Saturday, June 16, 2018

Shirley's Kloset not so secret any more

Three years into taking a gamble on opening her own boutique in Kilcullen, Shirley Kavanagh-Hallion can look back with a great deal of satisfaction at the results, writes Brian Byrne.

Her Secret Kloset business on Hillcrest has built up a regular clientele from far beyond Kilcullen, drawn by the selection of clothing based on Shirley's knowledge gained from almost three decades in the clothing trade ... at retail, wholesale, production and buying.

"It has really been brilliant," she says. "I get great support from Kilcullen itself, but I have regulars coming from Dublin, Naas, Newbridge, Athy and Carlow. And they can bring people from further afield ... I had three ladies in from Dungarvan on their way to Punchestown, and that was on a recommendation of a friend of theirs in Kilkenny, who is a good customer."

It's all about relationships, which are key in the ladies boutique business. "It's very personal. Part of my job is to be there for women, to help them feel good. I try to make people feel special when they come in, and I firmly believe that no matter what level of retail you're in, you have to know your stock, and you have to know what your customer wants."

That's why Shirley's clothing racks have changed somewhat since she first opened. Initially, because she had a lot of contacts in the clothing trade, she was able to acquire good value end of lines in the good labels. "I was really an outlet, like you'd find in Kildare Village. But as time went on I developed a regular customer base, and found that someone would come in and like something, but I couldn't supply in their size because it was an end of line."

So she shifted gears and began to operate more like a normal boutique, ordering seasonally in advance. With a clientele already built up, this allowed her both to offer a more comprehensive range, and also consider individuals when ordering. "This can typically be eight months in advance of delivery, but I now have regulars who are specifically in my mind when I'm ordering, and I can let them know in advance that I have something particular coming next season that they will look good in."

The Secret Kloset range now comprises around right labels, most of which are Irish. "Which is very important to me. And it's nice too, though really not deliberate, that most of them are owned by women."

Shirley uses Facebook to feature pieces she has has in stock at any given time, but she doesn't do online retail. "My range is aimed at the 30+ buyer, and thankfully they don't do online in clothes. They want to come in and look, feel, try things on. Again, it's personal."

From her own personal point of view, the experience has also been good. "It has been brilliant, really. I've built up my self-confidence. I'd never before expected that I'd be doing something like this, and succeeding with it. I have also become a bit more savvy as a businesswoman, and I still learn something new every day."

Learning which can be from bad as well as good. "Maybe I might have been a bit naive about a decision, but I learn from that, and I know now how to turn a negative into a positive."

The experience has also allowed her spend more time with her children. "It's not that I don't bring work home with me, you can't avoid that when you're running a small business, but I can work things around them."

Though her location on Hillcrest isn't in the heavy-footfall part of Kilcullen, the personal touch from Shirley and from Anamaria Hovenden who works with her draws in clientele, and brings them back.

"It is also a good location for parking, which is very important for a boutique business where there's a significant level of impulse business from someone driving by and noticing something in the window. I know myself from shopping in other towns how difficult parking can make things harder."

Realistically, three years is a short time to establish any business, but Shirley has apparently managed to do so. It is good for her, for her customers ... and for Kilcullen, because every individual shop that draws in customers from outside can only help other retail businesses in a small town. It's no accident that Shirley won Business Woman of the Year in the Emerging New Business category of the Kildare Branch of Network Ireland’s Women in Business Awards in 2016.

Secret Kloset is a lesson for many small businesses in small towns. Know your business, know your stock, know your customers. Oh, yes ... and enjoy what you're doing.

NOTE: This article was previously published in The Kildare Nationalist and in The Bridge Magazine.

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