By  on April 4, 1994

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Trish Zetterberg is tough. She's tough on her employees, she's tough on her manufacturers and she's tough on herself.

As owner of Summerville Rags, an 1,800-square-foot Augusta, Ga., specialty apparel store, Zetterberg says she has to be. "Augusta is probably the most competitive market in the Southeast. There are 14 stores here after the same customers," she says.

Her freestanding shop, in a historic area known as Summerville, is definitely a destination store and she says she picked it purposely. The store is on a corner of a four-way intersection. "The light is a minute and a half," explains Zettterberg. "That gives them plenty of time to get up the desire to buy something." The fact that she fills her windows with plenty of merchandise doesn't hurt either.

Last year, sales topped $500,000 and she is projecting $750,000 for 1994. "Inventory control, paying bills on time and great customer service -- those are the keys to this business," she says.

What the seven-year-old store doesn't focus on is decor. There's no fancy lighting, mirrors or decorations. Instead the store is packed with clothes, on racks, on shelves, and on mannequins while accessories cover countertops, hang over railings and fill glass cases.

"I like to think of it as something like a grandmother's attic," says Zetterberg. "Women aren't intimidated. They'll come in their sweats after dropping their kids at school, or they'll stop by on their way home from a workout."

She says women will even come in with outfits they already own just to have them accessorized or updated. "There are a lot of places they would be too embarrassed to do that."

The store's specialty is sportswear, from weekend wear to career. The bestselling line is Joan Vass, with annual volume of over $150,000. Zetterberg also carries Balinger Gold, YL, Pezzetti Silk, Hairston Roberson, Misty Lane and Gispa, among others.

Accessories are also a key part of her business. She focuses on scarves, belts and earrings. "I always have over 1,000 of each in stock," Zetterberg says. "Even if they don't find an outfit here, they'll come to buy accessories."The way she sells, it would be hard not to buy. Her system starts the minute a customer walks in the door. "What are you looking for?" "What colors does you like?" "What occasion is it for?" are the questions Zetterberg tosses at her customer. She then creates outfits in a flash, pulling a skirt from here, a jacket from there, adding accessories and talking to the customer all the while.

While the experience can be a bit overwhelming, Zetterberg says service is what brings the customers in. "Otherwise they could go to T.J. Maxx or Burlington Coat Factory and find something similar for less."

Her staff, which consists of five part-time employees, is trained to work the same way, asking questions and creating outfits. Zetterberg's idea is to give the customer lots of choices and then stand back and let her pick what works for her. "You can't just have racks of clothes in your store and smile and be polite anymore. You've got to get them to touch, feel and try on for size, then they're going to buy."

Zetterberg said her average ticket sale is $270. She said she's had steady growth each year, admitting the past year was tough. "It's been twice as hard to do the same amount of business."

Zetterberg fights the competition of discounters by informing her manufacturers that if they sell to the ones in her area, she will drop the account and send back all the clothes. To this end, she shops discounters each week.

Her other defense tactic includes monthly special events. Last month she had a trunk show of silver jewelry with Medallias by Foree Hunsicker, Simply Silver and Brenda Schoenfeld and doubled her jewelry sales for the day. Her next event is a seminar by a psychologist who will discuss how women can build self-esteem.

"I'm not looking for a one-time sale. I'm working on gaining committed customers. I want my customers to feel like they're family," says Zetterberg, who will come in early or stay open late for them. In fact, after many requests, she's making Wednesdays her late night. It seems customers form the one group she isn't tough on.

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