Seen & Heard: How Stores Get Ready for Back-to-School Season

Allegro Dance Boutique kicks off its back-to-dance with a sidewalk sale in July.

The busiest (and most profitable) time of year for dancewear stores is fast approaching, and late spring through early summer is a crucial period for retailers prepping for the back-to-school season. Stores start to clear out last season’s clutter, stock up and finalize staffing plans. To avoid getting stuck with any extra to-dos when the back-to-school rush actually arrives, here’s how several retailers get ready in the months, weeks and days before.

(Late) Spring Cleaning

Starting in late spring, stores will tackle cleaning, plan orders and hire, in readiness for the back-to-dance season. Employees at Dancingly Yours in Plainville, CT, “typically do a lot of deep cleaning in the slow summer season to prepare for fall,” says manager Megan Wolfe-Pelletier. Plus they stay on top of daily tasks like vacuuming and Windex-ing glass and mirrors.

Employees at Gabie’s Boutique in Newmarket, ON, routinely share daily cleaning duties. During busier times, a daily cleaning list is put in place, breaking the store up into sections; each staff member is assigned a section. That way, “the entire store is in great shape for the next day, racks are clean and everything is restocked,” says co-owner Amy Manning. Manning also hires a cleaning service that comes in every two weeks for deeper cleans. The store’s POS system is updated regularly, but the retailer pays special attention to make sure all systems are go before back-to-school selling takes off.

Allegro Dance Boutique uses a daily cleaning checklist to keep racks, shelves and displays tidy year-round at its two locations in Evanston and Barrington, IL, so that things don’t get backed up in the months leading up to the fall blitz. “We try to get any repairs or upgrades done during the months that tend to be slower, so we are ready for summer through back-to-school,” says Aly Heintz Raddatz, director of operations.

Hired and Fired (Up)

Before the rush hits, New Mexico Dancewear revs up staff training on products, dress codes and sizing.

In late spring or early summer, Dancingly Yours wraps up hiring for back-to-school, so there are a few months to train new employees before the crowds rush in. The store keeps a running to-do list, so whenever there’s some downtime, everyone knows what needs to be done, according to Wolfe-Pelletier. To keep employees motivated during the back-to-school craze, staff are treated to breakfast on Saturday mornings, and food is always available in the back room for breaks.

New Mexico Dancewear in Albuquerque, NM, sets up training quizzes and scavenger hunts weekly in June to test employees’ knowledge of such things as shoe sizing, studio uniforms, leotard and tight sizing. When busy season arrives, to keep staff motivated and their energy up, “we feed them,” says owner Loube McIver. “On the days we know are going to be [busy], we order lunch or have potlucks. We also have an employee-of-the-month and monthly breakfast meetings to get feedback [or talk about] problem areas.”

Allegro makes sure to stock its shelves with employee-requested snacks for a little pick-me-up during a busy day. “We’re also meticulous with scheduling so that no one team member gets burned out,” says Heintz Raddatz, who also has an on-call seasonal staff—former employees, some who have moved on to dance professionally or teach—in case additional help is needed.

Stocked by Summer

By July, things are in motion. When stocking back-to-school inventory, retailers usually do one larger order and keep a day-to-day, or week-by-week, log to restock inventory.

Dancingly Yours orders all bags, receipt paper, Foot Sox (for try-ons) and other supplies well before back-to-school begins, so employees don’t have to worry as customers start to flood in. Employees will also jot down in an inventory log items that are running low.

Allegro does a big order of bags, tags and labels by late July or early August and has an inventory manager who works to prevent shortages once fall hits. “If shortages do come up, we train our staff to sell what’s available,” says Heintz Raddatz. “Usually, we can find the customer a suitable replacement without sacrificing fit or violating dress codes. If a customer needs something that day, we are never beyond calling other stores to find the item for them.”

Tricks to Ease the Rush

To even out the back-to-school rush, Dancingly Yours advertises a July Shoe Swap, when customers can trade in old dance shoes for 20 percent off a new pair. “The only trick with this is that not everybody has their requirement list by that time,” says Wolfe-Pelletier, “so we also send numerous e-mails to studio owners and teachers early in summer to encourage them to get requirement lists done.”

Allegro Dance Boutique tries to offset the September rush with a sidewalk sale in early to mid-July. “Some of our customers who are very prepared come then,” says Heintz Raddatz, “but the majority come from mid-August through mid-September.”

By the end of July, back-to-school has already kicked off for New Mexico Dancewear. To lock in some orders early, it offers an Early Birds Special, July 25 through August 1, giving customers 30 percent off the purchase of leotards, shoes and tights.

Staff at Dancingly Yours set aside customers’ selections, labeled with their names, in a cubby system to speed up checkout.

August/September: Show’s On

At Gabie’s Boutique, the shopping season kicks off in August with a Back to Dance sale, where the entire store is on sale for one week. “This has helped spread out the busyness,” says Manning. “Now instead of the first two weeks of September being crazy busy, we tend to be steady busy from the middle of August through those first two weeks of September.”

Mary Ann Hanlon, owner of Mary Ann’s Dance and More in Easthampton, MA, has offered an “Early Bird” shopping coupon for the entire month of August and September to even out store traffic. This year the retailer is also doing preorder forms for the local studios with dress-code-specific leotards and shoes and will deliver items directly
to the studios in advance of September.

Once customers flood in, everything must be in order. At Dancingly Yours, whenever a fitting is completed, or a customer comes out of a dressing room, employees offer to put the items they want to buy up front in a cubby behind the register. Items are labeled with the customer’s first name and last initial, so, as one employee is cashing one customer out, their co-worker can start preparing items for the next person in line. “Having garments already folded with tags sticking out and all labels facing the same direction speeds up checkout a lot,” says Wolfe-Pelletier. The retailer also posts tips for customers that will help smooth their back-to-school shopping experience.

Last-minute dress-code changes and shoe shortages are one of the biggest challenges for Mary Ann’s Dance and More. “Reading minds should be a skill we all have,” says Hanlon. “When a shortage happens, I work to resolve it by expediting shipping or asking other retailers’ advice.” Pointe shoe fittings are all scheduled ahead of time, because Hanlon likes to take her time with each customer and educate while she fits. “I love what I do and have loved watching the dancers grow from shy littles to confident bigs over the last 10 years,” says Hanlon, “so it’s easy to stay motivated.” That’s what savvy preparation is all about—it lets you reap the rewards (financial and psychic) of this busiest time of year.

Tina Benitez-Eves, a New York City–based writer, is a regular contributor to Dance Retailer News.

Photos courtesy of the retailers

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