As Big Department Stores Close, Small Boutiques Take Their Place

Jun 14, 2018

Katie Iverson

It’s been a hard year for large retail stores across the nation. In South Dakota several department stores, including Younkers, Herberger’s, and JC Penney’s have closed or announced closings in malls across the state. However, that doesn’t mean people have stopped shopping. In fact while large department stores close another type of retail has boomed in the past year.

Take a stroll downtown Sioux Falls and you’ll see that many of the shops lining Phillips Avenue are women’s boutiques. These small specialty stores carry anything from fast fashion to luxury items and are scattered all over the city.

Women’s boutiques are not just popping up in South Dakota’s largest city. Many small towns in the state now have at least one boutique of their own. Some are finding huge success, especially online.

“And in South Dakota you’ve got some awesome examples of this. I think about Filly Flair, for example. She started from a card table going to rodeos and people loved what she was doing. She began to sell it a little bit here and there, in person and online. And because of the Internet she can be from a rural piece of South Dakota and blow up to be one of the biggest boutiques in the United States. That’s a pretty cool opportunity.”

Ashley Alderson is founder of the Boutique Hub a digital platform that connects boutique owners across the nation and provides support and training. It also helps shoppers discover new boutiques.

Alderson says five years ago when she started Boutique Hub there wasn’t that many small boutiques in the Midwest where women could shop. In the past few years, however, the industry has exploded. She says there is a reason for that.

“The consumer today wants to be served,” says Alderson, “And we want to shop with a purpose. We want to go somewhere where we can find something unique, where we can have a relationship, with those that we’re doing business with, where we truly feel like we’re served. Because, people want to do business with people, not companies.”

In other words, Alderson says shopping is still a social activity like it has always been. Especially, for women.

“So women want to go where they feel like they’re understood and heard and where there’s other people like them. And so that’s why they congregate around these unique boutiques, because, not only is it a piece of style that they really can relate with but there’s other women there that are often in a very similar place in life or have similar interests or hobbies or tastes. And when they’re shopping online with these women they can communicate with them on a daily basis. So its kind of like that old going to the mall with your girlfriends piece. You can do that with these women around the world who you’ve come to be friends with online,” says Alderson.

“We have several ladies in other states, Arizona, Nebraska, North Dakota, Florida that are ordering from us every single week. And we’ve gotten to know them like family. I mean that sounds crazy but it’s like how much interaction that we have with them one on one is just so amazing that you really get to know you’re customers that shop with you,” says Julie Fischbach.

Julie Fischbach is owner of Mainstream Boutique. She opened her first store in Aberdeen, South Dakota about 4 years ago before the boutique trend really took off. Since then she’s opened a store in Sioux Falls and in Brookings.

She says boutiques offer women a unique variety. They can find a small shop that caters to their own personal sense of style.

“And another factor,” says Fischbach, “I would say is that, women, what I’m seeing don’t want to look like everybody else. They like the ability at a shop at a boutique where most boutiques only order select amount of quantities. Like for most of my locations, we only order around six pieces of each item and once those are gone those are gone. So you’re not going to see yourself coming and going down the streets of our community just because of that.”

Fischbach says owning a boutique, or three, keeps her busy,  but she loves it. Before she opened Mainstream Boutique she worked in the corporate world but she always wanted to own her own business. Today, she encourages other women to take the plunge and do the same.

Ashley Alderson of Boutique Hub says this is the second reason that the boutique market is exploding. Women want to own their own businesses. She says opening a boutique is a way for women to create freedom, financial independence and flexibility.

“Because they can start these boutiques from their home,” says Alderson, “And if they choose to grow into a brick and mortar location or into a fashion truck or a mobile boutique that opportunity is very real for them. So it’s really a great opportunity for working moms and for women in general who want to create their own career path going forward.”

Katie Iverson was someone who started her boutique in her basement. In 2016 she quit her full-time job in Sioux Falls and opened up Glamour Defined in Harrisburg, South Dakota. She specifically chose to open her store in a small town because she wanted to make a community impact.

“The people are so welcoming and very receptive of our business coming here and we all support one another. Where I feel, like, sometimes in the bigger cities, which I mean, that you can easily lost in the shuffle. You know, like here I’m apart of the chamber, you know, and like I know a lot of the other business owners here and its easy to build a community when you’re able to have those kinds of relationships,” says Iverson.

Iverson has a background in retail and merchandising. She even interned at the luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Now she is bringing some of that New York sophistication to South Dakota. Glamour Defined is a licensed retailer of gently used designer handbags.

“We’ve sold quite a few Gucci’s and we’ve sold a couple Channel’s as well, too.”

Although Iverson loves the designer handbags she says the real reason she opened a boutique is she saw a need to help plus size women. She says many boutique stores don’t even have a plus size section. Size 14 is consider plus size, which Iverson says is the number one size for women in the U-S.

“So I just figured if I can help a woman feel beautiful not about the size that she is but about the confidence that she brings when she wears our clothes,” says Iverson, “To really bring out that inner beauty and not worry about what the gosh darn size is on the inside of your clothes. That’s what it really is about for me, like at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.”

Iverson also says many boutiques base their sizing on junior sizes. Her store doesn’t do that so women of all shapes and body types feel confident and comfortable in her clothes. She’s not only making an impact in Harrisburg but also growing an online community. Iverson says around 40% of her sales come from her website.

“To be able to relate to customers who aren’t even in the South Dakota demographic,” says Iverson, “To know that you’re making that impact or that relative connection with them. That, your brand means something to them, that they want to support you, is huge.”

Iverson says whether they buy online or in her store her customers and her employees are a part of her family.

“99% of our customers know who I am and they shop with Glamour because of me, not because of a lot the products that we carry.”

Iverson says those relationships make owning a boutique rewarding. She says the internet helps boutique owners reach a broader audience and find success. However, the social aspects of shopping from someone you know and trust, and might even consider a friend, has also led to women’s boutiques flourishing in the state and across the country.