Sharon Fenno

Owner, Circles

Tell us a bit about your background. What drew you to fashion?

I worked for the government for 25 years. I managed financial programs, and even though it was in government, it was kind of entrepreneurial. And I started thinking, “What do I like to do?” Well, I like people. I like running things and I like clothes. At that point, there wasn’t really any store that was doing contemporary clothing in the area. It was more of the Annie Hall look, like long jumpers and t-shirts. There wasn’t any clothing in the area that I wanted to wear, so I started thinking about opening a store. And then I started researching. It took about a year and a half to find a place, sign a lease, get inventory and open the doors. If you do what you love, it won’t be so much of a job.

Did you have someone help you with a business plan?

No. I realized once it came to the business plan, I knew how to put my thoughts down in a logical way on paper, how to sell something and how to do an analysis. When I put the business plan together, the banks said it was a great plan, and I got credit immediately. So, the government training in the end really did help.

How did you choose the first store location?

I started out in 1995 at the Delmar Plaza; I grew up in Delmar. There was a vacancy and I thought, “Well, that’s a good place to start.” And it was, because it was a small venue, so it gave me a chance to learn the business and to make some mistakes, which of course I did. That’s part of starting a business. I think the biggest thing as a small businessperson is that you have to recognize your mistakes and act on them. You have to recognize that you don’t know everything.

Your employees say you treat them like family. How do you foster such a tight-knit group? What makes them stay?

I try not to make a square peg fit a round hole. I try to let them be them. I’ve hired them because they have the skill I want, and they know what they’re doing. I don’t need to micromanage them. It’s like an orchestra. I don’t know how to play each instrument, but I try to make it sound like a symphony.

How do you keep track of trends in the fashion world?

You start by going into the showrooms. You may see one showroom showing the baggy jean, and you think, “Is anyone going to buy that? What’s that all about?” Then you go to the next showroom and they’re showing the same thing. And there’s the runway shows, where the big Instagram influencers are invited. So, with all that, we have a pretty good handle on what the trends are going to be. I’ll always touch on a trend, but I don’t necessarily bring it in in a big way. The big question is, “Are you going to be able to sell it?”

How do you keep the store looking fresh?

We constantly merchandise the store, almost daily. Let’s face it – you can get just about anything online, but I think the reason people come to stores is for the experience. The staff knows you, they know what you want, they know your taste. You can’t just haphazardly throw things into a rack. You want it to look pleasing and relaxing, and that’s where merchandising comes in. We do a lot of mannequins, because people love seeing the whole look. So, a lot of time is spent doing that and the windows. We take a lot of pride in that, and we enjoy it.

What drove the decision to branch out from mostly clothing to a mix of clothing and personal care products.?

It started when you really couldn’t find the indie brands around here. You couldn’t find MAC, you couldn’t find Bobbi Brown, you couldn’t find Trish McEvoy. It’s hard to believe now, but that was pre-Sephora and Ulta. There was really a void in the market, and I love skincare and makeup. So, one of the reasons I branched out into cosmetics, and also footwear, was because I realized people were coming in and saying, “I want a lipstick to go with that,” or “I want a shoe to go with that.” Every day I was sending them to the mall, until I realized it makes sense to have a one-stop shop.

What keeps you motivated in a hyper-competitive industry?

I love what I’m doing, and I love the clothing. And every day, something new is happening. New clothing is coming in, new customers are coming in, and you’re constantly seeing different faces, different people interacting. Fashion is constantly changing, so to me, it’s easy to be motivated.

What’s your main goal for your customers, and how do you keep them coming back?

Service! You obviously have to have a good product, but I really think it’s service. Otherwise, they can get it online. When people come in, it’s like, “We remember you! You bought that blouse a couple of weeks ago, and we just got the pants that go with it.”

It also comes down to the staff and their personalities. I think they’re fun to be around. They all work very hard, and they all treat the store like it’s their own. People sense that.

What are some of your most memorable moments as a small business owner?

I remember the first year I was in business, I opened in March, and by November, a lot of my fall clothes had sold. So, I literally reordered my whole fall line. Not really knowing the business, I didn’t realize that the whole idea is to sell your product down so that by the end of December, you’re ready for your spring. You can’t just keep reordering the same season. So, I marked the stuff down just to get my money back out of it. That really taught me a lesson. It was an “aha” moment.

The other memorable moment was when three of us went to Paris. We were going to see Diane von Furstenberg’s collection. We get off this elevator and there’s this huge Andy Warhol picture of her. We were actually in her apartment! I couldn’t believe she had a market in her apartment, but she did.

What does personal style mean to you?

I’ve always loved clothes. I went to a private school and wore a uniform, so I viewed clothes as a treat. I still do! I like being dressed. It’s one of the reasons I got into the business. It’s what I love: fashion and running things.

Who is your all-time favorite designer, and why?

Oscar de la Renta. I remember him saying he likes to make women look beautiful. He always flattered their body, whatever type of body they had, and he really loved women. And that just shows in his fashions. I just think they’re beautiful.

What do you do for fun in your spare time?

I really like to work out. I’m kind of a workout addict. Some people meditate, but for me, working out is meditation. It clears my head. My way of relaxing is being active, which kind of seems like an oxymoron, but it’s my way of taking my mind off things.

“The people that work here are amazing. Everyone is just so nice to each other. I’m surrounded by beautiful things every day. It’s a happy place.”

Meg, Circles employee


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