Opening 'The Boutique' downtown: What it took

December 07, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Shana Ringer has spent more than 20 years working in retail, starting in high school when she went to classes half a day, then spent the other half in the fine jewelry department of Montgomery Wards in downtown Hagerstown.

But despite all her experience, including seven years at Lena Darner's dress shop, when she decided to open The Boutique at 100 N. Potomac St., she didn't assume she knew it all.

She made up a budget, making sure to keep her estimates for things like utilities on the high side. She went to shows to look at what the manufacturers were offering. Then she looked for space, not with a real estate broker, but at night, when she could imagine what it might become.

"I'm come downtown at night when no one was here and I'd look in the windows and write down phone numbers," she said.


She considered West Washington Street, but said she was leery of it because of the ongoing construction related to the University System of Maryland's Education Center.

The one risky thing she did was to begin buying merchandise before she had the space locked up, and when she got a closer look at her present location, she worried that she wouldn't have enough to fill it up.

"This wasn't my first choice. I had looked at something with half as much space, but I would have had to tear down walls and do a lot of work on it," she said.

Now she's come to like her location, across the street from City Hall and catty-corner from Lena Darner's and not far from another dress shop, The Figurehead II.

"It's airy. I don't like it when things are jammed up or too tight," she said.

As a new business, she explained that she can't really order too much merchandise because not all suppliers will give "terms" to anyone who isn't well-established. Instead of paying for things within 30 days, she pays for most articles up front. Orders for things not in stock come C.O.D., she said, for an extra $10.

To make money, or to avoid losing too much, Ringer has to decide what her customers will like and how much of it to buy.

"We'll just get a few pieces of each thing. If they don't get it early, it's gone," she said.

The other task she has is to try to avoid selling the same outfit to people in the same social circle, or risk facing customers unhappy that both showed up at the same event with identical outfits.

"That is a problem with cocktail parties. I do keep track of who buys what and I can say, 'So-and-so bought this,' " she said.

The flip side of that is that people sometimes come in and see something and promise to recommend it to a friend, she said.

It's part of the personal touch that people come downtown to find, she said.

"A lot of times at a mall you can't get a sales person to take care of you. That's what we're here for," she said.

The shop also offers alterations through an arrangement with the tailor at Hoffman Clothiers Inc. near Public Square.

Meeting people and developing relationships is the fun part of the job, but what goes along with it is a financial juggling act, in an effort to keep enough money coming in to tide the shop through the months when sales are traditionally slower.

"There are months like January and February and if the weather's bad and it snows every day, that's bad. July and August are the other slow months," she said.

But a shop owner can get bogged down in thinking about the "what ifs," she said, so she tries not to think too much about all the things that could go wrong.

"I know for the first couple of years, I have to be careful," she said.

That means only one day off a month and a single employee, her sister, Kendra Greenlee, who said that her sister had been thinking about having her own shop for years, but finally did it, "kind of a on a dare."

The doors are open now and sales are picking up, as women discover that they can shop all three dress shops clustered at the intersection of North Potomac and Franklin streets.

"I think downtown is just a different shopping experience. It's a nice afternoon or a day when you can shop and then go to lunch," she said.

"I'm hoping in March I can hire another employee," she said.

I hope so, too, because she's made a brave choice. Fashion isn't usually what I write about, but I wanted to talk to someone starting a business downtown who'd tell me the truth about how tough it is - and who'd let me come back six months after the ribbon cutting and see how things are going. Ringer's agreed to do that, so sometime after the holidays I'll check back and with her.

If you'd like to check it out, it's open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m., to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The store is closed on Sunday.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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