Byline: James L. Swanson

When asked to explain the chief reason behind the success of her hip Chicago boutique, Jolie Joli owner Gina Kulbieda does not cite her eclectic mix of fashionable merchandise, her affordable price points, her friendly staff, her cadre of loyal customers or even her personal taste. “Controlling costs — if you don’t do that, you cannot succeed as a retailer,” said Kulbieda. That business savvy has put Jolie Joli, which just celebrated its third anniversary, on the map as a “go to” destination in Chicago’s highly competitive retail market.
Kulbieda got into retailing by chance. Four years ago, when she was an account rep for a chemical company, she traveled to California on business and happened to meet Nancy McFarland, a retailer who now owns four stores — Wright’s, Baby Wright’s, Lulu’s and Beehive — all in the Manhattan Beach area. “I was bored, and I wanted passion in my life’s work,” Kulbieda said. McFarland became her friend and mentor and asked if she had ever considered opening a store. Kulbieda said yes, but confessed that she knew nothing about retail. “Nancy took me with her to New York on a buying trip in February 1997, and after that, I knew what I was going to do,” Kulbieda said.
Kulbieda’s business background helped her set a solid foundation for her store. She wrote a plan, talked to banks about loans and scouted locations. The first questions she asked Nancy McFarland were not about clothes, but about credit cards, insurance and how much rent to pay. “Today, when people say to me, ‘I really want to open a store. It must be fun shopping,’ I have to laugh,” said Kulbieda, shaking her head in disbelief. “It is, of course, partly about ‘shopping,’ which is the buying, but it is also very much about running a business. You must know your dollars and cents, or else you are not going to be here.” Housed in a classic turn-of-the-century Chicago storefront that once served as a vegetable market, Jolie Joli occupies a simple, but elegant box just under 2,000 square feet. A floor of thick Douglas fir planks and a ceiling of molded tin, both original, frame the big commercial display windows that flood the space with light.
Kulbieda updated the room by painting the walls, installing track lighting and bringing in steel racks and shelves. She also brought in a comfortable sofa, a big pier mirror, and, when she wanted a curved steel sales counter, had a friend make one rather than buy an expensive designer version.
Kulbieda cites as gospel a piece of advice from Nancy McFarland: “When you have your first store, do not spend a lot of money building it out.” The resulting layout is basic and practical. At the back of the store, behind a concealing wall, Kulbieda set up big dressing rooms to accommodate customers with baby strollers or toddlers.
“We may not be the most gorgeous store out there, but I feel that it was a very smart decision to not try to be,” she said. “We have in here what you need. We have the clothes, we have the fitting rooms, we keep the store clean and that’s enough. I don’t have a big bank loan to spend elaborate dollars on decorating.”
Kulbieda took a risk when she opened her store at 2131 North Southport, a neighborhood off the beaten path for clothing retailers, but she says that she wanted to distance herself from her competitors.
“This has turned out to be a great area,” she said. “Believe it or not, the local carwash draws a lot of people. And there is parking nearby.” And it doesn’t hurt that Jolie Joli is just off Clybourn Street, a major corridor through the city.
To keep her expenses as low as possible, Kulbieda in her early days enlisted her husband as her “accountant/janitor.”
During the first year, she worked weekdays and he worked Saturdays, even though he had a full-time job. (He continues to act as her financial adviser.) Her advice to novice retailers is concise: “Just survive the first 12 months.” For the first year, she hired no staff, except for a few occasional helpers. “I did have one employee on salary,” she recalled proudly.
All of Kulbieda’s planning did not save her from one big miscue. “I bought too much inventory when I started. The first season I got caught in that ‘people are going to be busting down my doors’ trap,” she recalled, laughing.
“I didn’t fully realize how you have to work for every customer you get. You have to earn their trust — it’s not something that comes the minute you open your doors.”
Three years later, she knows who her customers are and what they want. “They tend to be over 30, a lot of moms or professionals, and they want to look trendy but not over the top. They don’t want to look like they are trying to be Britney Spears, or their daughters.”
Kulbieda shops Paris, New York and occasionally Los Angeles. She tries to carry lines no one else has, and emphasizes that Jolie Joli is not strictly for smaller-size women. Kulbieda carries the largest size that her designers do, which she says is typically a 12 or 14.
At the moment, her favorite lines include Isabel Marant, Barbara Bui, NY Industrie, Joseph of London and Ch.Ind.
Price points on sweaters range from $300 to $400 for cashmere and $200 to $300 for other fabrics; dresses mostly from $250 to $300, but up to $700, and coats at about $500. Kulbieda is strong on pants.
“Any price point goes. If they make you look good, people will buy them. A good pair of Barbara Bui fall pants will be $300, and they are worth every penny.”
She is less sanguine about accessories. Despite several tries at several price points, the store has not been successful selling accessories. Kulbieda thinks it’s the way her customers buy. “Our customers will buy one good bag, but not many to match different outfits,” she said. “It’s not like in New York, where women hoard all different types of purses. Chicago women are more practical and want a purse to go with every outfit.”
When it comes to marketing, Kulbieda adheres to her “keep it simple” philosophy — she believes in serving customers and in word-of-mouth promotion.
“We do what anybody should do: pay attention to our customers,” she said. A couple hundred women make up her core buyers, and she has an extensive mailing list, but says that 80 percent of her business comes from 20 percent of her customers. (Kulbieda will not release sales figures.) “When I buy, I definitely have their names running through my head,” Kulbieda said. “And as soon as this merchandise comes into the store, I call them.”
One thing that Kulbieda does not rely on is advertising, having tried it without results. “We would rather plan some intimate events for good customers to show how we saw the look and envisioned putting it together,” she said.
Given the uneasy economy, Kulbieda said that she has gone into this season cautiously. “Just be careful with how you spend your dollars and you’ll be fine. There are always more clothes to be had. Reps always want you to believe that you can never get anything else, and you’ll really be in trouble if you don’t have enough clothing — but things are always available.”

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