Women court retail success by making a difference

Female-run small businesses give back to the community and cultivate customer loyalty to compete against chain-store giants

Jacqueline Tupper, a third-generation owner of Lord’s Shoes on Granville Street, says her store offers a personal touch that she believes will help her compete against big chains | © Dominic Schaefer

Nordstrom (Nasdaq:JWN) is gearing up to open its doors in downtown Vancouver next September, and, when it does, Sharon Hayles will be ready. 

Hayles is the owner of Diane’s Lingerie, an upscale undergarment shop on south Granville Street. The small business has been operating for more than 30 years, but Hayles bought it two years ago, following a lengthy career as a retail consultant.

A year after the sale was completed, Victoria’s Secret opened its megastore store on Burrard and Robson streets, selling mass-produced bras and underwear at lowball prices.

It was hardly the first big-name foreign brand to put pressure on smaller, independent players in the market. With the pending arrival of Nordstrom, it’s certain it won’t be the last.

But Hayles is determined to push right back.

The competition may have deep pockets, but Hayles believes small, female-run businesses have much more to offer a community than what’s stocked on the shelves.

“It’s about women wanting to give back a little bit, and not just about money. Making a difference is very important,” she said.

In British Columbia there are over 350,000 small businesses, and they are the biggest job creators in the economy. Female entrepreneurs fuel a big part of that engine; almost 36% of small businesses in B.C. are owned and operated by women, the second-highest proportion in Canada, according to provincial data.

For many women, small business is an attractive career option offering professional challenge and greater control over time and work schedule – a necessity to those trying to balance work and family.

There’s also the potential to combine small business projects with personal interests that embrace a broader social purpose.

It was that latter opportunity that inspired Lara Kozan and Tori Holmes. Earlier this year, the pair launched Nectar Juicery, an organic and cold-pressed juice company based in Vancouver, by combining their entrepreneurial experience (Kozan co-founded YYoga while Holmes has worked with several successful startups) and interest in holistic health.

They see it as a distinct and much-needed alternative to the beverage giants that dominate the commercial landscape – the Jugo Juices, Starbucks (Nasdaq:SBUX) and Tim Hortons (TSX:THI).

Holmes, who is also a holistic nutritionist and public speaker, said the business makes sense from a personal health perspective and is firmly in line with her own values.

That was key to her decision to launch the company, and she believes many other women feel the same way.

“I wouldn’t want to say that men are not mission-based, but most women I know are,” Holmes said. “When people feel better, there is room for change.”

For Jacqueline Tupper, a third-generation owner of Lord’s Shoes on Granville Street, the small business has allowed her to carry on her family’s 85-year-old retail legacy and at the same time share in the traditions of loyal clients. Her mother, Carole Noland, runs the original family store in Edmonton, which was opened by her grandparents in the 1930s.

Tupper said the store offers a personal touch that she believes will be enough to help her compete against big chains, such as Nordstrom, that tap that same medium-to-high-income market.

“I’ve been invited to some of my customers’ weddings, or they bring in photos of their shoes taken at their events,” said Tupper. “Brides tell us, ‘This is where my grandmother got her shoes for her wedding, and my mother got her shoes, and now I am here.”

Hayles also puts faith in the power of customer loyalty to keep her brand afloat. But she also understands the need for reinvention in retail as a means of survival.

“The only constant in retail is change, and you have got to be on top of it,” she said.

In February, she relaunched Diane’s Lingerie with a bold new campaign that, while keeping the old name, underscores its connection to modern women. At the launch party, she and some of her clients had their bodies painted and pressed onto canvas. The colourful abstracts, with a distinct feminine impression, were later sold in the Bau-Xi Gallery, with the proceeds in aid of breast cancer research.

“We like helping women find the perfect fit, and it doesn’t matter the size or shape. We came up with ‘Everybody is different. We fit them all,’” Hayles said of the store’s new mission.

Hayles feels she is not just an entrepreneur. She genuinely enjoys what she is doing and feels it is a service to women.

“It’s one of the reasons I bought this business – to empower and encourage women with their self-esteem, be the best that we can be. It’s very gratifying.”