a shoe store a long time ago. Nowadays it’s very difficult to survive in a small business environment with having just shoes or just makeup. You have to give your customers multiple reasons to come into your store. We have a little joke where we’ll have a customer come in to buy mascara and $500 later between a new pair of shoes, a new jacket and a new necklace, we laugh and say, “That was a really expensive mascara!” That truly is our success. 2019 was my best year of business, and we are going to beat those figures this year.
The makeup part is also key because that’s a replenishment product line. You run out of lipstick, you run out of mascara. Because of that, a customer will come into the store every six months or so to replenish. While at the store they then get caught up in the fact that there are so many nice things that they want to buy from all the other categories.
One of the other things we started doing a few years ago that has been successful is every year at the end of the year our POS system allows us to break down our customers. We print a report of the top 100 customers. Those 100 customers’ purchases are 20% of my business. We make sure that we talk to them six times a year. If we haven’t seen them in a month, we reach out to tell them what’s on sale and what’s new. I think that’s really key to our success.
Three or four years ago, we started to look at the calendar for upcoming “national days.” We picked one or two of those national days to celebrate in the store. So, for example, for National Pecan Cookie Day we bought pecan cookies, and if you stopped in you got two cookies and a $5 gift certificate. All we’re giving away is two cookies and $5, and I have to tell you, those are some of our best days of the month. The very first one we did was in January for National Popcorn Day. We went out and bought lunch-size bags of popcorn, and we attached a $5 gift certificate to the popcorn bags. We were very busy that day compared to a regular January day, and we just decided to keep doing it. It’s a simple thing. It doesn’t cost us a lot, and they have become really successful and fun.
How has doing business changed for you over the years, especially with the influx of social media?
Years ago, we used to have an advertising budget. We would do radio and TV. Guess what? I don’t do that anymore. We post on our social media very regularly. My store manager is very good at showing people what’s new and what just come in. Our social media is very successful. We have people all the time call us and ask us to hold a piece of clothing in their size because they saw it on social media.
We also have an account with Constant Contact. Our open rate is around 37%. I think we make it clear to our customers that we’re not going to be bugging them every other day. You’re going to hear from me three or four times a month, and it’s because I have something for you, not just saying hi.
What are some of your personal favorites in your inventory?
A little bit of everything. It can be hard because sometimes you’ll find yourself wanting 15 pairs of new shoes! I personally have been liking a chunkier loafer, and we have some really nice ones. It’s nice to have something besides a bootie to wear. For a while, it was just sandals or boots. There wasn’t anything in between, so I’m enjoying the fact that loafers are back. I also got myself a pair of corduroy full-leg pants and a short shacket.
What are some of the extra things you do to make your customers happy?
Years ago, when I started my business, I said, “I can’t compete with department stores. I can’t compete with sales and discounts. I’m a small independent retailer.” So, I had the philosophy from the very beginning that customer service was going to make me different. We maintain that philosophy today. We engage with our customers. We have a huge repeat customer base. If 10 people walk in the store today, we’ll be able to call eight of them by name. I think we do a really good job of remembering people’s names. We see them in the store on a regular basis.
I think they keep coming back because when they ask us to see a shoe, we don’t just hand them the box and walk away. We take the shoe out for them, we take the stuffing out, we help them put it on. We really engage with our customers.
As a successful independent retailer, you have to always look for something new. For example, we have a new bracelet line coming in in October called ENewton. It’s very popular on social media, and we just got approved to carry it. So many small independent retailers don’t want to change. You can’t do that. It might not always be successful, but you have to show people that you’re willing to try new things. Fashion, makeup and jewelry aren’t stagnant. It’s always changing and I’ve always been open to a new challenge.