Beyond Leotards and Tights

Competitor’s Closet sells gymnastics, cheer and figure skating apparel, as well as dancewear. Clear (and clever) signage identifies category groupings—Gymnast Ave, Skater Ave (below)—and helps customers navigate easily to what they’re looking for.

In her 21 years as owner of Competitor’s Closet in Warwick, RI, Dianne Stein has offered her customers nearly everything you can imagine, including a few years of selling fresh bouquets and candy flowers arranged in pointe shoes. And she says she has the battle scars to show for her excursions into new categories. She currently does well with gymnastics, figure skating and cheerleading. She’s tried—and dropped—yoga, swimwear, the aforementioned flowers and a badly timed venture into Irish step shoes, just as post-9/11 cargo slowdowns happened.

Gilbert Russell, with 31 years of experience as owner and founder of two Brio Bodywear stores in Ottawa, says that he, too, has learned some hard lessons in building successful swimwear and bra businesses on top of his dancewear sales. “As retailers, we’re constantly tempted by stuff that doesn’t fit—Crocs or Beanie Babies,” says Russell, mentioning two lines sales reps pitched to him in the past. “If you do that, your brand gets diluted to your detriment.”

If, like these owners, you are feeling tempted to add new nondance lines to your store, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, cautions Russell. “Ask yourself if you’ve really done everything you can to max out on dance—that you’ve squeezed out every last dollar,” he says. “Don’t look for new lines as a Hail Mary when dance sales are stuck.”

Stein, Russell and Danielle Hernandez, owner of On 1 Dancewear in Englewood, NJ, share the following sound reasons for expansion:

  • Your customers repeatedly ask for a product you don’t carry.
  • You’ve done your research and are comfortable with the new category. You
    know the leading suppliers, and you’re confident about which trends will resonate with your customers.
  • You have enough floor space to merchandise new categories without undermining your dance sales.
  • You have the resources—both in capital and personnel—to stock and manage new inventory, promote your new offerings and continue to deliver quality customer service.

Rewards of Diversifying

One of the primary benefits of adding nondance items is that it can even out cash flow during the year and make you less dependent on dancewear’s limited hot months of recital, dance camp and back-to-school sales. It can also bring in new customers who haven’t previously shopped with you, although your initial sales are likely to come from your existing customer base—or their relatives.

That was the case with On 1 Dancewear, which carries dance, figure skating and gymnastics wear, as well as gifts. Hernandez estimates that 23 percent of her revenue is now generated from outside traditional dance apparel sales. She creates gift baskets that include jewelry and other dance-themed accessories to appeal to dance parents and grandparents. In addition to selling them via pop-up shops at recital time, “we do really well with gifts and accessories from early November on. We get a little Valentine’s Day rush, too,” she says.

Russell, who added a selection of bras to Brio Bodywear’s dance- and swimwear offerings 12 years ago, says that about half his revenue is from dancewear, with another 30 percent coming from swimwear and 20 percent from bras. But his customers and customer buying patterns differ depending on the category. “In a rainy year, we sell less swimwear,” he says. “And bra sales are more easily affected by people’s feelings about the economy. To the credit of our dance parents, they’ll buy another leotard regardless of the economy.”

Look Before Leaping

Katie Luttmann, a Sioux Falls, SD, retail consultant who works with specialty boutique owners, says that she often sees small retailers add new lines on a whim—and that’s ill-advised. “‘Do your research’ is my number-one piece of advice,” she says, talking to vendors and customers. Russell says he “skulked around trade shows a year before I placed a [nondance] order. You really don’t know how little you know about these other businesses.”

Be careful, too, suggests Luttmann, about putting too much faith in customer input. “With social media, the customer is now much more interactive: They’ll give you their opinion about what they like, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to follow through and spend their dollars.”

Bras have their own home at Brio Bodywear—on the mezzanine up from dancewear and swimwear.

Both Russell and Stein emphasize the importance of keeping your enthusiasm in check and ordering inventory carefully and judiciously. “Start with a few items,” says Russell. “It’s easy to get backed up with inventory. Take a slow, curated approach. The idea of a small collection beautifully displayed has value now.” Russell rearranges the floor seasonally, with swimwear and dance swapping places at times, while bras remain in the store’s mezzanine.

Like Russell, Stein gets about half her revenue from dancewear, with figure skating contributing 25 percent and gymnastics 20 percent. The remaining 5 percent is cheerleading, a category that has shrunk dramatically for her, due to online competition.

She notes that there are only a handful of suppliers that produce lines in all her categories, so there are fewer efficiencies than you might think possible in ordering. Canadian manufacturer Mondor produces dance, gymnastics and skating apparel, while Brazil’s Só Dança offers dance and gymnastics. U.S.-based Motionwear supplies dance, gymnastics and cheer.

“I like to have a lot of options in the store,” says Stein, noting she buys from a wide range of specialty manufacturers, such as GK for gymnastics and ChloeNoel for skating apparel. “I want to carry low- and high-end; glitzy and nonglitzy.” She recently did a culling of her vendors and has cut her nondance suppliers to six, while adding ballroom, a category that allows her to continue buying from traditional dance vendors. She says Motionwear is her best multicategory supplier, but she also stocks Body Wrappers/Angelo Luzio, Capezio and Mondor.

Displays and Social Media

For her two window displays, Stein uses color as the unifying theme and mixes categories, showing skate, cheer and dance together. However, “if it’s recital season,” she says, “it might be all dance.” Inside the store, she keeps categories separated and marked clearly with bold signs such as “Skater Ave,” a practice she follows on her website, as well. “Every space in the store is its own section,” she says. She has a single Facebook page that focuses on current events, such as sales, contests and customer photos, and uses a single e-mail list to notify customers of quarterly sales.

The Inventory’s Just the Beginning

In the end, retail success hinges more on customer service than inventory. “A visit to your store needs to be an experience,” says Luttmann. “Conversational commerce is what brings people back.”

Hernandez, Russell and Stein strongly concur. “You need to train your staff within an inch of their lives,” Russell says. “If you do that, you will do well. Even Nordstrom doesn’t meet our level of customer service.” Russell says that Brio’s segue into bras came fairly naturally out of selling swimwear that was sized by bra cup. Still, his sales staff needed to familiarize themselves with new suppliers and how each individual line fit. Interestingly, Russell says that F and G cup–sized bras are the store’s best-sellers, noting that Brio’s bra customers and its dance customers are generally not the same people.

“I kill myself on the customer-service end of things,” says Hernandez; she carries tights in every possible skin color as well as a range of plus-size wear. “I will text customers at all hours if something they want comes in. I just don’t want someone to walk out of the store without what they need.”

Anne M. Russell is a Los Angeles–based writer who covers small business, fitness and technology.

 

Photos: (2) by Allison Forte, courtesy of Competitor’s Closet; courtesy of Brio Bodywear

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