Local Motion

How Milwaukee area boutiques are flourishing in the age of Amazon.

BY JEN KENT   |   PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

It’s not quite 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning and Rodney Ugent’s email inbox is already filled with inventory inquiries from his daughter, Andrea, who oversees the family business’ e-commerce platform. Ugent and his sister, Lori Nashban, co-own Milwaukee-based A.J. Ugent Furs, and, according to Ugent, online sales account for about 10 percent of the company’s annual revenue stream — a figure that is “moving up,” he says.

Diversifying a business’ points of sale is one possible strategy for success, but others, including building strong customer relationships and supporting like-minded companies, have seen promising results from local boutiques too. Here, five Milwaukee area boutique owners divulge how their businesses are surviving — and thriving — in the age of Amazon and digital sales.

 Personalized service meets upscale style at Gigi’s of Mequon.

Beverly Berson on Providing Personalized Service

“Our main goal is not so much the sale, but the service. If you were treated well, that you would say to your friends, ‘Try Gigi’s,’” says Gigi of Mequon owner Beverly Berson, whose mother founded the business nearly 60 years ago. “We can’t sell everybody. We’d like to, but we can’t.”

The boutique sells high-end bridal wear, evening attire and daywear, and providing the full scope of services — including in-house tailoring and one-on-one attention — is key to Gigi of Mequon’s success, Berson notes. “The way we’ve fought off Amazon is that we have our own niche,” she offers. “Our niche is that we continue to give full service. … It’s personalized service. It’s somebody you can talk to. It’s not putting an item in a box and shipping it back.

I still feel the customer wants that service; they still want that experience of going out to a store.”

Berson is also keenly aware of who the Gigi of Mequon customer is — and that she values the standard of service Berson and her staff strive to provide. “It doesn’t matter what the income of a person is,” she says. “It’s what they want in terms of service and quality. … Our clientele really wants that personalized service, and that’s what we give them.”

Mike Berman on Supporting Each Other for Survival

According to Mike Berman, who co-owns Mark Berman & Son with his wife, Laurie, many wholesalers are choosing to forgo online sales in favor of supporting small businesses like themselves. “There’s always competition to a business,” says Berman. “What sets us apart is that most of my manufacturers want nothing to do with [Amazon and online retailers]. There’s a huge trend in the brands that I’m selling to not only not be on Amazon, but to not be online.

“This is how it used to be at the beginning,” Berman continues. “There’s a resurgence of, ‘Let’s be important to each other. I’m not going to sell you to the guy or the woman down the street or beat you up on price online.’ We need to support each other so we can all survive.”

The same philosophy holds true when applied to local supporting local. Berman leases a portion of his Mequon store — which stocks both menswear and womens wear, as well as suits, sport coats and custom shirts — to Allen Edmonds, an upscale men’s shoe manufacturer based in Port Washington. “[The partnership] creates great synergy,” Berman says. “Men especially like to come to one place and do two things. It’s a nice enhancement for both of our companies.”

Ever the realistic — and humble — businessman, Berman acknowledges the current state of the retail industry and the challenges it presents, but is ultimately grateful to have established a strong base of customers who continue to frequent the store. “When I went into business [more than 35 years ago], there were 40 stores just like me. I don’t have a direct competitor anymore, and that’s not great,” he notes. “... Every city will always have nice stores, restaurants and hotels, but there just aren’t many of them [in Milwaukee]. We never take anything for granted. We draw from a vast area and we’re just happy and grateful that people support us. People know that if they don’t buy here, we won’t be here anymore.”

Debbie Sladky on Building Customer Relationships

“It’s all about building relationships and having that personal contact,” says Debbie Sladky, who co-owns handcrafted jewelry and art boutique Atypic Gallery in Fox Point with her sister, Denise Leahy. “You learn other things about people, and you’re not so isolated. What might be going on in their life? They might have a mother who has cancer, or they’re picking out a gift because their niece had a baby.”

(Top) Milworks’ stock is thoughtfully curated to appeal to its targeted customer base. (Bottom) At Atypic Gallery, trying on the handcrafted wares is encouraged — and fun.

