Laura Vinroot-Poole’s Capitol, Poole Shop and Tabor men’s store are Southern to the core, with attentive service that the stores’ longtime customers in Charlotte, N.C., have come to expect.
Poole didn’t know if Capitol’s service ethos – the store sells designers such as Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Lanvin, Valentino and Balenciaga – could be translated to e-commerce and worried that as a small retailer she didn’t have the financial wherewithal to launch a web site. She gave e-commerce a try in 2010, but quickly shut it down because she felt it didn’t reflect the personality of the store.
Three years ago, Vinroot-Poole found herself with a surfeit of luxury product that wasn’t moving. She decided to create a specialized boutique shopping app, which she called House Account. Word of the app spread organically, and within a year, Poole had 350 specialty stores signed up.
The store count is now up to 450 and growing, with retailers such as Fred Segal, Mecox Gardens, ByGeorge, Tootsies and Angelique, to name a few. “We vet them,” Vinroot-Poole said of the shops. “They’re great stores from around the country.”
Vinroot-Poole calls House Account a form of relationship commerce because it allows sales associates to extend the in-store experience with customers anywhere and any time.
Since shoppers usually can’t visit a physical store every day, House Account “enables you to keep your shop in the hearts of your customers with constant, enjoyable content-based engagement,” she said.
Each boutique is responsible for building its own brand, from photographing products to fulfillment. Sales associates can help shoppers with real-time messaging and share photos to help close the sale.
“We’re enabling stores to build their databases,” Vinroot-Poole said.
“It’s designed for existing customers who want to talk to their sales person,” she said. “You can text your sales person through the app. E-commerce left my customers cold.”
Consumers select from a list of boutiques to follow through an Instagramlike feed. Searches can be done by designer and product category. When a shopper makes a purchase she can arrange to pick it up in the store or have it delivered.
A new updated version of House Account recently launched in the iTunes shop. Vinroot-Poole said the app has attracted 50,000 members.
“Nobody helps specialty stores,” Vinroot-Poole said. “We’re all competing with department stores.”
The new app features houseacct.com, with a suite of tools for House Account’s existing network of shop owners, along with the benefits of a Web site developer and a mobile developer. “We built in to House Account a marketing calendar, e-mail campaigns and sales and marketing tools,” Vinroot-Poole said. “There are good analytics, Mail Chimp and CRM. You can get detailed insights into consumer behavior.”
Participating boutiques pay a flat fee of $100 a month. House Account doesn’t take commissions.
“The more I studied it, I realized it’s pretty impossible for a specialty store to have a strong e-commerce business,” Vinroot-Poole said. “The best thing for everybody is to band together.
Vinroot-Poole’s advice to specialty stores is to experiment with e-commerce and m-commerce. “You really should be doing a lot of different things,” she said. “[Different platforms] bring totally different clients. You have to be doing everything if you’re going to compete.”