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Oh là LuLu’s

Fashion lounge prospers as owners adjust to online business model.

Having your garments and accessories featured on the pages of popular fashion magazines like Cosmo, Glamour, InStyle, Seventeen and others is a dream for any online fashion boutique, and for a mother-and-daughter duo who started their store in a small city in Northern California it’s been a dream come true.

Colleen Winter, co-owner of LuLus.com, and her mother, Debra Cannon, started their boutique in 1996. Back then, the shop was a vintage “buy, sell and trade” apparel store on a small side street in Chico, CA, Winter recalls. Today, the brick-and-mortar shop has gone online, and LuLu’s.com has grown into a multi-million dollar operation, gaining notoriety around the world.

“It feels great!” Winter notes. “We have worked really hard, so it is gratifying to see the business grow.”

The early years

“Everyone wants to look great, but you don’t want to spend a $1 million to do it”

The idea for LuLu’s began in the mid-’90s. Winter and her mother wanted to go into business together to make a living for themselves and provide jobs for others in their city, where jobs can be hard to come by. At first, the two women weren’t sure what venture to pursue, but eventually they found their niche.

“We thought about a café, but I’ve always been a thrift-store shopper, so I said, ‘Let’s do it!'” Winter recalls.

“Buy, sell and trade” shops were popular in larger cities nearby, and Winter hoped their store would catch on, too. It did. Shoppers responded well to the vintage shop, which got its name from a nickname Winter picked up while studying in Spain.

Soon, new designer denim became the “it” item in fashion, and the large college crowd in Chico craved it. That inspired the women to change their inventory mix to offer new trendy women’s apparel, shoes and accessories from emerging designers. A few years later, they began selling garments under the LuLu’s brand.

The “adorable fashions” offer an array of styles for the “chameleon[s] of fashion” who shop at LuLu’s, Winter notes. She adds that the store only carries a small selection of each garment so it can continuously add new items and be a true fashion boutique.

But focusing on fashionable garments hasn’t come at a higher price for customers. “We make money on volume, not mark up,” the co-owner explains. “Everyone wants to look great, but you don’t want to spend a $1 million to do it.”

And shoppers shouldn’t have to, she adds, so rarely does the boutique carry an item that costs more than $100. Buyers appreciate this, and LuLu’s Facebook fans frequently post that they found items on LuLu’s.com for much less than at other retailers.

Walking down the e-commerce catwalk

Winter says she always knew LuLu’s would eventually be a warehouse that did business online to reach a broader, potentially international client base.

“My mom thought I was crazy,” Winter laughs. But sure enough, in 2005, LuLu’s.com launched, giving buyers around the world access to fashions the brick-and-mortar store offered. The move was nerve wracking.

“We always felt we had this adorable shop, but we were afraid it wouldn’t translate online,” she continues.

After investing in a good, sleek Web design, SEO consultants, keywords, quality customer service, good products and marketing efforts, the online store began to outperform the brick-and-mortar shop, prompting the owners to make another move: Sell the physical shop and devote the business solely to online.

“With international customers you can sell all over the place,” Winter explains. “You can maybe get 100 shoppers in a [physical] store in Chico. We can have over 100,000 people in our store, online.”

‘The weirdest thing’

“I get 600 emails a day, and I go through and respond to each of them”

Making the transition to online has been “the weirdest thing,” Winter notes—at least when it comes to explaining the move to others. People who don’t know e-commerce have misconceptions about what it means to sell online and the work it requires.

“They think, ‘You mail out three shipments a day,'” she says. LuLu’s usually ships 1,000 packages a day and someone is at the warehouse filling orders from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.

Growth wasn’t easy. In the first few years, the team put every cent made back into the business to market LuLu’s.com, draw in buyers, update the website and provide a good buyer experience. Along the way, Winter and her mother added more than 75 employees. Things are blossoming now, though work continues to be hectic.