Establishing a genuine relationship with a customer strengthens the likelihood of repeat business, adds Sladky. “It’s nice when husbands and wives or mothers and daughters come in. We can give them an experience where they can see and feel the quality of the artists’ work and the craftsmanship and design. And they’re able to try things on. … It gives the other person you’re shopping with the opportunity to see what you like for, maybe, an upcoming anniversary or birthday, and say, ‘OK, I might stop back.’ There’s a whole host of things that I think you miss [if you shop online].”

Like Berman, Sladky is attuned to the fact that market competition is a sign of a healthy retail environment and says she is surprised by just how many of her counterparts have closed their doors. “Competition is always good,” she adds. “By a lot of places closing, it sent a lot of people online, which is unfortunate.”

Sladky continues to advocate for her customers and the relationships she and her sister have nurtured over the last three decades. “It’s all about the relationships you create,” she adds. “... When you’re working on a computer and it’s just you and the computer, you’re not getting any human contact. That’s what we all need.”

Jason Meyer on Knowing Your Niche

Milwaukee native Jason Meyer and his brother Jesse Meyer — co-owners of Milworks, a menswear shop in the Historic Third Ward — spent more than two decades in retail and brand strategy, visiting boutiques nationwide before delving into brick-and-mortar themselves. “When we launched our store, one of the very conscious things we did was to not try to please everybody. We focused on the niche, and we just ran with that,” explains Jason. “That’s one thing we noticed from stores around the country: The ones that were trying to please everybody were the ones that were struggling, and the ones that catered to a certain niche were the ones that were thriving.”

Honing in on the niche Jason refers to — a style that he says “skews more Americana,” and a consumer demographic ranging from ages 28 to 65 — has proven successful for Milworks. The brand itself, which includes a physical storefront, an e-commerce platform and a label designed by the Meyer brothers, recently celebrated three years in business. The pair opened their second location in Door County this summer. “We very consciously walk that fine line of classic brands and then where menswear is going — ‘a little bit ahead of the curve’ brands,” Jason says. “A perfect example is a big company called Filson that we carry. We’ll get that young professional working at one of the marketing or advertising agencies in the Third Ward and he’ll pick up the new leather Filson briefcase, an investment piece. Then his boss will see it and pick up a couple duffels to keep at his lake home in Door County.”

The Milworks man is relatively tech savvy too, notes Jason, so the store offers perks for local shoppers making online orders, like curbside pickup and two-hour delivery within a select area. “We’ve had customers buying items on their phone when they’re at the Milwaukee Public Market and then coming into the store to pick it up,” he adds.

Jason is also quick to credit Milwaukeeans and their willingness to shop local. “It’s because of the people and the consumers that stores like ours are not only able to succeed, but also able to thrive in markets like Milwaukee,” he enthuses. “Sometimes Milwaukee and its consumers get a bad rap, and honestly they shouldn’t.”

Rodney Ugent on Embracing E-Commerce

The history of A.J. Ugent Furs dates back to 1922, when the Ugent family opened its first Milwaukee area store. But it was not until about 10 years ago that co-owner Rodney Ugent decided to embrace e-commerce and sell products online — a move that was relatively ahead of its time for a small, locally owned business like Ugent’s.

“A friend of mine, a furrier from Montreal, was a frustrated furrier,” Ugent remembers. “He really didn’t like the fur business, so he got into the Internet. He came up with this idea of getting different fur stores throughout the country to have a website that he designed. The front half was your part of the website. It was geared toward your store, your people. The back half, which was the selling part, was the same [for every store]. We’d all send in furs to be photographed and then they would be featured online.”

When his friend’s commission fees skyrocketed, Ugent hired a consultant to design the company’s own website, bringing Ugent’s e-commerce operations in-house. Daughter Andrea now manages the company’s website and online inventory — a wide array of nearly 700 items, from leather jackets to fur coats. Top sellers, Ugent says, are travel-friendly raincoats, knitted mink capes, and scarves and hats branded with National Football League team logos and colors. “This year, the most popular are for the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, but also for the Philadelphia Eagles — because they won the Super Bowl.”

The majority of Ugent’s online sales are placed by people residing outside of Milwaukee, but he says the website also functions as an effective local marketing tool. “People will go online to see what I have, and then will come into the store and show me a picture [of what they liked]. … Online is a new market that we never had.” MKE

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