By  on January 31, 2007

Ask Nicole Miller franchisees about their stores and, invariably, they talk about their commitment to the "Nicole Miller experience."

But what is the Nicole Miller experience? Sure, some of it is about the merchandise — in many of the stores, a woman can leave outfitted in effortless, elegant Nicole Miller from head to toe, whether she's attending a cocktail party or her own wedding. But the clothing is not necessarily the key to shopping the brand.

"Nicole Miller clothing makes women feel beautiful and sexy, and we want them to feel that way in our stores," said Nicole Onufrychuk, the retail coordinator for the company.

As Nicole Miller rounds the corner of its 25th anniversary, it is upgrading to more desirable addresses and refreshing its portfolio. In New Jersey, for example, the company is moving from the enclosed Short Hills Mall to the open-air Livingston Town Center, where it will have a larger, stand-alone boutique, slated to open this February. In Chicago, it moved from the staid Gold Coast to the trendier Old Town neighborhood. Its West Hollywood store was recently renovated, and the company plans to renovate the Miami flagship this spring.

The company's 17 signature stores are an average eight to 10 years old and spread across the country from New York to Nashville. They contribute a significant chunk of business to the company: The nine company-owned stores brought in $13.5 million in sales in 2006, or 16.5 percent of total revenues for Nicole Miller last year. But sales aren't the sole reason for their existence. Marketing the brand and, of course, communicating the "experience" of Nicole Miller, is a big part of the retail business.

"We carry everything from the brand," said Onufrychuk. "We have furniture, jewelry, handbags, belts, lingerie, clothing, bridal — the stores are our face to the world."

The company-owned stores are located in marquee cities — two in New York, and one each in West Hollywood, Chicago, Miami, Washington and Boca Raton, Fla. — and the upscale suburbs of Birmingham, Mich., and Livingston, N.J., where a boutique will open soon.

Eight Nicole Miller franchise stores are doing their own modernizations. The franchises include two stores in Philadelphia, and one each in Atlanta; Orlando, Fla.; Nashville; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; La Jolla, Calif., and Richmond, Va. Franchisees include fans of the brand, retail veterans and those who have worked with Nicole Miller in the past."Franchise owners have the freedom to run their business how they see fit," said Onufrychuk. "They are their own independent boutique, so we treat them as we would any other."

Still, the businesses are deeply intertwined. Mary K. Dougherty, who owns the Philadelphia and Richmond stores, is also the wholesale representative for the company across the Northeast. She has worked with Miller and chief executive Bud Konheim for the life of the company.

"They respected my opinion when I was 18 years old and they respect it now," said Dougherty. "I've always admired both of them for their ability to be open-minded and give everyone a stake in the business."

Like the brand itself, the retail strategy is far from stiff or formulaic. The first Philadelphia store, for example, opened in 1993 in the then rough-around-the-edges Manayunk neighborhood. The gamble paid off: Manayunk is now a trendy area, and last year the store brought in $1 million in sales.

Given the company's flexible retail stance and the marketing position of the stores, the brand isn't afraid of cannibalizing its own sales in other channels.

"In our mall store in Boca Raton, we're right by a Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Blomingdale's that all carry our line," said Onufrychuk. "If anything, it helps grow our business if a woman walks into a Neiman Marcus and sees a dress she likes, and then comes to us and sees more that she likes."

Kathryn Mullen, who owns the Atlanta boutique with partner Edra Matthews, agreed. "We welcome the competition," she said. "It helps us grow our brand name and image if a customer recognizes us from seeing us in high-end department stores. You can't romance the product in a department store the way you can in a specialty store."

That's because the specialty stores offer more layout and design options.

Design-wise, all the stores reflect the ease of the icon and her clothing, with local twists. In Chicago, for example, the company worked with local Waechter Architects to create a decor of dark wood, high ceilings and an exposed masonry wall for an industrial feel. The Los Angeles boutique, recently renovated with local designer Studio Architecture, is flowy and airy, with gold flecks in its white floors. The Miami boutique, which will be renovated this spring, will have a similar beachy feel.The franchise stores have even more freedom with their real estate and merchandising, though they remain loyal to the brand and the Nicole Miller aesthetic.

"Each store has its own personality, but the brand is the most important," said Dougherty. "I ask myself, ‘If Nicole and Bud walked in, would they like this? Would they be happy with that?' That's always on the forefront of my mind because it's not my name on that awning, it's Nicole Miller."

In Atlanta, said Mullen, "the shopping experience here is more fun, friendly, and the clothing is more detail-oriented and flirtatious than you might find elsewhere. There's a lot of energy in our store. It's very feminine, very Southern."

The Atlanta boutique is celebrating its own anniversary, alongside the company's. After 10 years of business, the store will reopen in a new location in the fall. Though it will stay in Lenox Square, in the city's tony Buckhead neighborhood, the owners will open a new 2,500-square-foot boutique dressed in warm, rich tones and emphasizing accessories, dresses and a bridal salon. Mullen expects to hit $5 million in sales this year. Part of that success, she said, was due to Miller's personal support.

"We're very vocal about our needs, and corporate is very receptive," said Mullen. "From a design perspective, Nicole listens to our needs, which is really rare in this business. They are very supportive in helping us grow."

The company declined to say how many stores it would open going forward, though Onufrychuk said, "There are definitely new markets we are researching."

As far as its franchise operations go, the company is willing to let the business grow organically. Mullen and Matthews, for example, are exploring additional venues for the brand in the Atlanta area, particularly north of the city, and Dougherty is considering opening a store in Princeton, N.J. Other franchise owners are free to weigh their options as they see fit.

"Where and when we open stores is determined on a case-by-case basis," said Onufrychuk. "We want our stores to be independent businesses. If we get approached with a great situation and great location, we'll take it on as our own. We get approached by a lot of people who want to open stores, so we just evaluate that situation and make sure it's a good fit for us."

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