As the lingerie and fine sleepwear boutique I.C. London celebrates 20 years in Charlotte, owner Shelly Domenech, 43, remembers when she almost handed over the keys.
It was 1996. The boutique – a play on the “I see London, I see France” rhyme – was 7 and Domenech was 30. It was the only job she’d ever had.
Her parents had bought the store in 1989, when it was named “Illusions” and located in their hometown of Hendersonville, about 100 miles west of Charlotte.
Domenech, a recent college graduate and an MBA student at UNC Charlotte became the sole owner at 23, moving the store to its current location off East Boulevard in Dilworth.
She dropped out of the master’s program and signed the lease. Ten days later, her 52-year-old father died.
“I said, ‘This is one of the last things my dad did on this earth. I’m going to make it work,’ ” Domenech recalls.
But no bank would lend her money. So she got a credit card with a $4,500 limit for personal expenses and a business loan from her mother for $25,000 – money from her father’s life insurance policy.
After seven years of pinching pennies and barely turning a profit, she reached a turning point.
“All my friends out of college were traveling in Europe, buying nice cars, having children,” said Domenech, who, at the time, was single, lived in an apartment and worked six days a week.
She decided to sell the boutique. But when a business broker gave her an insultingly low appraisal, Domenech reconsidered.
“I was like ‘What? You would sell my blood, sweat and tears for that?’ ” she said. “He called me back later and I said, ‘Forget it. I changed my mind.’ ”
‘Back to the basics’: Instead of cashing out, Domenech put money into the shop. She finally secured a bank loan for about $15,000 and used the money to swap out inventory and reconfigure the store, focusing only on the top-20 best-selling brands.
She no longer wanted beautiful items customers loved to look at but didn’t buy.
She also phased out a portion of her loungewear for more lingerie – merchandise with higher turnover. People buy new bras and underwear more often than they buy a new robe, she says.
Opting for simple: Domenech also decided to freshen up the décor. She painted the walls coral, replaced the fluorescent lights with track lighting and made benches for the dressing rooms. To save money, she kept it simple – letting the merchandise be the décor. That’s one reason she started purchasing her wares by the color scheme. In fall, the colors might be berry, plum and wine. In spring, they could be coral and teal.
Domenech said she’s always surprised when she visits a new boutique and sees the expense that went into the up-fitting. “I see fancy bags and beautiful lighting, expensive mannequins,” she said. “You want people to come in and be impressed, but mannequins don’t produce the dress you could have sold.”
Stability, then expansion: Thanks to her “back to basics” decision, three years later, Domenech could spend $30,000 opening a second location in the Arboretum Shopping Center, no loan necessary. (The second location has since moved to Ballantyne Village.)
Her advice to entrepreneurs: “Know you’re going to have to reinvest for many years. Know you’re going to have to live on a tight budget.” And if you reach a breaking point, she said, view it as opportunity: “Either reinvent the business, or find a new way to look at it.”
After turning her business around, Domenech was able to pay back her mother two-fold. And Domenech’s husband and two children get to see her more often: After years of scrimping and strategizing, she now takes Saturdays off.
What has been a “Turning Point” for your business? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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