Perhaps more than any other retailer, dance storeowners understand the importance of community. Serving dancers at each stage and milestone, you encounter everything that goes along with the journey—schools, recitals, family, friends and the town in which these lives and experiences take place. Community can’t be plugged into a spreadsheet, so how, exactly, does it fit into a dance store’s business plan? A recent study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s business school found that community engagement is one strategy local retailers can specifically employ to compete more effectively against large online retailers. That’s because it not only directly builds trust in, and commitment to, the local store, but it also makes the customer less price-sensitive and more likely to remain loyal to the local store, the study found.
Developing relationships takes more than just being friendly or even “giving back,” of course. It takes thought, planning and time. That’s exactly what Stephanie Carney and Paulette Coleman have put into their outreach efforts since they opened Grit & Grace in Newnan, GA, a little over three years ago. Creating new bonds as a high-end boutique within a community they already called home has been central to their business strategy. By casting a wide net, the store has created a close network—and the foundations of a sustainable business.
A Store Is Born
Problem solving comes naturally to moms. Carney and Coleman recognized early in their daughters’ dance lives the need for dancewear that would suit busy schedules—going directly from class to outside activities. “The girls devote 10 to 20 hours in the studio each week, and they are spending more time in dance clothes than street clothes,” says Carney.
The women also realized they were spending as much if not more on their daughters’ dance apparel than their other clothes. And the market was wide open. There were no independent dance stores in their town, Newnan, GA, which is more than an hour’s drive from Atlanta. And online shopping was inadequate for items that required fitting. The friends saw an opening, as Carney says, “for a shopping environment tailored to helping meet these needs.”
Each woman had business experience—Carney in marketing and advertising for Fortune 500 companies, Coleman in dance retail—so they boldly moved forward and in 2015 opened Grit & Grace. The tagline, “Studio to Streetwear,” communicates simply and clearly their mission: to take dancers seamlessly from one part of their day to another. The business’ name, Grit & Grace, states the women’s vision. Grit is the training and practice; grace is the performance. “Dancers spend years crafting their skills; they work so hard and persevere through injuries; then appear to effortlessly perform as if dancing on air,” says Carney. When clients were asked what they thought of the new store’s name, the response from diverse age groups was unanimous: “You get who we are.”
Creating a Brand
You could say “grit and grace” describes the founders, too, as Carney (Coleman left amicably in early 2018) puts her passion into product and community outreach to create a unique destination with carefully curated merchandise and deep community ties.
The clientele spans dancers at every stage, as well as nondancers seeking activewear. At about 1,900 square feet, the store remains an eclectic boutique, incorporating diverse and contrasting elements, such as brick walls and a crystal chandelier along with glass and chrome and an upscale dedicated shoe-fitting area complete with ottoman. The beautiful setting helps with word of mouth (Miss Mississippi paid a visit to buy her pointe shoes there) and also creates an enticing environment for all that happens within the walls of the store.
Establishing a Year-Round Dance Hub
The partners wanted Grit & Grace to be not only a destination but also a hub. This meant going beyond providing an appealing place to purchase dancewear. The store’s location—in a historic downtown district with lots of shopping, restaurants and community events—provided diverse opportunities for participation. And the owners introduced activities and events within the store, to bring people together in fun, meaningful ways. The calendar goes year-round and includes:
Pilates mat classes—Four times annually, Carney converts the store to a Pilates studio, free to attendees, complete with the same mat that dancers use and an expert instructor.
Personal portraits—At Christmastime and Mother’s Day, Carney hosts Martin Pate, a popular Southeastern artist known for his fine work in pastels, to book for portraits, which he offers at a special rate. Grit & Grace provides the apparel (or dancers can bring their own), and Pate does three renditions. Appointments fill up within the first two hours of booking.
Summer WINEDup—Each summer visitors enjoy a local wine walk, and every store proffers a different wine. Carney also designs and sells fun shirts with a wine theme—“Our store has become known for the shirt for the Summer WINEDup.” In autumn, the drink switches to beer for Oktoberfest, and Carney offers a men’s fun beer shirt.
Street walks—Newnan’s historic downtown hosts additional regular events, like the spring and fall Art Walk and monthly Market Day, which all the businesses participate in, with entertainment, refreshments and promotions, and Grit & Grace is no exception.
We Can Make a Difference
There’s a saying Carney often employs in her marketing that serves as the philosophy of her outreach: “Together, with our grit and grace, we can make a difference.” Throughout the year she offers the following encouragement and support for dancers:
Master pointe shoe fittings—Twice a year Grit & Grace hosts a master fitter from a pointe shoe manufacturer to not only fit shoes but also serve as an educator. “Parents as well as their kids need to understand the elements of fitting a pointe shoe—why it fits the way it does, what indicates quality and the importance of proper placement.”
A free physical therapist appointment—In late summer, one of the chief physical therapists from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta comes to Grit & Grace to evaluate dancers’ feet. “This is an opportunity for a free assessment and information on injury prevention,” says Carney.
Christmas fundraiser—Grit & Grace partners on the annual Christmas Drive for the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home, providing a collection site at the store for much-needed toiletries for children. Customers are invited to make a donation: “Please bring an item or two during your next visit! Free cookies and candy await you for your kindness!” Carney also donates all the feminine hygiene products for 80 girls for a year.
Scholarship—Carney and her staff look out for one student who might have struggles, and Grit & Grace supplies that person with all dance supplies for one year, “so they can get to intensive and feel good about themselves,” she says. Dance is expensive, she acknowledges, and there’s always someone who doesn’t have what others do. “We are a community, and we need to gather around each other and help these kids. Everyone should be able to engage in the discipline of dance.” (Grit & Grace also contributes a portion of its net profits to various nonprofit organizations.)
Partnering With Local Retailers, Too
When marketing, Carney always keeps in mind a key distinction: “You have a customer, and you have a consumer. The way you reach each of them is different,” she says. The consumer is the person wearing the product. The customer, who may be a parent, is the person buying the product. “We market differently to each, and produce events differently for each—social media, e-mails and direct contact with studios,” as well as in-store promotions with giveaways and all the above-mentioned events.
In addition to traditional promotions, such as an annual sale, Carney has begun to cross-market with other retailers in downtown Newnan. She partnered with a local balloon company that made balloon tutus. “Girls take fab pictures with the tutus, and this helps the balloon business, too,” she says.
For the anniversary sale, with every purchase, Grit & Grace gave customers a voucher for a free treat at a local chocolate shop. Often the customer shops with her family in tow, so the chocolate shop benefits when the voucher is redeemed with additional purchases for the entire family.
In just three years, Grit & Grace has established a business built on quality merchandise and meaningful events that bring the Grit & Grace team and its customers together in a thriving community within a community. “These studios and the parents know we want the best for their kids and to help them in the best way we can,” says Carney. “If you don’t engage your customer and develop that relationship with them, then you’re just another dance store.” She coined the hashtag #shoptheexperience that extends to many of the Main Street Newnan events, too.
The events and programs the store hosts help Carney and her team form long-lasting and often deep relationships with the dancers and their families. She trains each member of the team to know the name of everyone who regularly visits the store. The store keeps a database of where everyone dances. “The majority start in kindergarten and stick with it, so that’s 10 to 12 years of a relationship you can foster with one consumer,” she says. “These girls spend their lives in the studio and dance clothes, and we want them to know we are a partner with them in this journey.”
Charlotte Barnard is a writer living in New York City who often reports on retail trends, design and branding.
Photography by Emmie Sellers