“We work from the moment we get up until the moment we go to bed,” she says.

Cosmo and Redbook and Seventeen… oh, my

Winter adds that one employee spends her entire workday sending out product samples to publications and bloggers, “all day, every day,” to give LuLu’s name exposure.

It’s paid off. LuLu’s fashions have made it onto the pages of Glamour, Seventeen, O Magazine and many others. Seventeen was the first publication to reach out to the retailer. Its editor was a fan of LuLu’s fashions and asked for product samples. Winter was prompt to provide them.

“I always attribute a little of LuLu’s success to her,” she says.

Since then, several magazines have emailed. And every time a publication contacts the store for a story or garment, Winter is quick to respond, even going the extra mile to give the magazine what it needs. If that means driving to the airport to drop off an item to meet a tight deadline, so be it. She’s done it.

“I get 600 emails a day, and I go through and respond to each of them,” she adds.

Social media, targeted emails help growth

Social media has helped LuLu’s marketing efforts, too, and it can be helpful for any online seller by giving them a chance to get their name out there—and get it associated with well-known businesses, Winter notes. She realized that this year, when LuLu.com’s social media manager tweeted a simple question: Who is going to this year’s Fashion Week? Harper’s Bazaar responded, giving the store exposure to all of Harper’s Bazaar’s followers.

LuLu’s also uses targeted promotional emails to draw in buyers. In fact, each week the site sends out emails to hundreds of thousands of subscribers promoting discounts, specials, new arrivals, items that are back in stock and more. The “back in stock” emails are particularly popular, Winter notes.

“We always buy in small quantities,” she explains. “Some girls get irritated because they say, ‘Oh my god, I wanted this, and it sold out in a day,’ so they’re happy when it’s back.”

Reaching out to bloggers has also proven fruitful. Shoppers are greatly influenced by their peers, and reading about a brand or item on someone’s blog makes it more appealing than seeing an ad on Google, she notes. Daily Facebook contests have helped increase the site’s popularity.

“Our customers have been online for years, and they want a site that gives them everything they expect, quickly and easily”

Necessary expenses

Winter notes that getting a brand’s name out there can be time consuming and costly, but it’s necessary.

“You can have a cute site, but if no one knows about it, and you don’t make time for marketing, good luck,” she says.

One expense for the retailer this year will be hosting an event at the Open House Gallery in New York during Fashion Week. LuLu’s is inviting bloggers so they can see its latest fashions and get a free garment.

“It’s good to get our items in front of the taste makers of today,” she adds.

But before any site markets their items, the owners should make sure everything on the backend of the site is running well, Winter says. Shoppers are sophisticated and expect this.

Taking it up a notch

Winter takes her own advice. Her site is currently being updated to make it sleeker and more user friendly. When the new LuLu’s.com debuts in late February, visitors will be able to see product reviews, quick views of items, a one-page checkout and a better search experience.

“The whole site is definitely much sleeker for the modern girl,” Winter adds. “Our girls are very fast, they’ve been online for years”—and they want a site that gives them everything they expect, quickly and easily.

Despite the store’s many changes and move to online, LuLu’s still has some local customers, who shop on the site and pick up their orders at the warehouse.

“It’s not a glamorous warehouse, but everything has its place,” she notes. The company will soon expand into a building next door, adding 4,500 square feet to the operation to continue serving fashion chameleons around the world, she adds.

Visit LuLu’s.com.

About the author

Olga Munoz
Olga Munoz is editor of TheOnlineSeller.com. In addition to writing news and feature articles about e-commerce, selling trends, online marketing and other topics of interest to online sellers, Olga manages the site's social media efforts. A journalism graduate of Chico State, Olga says her favorite part of being a journalist is learning interesting facts that help put stories into perspective, attending industry events and meeting interesting people "that leave you smiling, even in tough situations." Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

  • Clee585035

    Inspiring article.  I wish i could carry LuLu items on my online store.



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