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Charlotte area boutiques turn to apps to build business
[January 25, 2013]

Charlotte area boutiques turn to apps to build business

Jan 25, 2013 (The Charlotte Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- For clothing boutique owners, success depends on knowing the customer.

They remember shoppers' names. They know the designers they love and the hemlines they hate.

And much as boutique shopping is about the experience of feeling fabrics and trying on clothes, Charlotte specialty shops are quickly becoming places shoppers visit through a smart phone or computer.

Most small boutiques now have Facebook pages, Twitter followings and Instagram accounts, and many update them daily, if not several times a day, with photos and updates about the newest items to hit the racks.

The most social media-savvy boutiques have hundreds, if not thousands, of followers, often doing business with scores of customers in other cities. And now, one of Charlotte's most successful boutique owners, Laura Vinroot Poole, has created an app that is taking the online relationship between customers and their favorite shops even further.

Gone are the days when independent boutiques could rely on their warm service and well-selected merchandise to put them at the front of the pack. Now, small shops are missing out on a huge chunk of potential followers if they don't tap into the social media avenues where so many consumers now go to do business, social media experts say.

"For small businesses, it makes a ton of sense because you get a big reach and it's a lot less expensive" than almost any other form of marketing, says Charles Bodkin, a professor of marketing at UNC Charlotte who studies social media. "You can get the same fierce loyalty online that you get off-line." The Nearby The great migration to the Internet, even in an industry that prides itself on personalized service, is why Laura Vinroot Poole, owner of two of Charlotte's swankiest boutiques, Capitol and Poole Shop, launched a new app for the iPhone this month aimed at helping store owners and their customers communicate with each other.

The app, called The Nearby, works like this: Shoppers create a list of participating stores they want to follow. When they launch the app on their iPhone, the stores they follow are listed in order of proximity to their current location.

The shopper picks a boutique, and up pops updates and photos from the shop, akin to postings on a Twitter feed or Facebook page. Several times a day, store staffers will post photos and information about new stock, special events, new sales, or even give behind-the-scenes dispatches from buying trips in major cities.

Customers can leave comments and chat with the store, either publicly or privately.

Boutiques can check shopper profiles to see what they clicked on and chat back and forth with customers. A feature that is expected to launch soon will allow customers to buy items right off the app.

The Nearby is free for shoppers -- about 1,000 had signed on by the middle of last week. Boutiques pay around $150 per month.

So far about 20 Charlotte-area high-end apparel and home shops were active on the app. Shops in other Southeastern cities including Raleigh, Charleston and Columbia will soon be online too, says Vinroot Poole and Travis Parsons, her app partner and longtime friend and software developer. They say they plan to focus first on cities in the Southeast, but haven't ruled out expanding. The app is not available for Windows or Android devices, but Parsons says they're looking at building software for those platforms.

Nationally, scores of apps exist for scoring high-end fashion, including popular ones like ShopStyle, Hautelook and Rue La La. However, apps that focus on independent stores in mid-sized markets like Charlotte are rare. The Nearby may be the first of its kind in Charlotte.

Marketing for local shops The Nearby was born out of conversations between Vinroot Poole and Parsons about how to pair their two passions -- fashion and social media software. (He's president of Cloud Castle Group, a software firm that builds Web and mobile applications for early stage companies.) Parsons saw the copious emails and targeted ads his wife was getting from high-end online retailers she frequented, such as Net-a-Porter and Shopbop.

There must be a way, he and Vinroot Poole mused, to better market the local high-end fashion offerings. After all, Vinroot Poole says, local shop owners like herself spend countless hours on out-of-town buying trips and curating collections for their stores to meet Charlotte tastes.

She considers shopping a highly personal experience, and says online shopping should be no different.

"It's all about the conversation and the interaction," Vinroot Poole says. "E-commerce is going to shift to less of a catalog experience and become more of a conversation." Charlotte resident Natalie Homesley says just one week after installing The Nearby on her iPhone, it had changed the way she shops at Capitol, the only Charlotte store she says she frequents. Through the app, Homesley viewed a shawl from India that she'd missed seeing on a visit to the store. She messaged the shop to hold the wrap for her and ran in earlier this week to buy it.

She also saw photos from Vinroot Poole's fall 2013 buying trip to Paris earlier this month and says she's already asked for several items in the fall collection to be held for her when they come in.

"I can go on there every day or every other day and see what's coming in," Homesley said.

Shopping online Other Charlotte-area shops are also finding success targeting shoppers who are more in the habit of clicking through shops on their smartphones or computers than browsing in person.

At Page 6 Boutique (in Rock Hill and Fort Mill, S.C.'s Baxter Village), Internet sales have eclipsed sales at its brick-and-mortar stores.

Store manager Courtney Sipes also holds the title "Social Media Manager," which is no small feat. She snaps photos of new items several times a day, often modeling them herself, and communicates with customers all day long on several platforms and through phone calls from Internet customers with questions.

"Even typing back and forth with somebody on Facebook, you get to know their personality," Sipes says. "With some customers, we feel like we know them even though we've never seen their face." Retail therapy online At the Gena Chandler boutique in Raleigh's North Hills neighborhood, owners Gena Combs and Chandler Norman pride themselves on giving customers a "Gena Chandler retail therapy experience" for their online customers as much as for visitors to their brick-and-mortar stores.

Every item that comes into the store is photographed and posted on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. The owners and staff often model the clothing and jewelry.

If an online customer is worried about how an item will fit, Gena Chandler staffers will figure out who on staff has measurements and proportions most similar to the customer, try the item on, and report back.

Combs and Chandler use social media to take their customers behind the scenes on buying trips to New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, reporting on where they ate and what they expect to buy for the coming season.

"We love using social media as a way to reach out to our customers and keep them connected," Combs said. "It gives them a way of seeing everything even when they can't be here." ___ (c)2013 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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