September 25, 2011 12:49:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- When Erin Ray was a student at Mississippi State University in the early 2000s, she couldn't wait to buy the latest seasonal fashions -- in another town.
She enjoyed local boutiques like the Sundial, but Starkville's otherwise limited market for women's clothing and accessories often sent her -- and her money -- to Tupelo and Tuscaloosa, Ala., where selection was greater.
Ray liked the brands she found in other towns and the uniqueness of each boutique she went to. Inspired by the need for more choices in Starkville, she tinkered with the idea of opening her own boutique.
She always thought she'd move away, build significant capital and move back when she was older to live out her dream.
Now in her late 20s, Ray owns her own downtown boutique, Harmonie, and is part of a boom of boutiques in Starkville's burgeoning small business market.
Since the summer, six different boutiques have opened up shop; two of which, Harmonie and Bath Bayou, have opened for business in the past month.
According to visit.starkville.org, Starkville has 16 individually owned boutiques, many of which have opened in the past two to three years.
For a town that was once starving for places for women to shop, women now have to find a reason to shop out of town.
"I think it has a lot to do with the success of others," Ray said. "There seems to be a resurgence of local business in this area. A lot of towns are trying to do that, and not do malls and chains. Starkville is doing it the right way -- working with people to grow local business."
The Starkville Main Street Association, through the recommendations of the Mississippi Main Street Association, has placed an emphasis on revitalizing downtown Starkville, from Russell Street to Main Street.
Increased marketing efforts, which have coincided with booming enrollment at MSU, have been aimed at changing the perception, and in some ways the reality, of Starkville.
"It's a different place than it was five years ago" Starkville Main Street Manager Jennifer Gregory said. "People used to have the perception that there was nothing to do here. Prospective business owners are now looking at Starkville as a happening place. There are more and more tourists to the community than ever before."
Starkville Main Street and the Starkville Convention and Visitor's Bureau promotes local retailers by including them in event planning, like Friday night's Downtown Block Party on Main Street. Downtown retailers remained open, some as much as four hours past closing time, to take advantage of the 3,000 potential customers on the strip.
Despite being in competition with established boutiques like R. Tabb & Co. and Libby Story, new boutique owners have found success by creating their own niche.
Finding unique clothes and accessories that others don't have is the quickest way to get people in the door; it also ensures other owners can never say another boutique bit their style.
"One of the other boutique owners is one of our greatest customers," Deep South Pout co-owner Nicole Oswalt said. "We've got great relationships with each other."
Deep South Pout started as a small booth specializing in jewelry and scarves inside Savvy Spaces in Columbus. In less than a year, the business has relocated to Starkville and even expanded into a neighboring suite.
Deep South Pout's mission is to showcase Mississippi artists who create unique accessories and gifts and provide affordable fashion. The boutique also has a charity initiative, donating 2 percent of its sales to African charity Restoration Hope. This week, Deep South Pout has participated in a canned food drive where customers can get 15 percent off their purchase.
Harmonie has a charity initiative, too, featuring beaded jewelry made from recycled paper from Ember Arts and Village of Hope, both Ugandan not-for-profit agencies that help women save money for college and keep kids out of military camps.
"There's not a lot of that around," Ray said. "And they've actually sold better than I thought they would. People seem to be interested, in fact there's a mission.
"It's a lot like (philanthropic shoe company) TOMS, which has taken off with a similar mission. At first, I wasn't crazy about the shoes until I fell in love with the story."
Bath Bayou takes creativity to a different level, offering clothing, accessories and all-natural bath and body products. Bath Bayou also hosts bridal and baby showers, where customers can create their own soaps and lotions.
Bath Bayou manager Venesha Williams wanted to give Starkville residents a Bath and Body Works-type store, but also make it interactive. Within a month of approaching investors with the idea, she had a store open in the College Park Shopping Center.
"Their whole idea was to get it open as soon as possible," Williams said, "because you're never the only one with a great idea. I wanted to be the first to bring that type of store to Starkville."
While small businesses have bared the brunt of economic recession and an unstable economy, the market for women's clothing and accessories has welcomed the new boutique owners with open arms.
Business at Deep South Pout has been so positive that the owners have expanded after just three months of operation and surpassed initial sales expectations.
To keep expenses low, Deep South Pout owners decorated their store with inexpensive vintage items and did most of the renovation work themselves.
The same went for Williams at Bath Bayou, who found a rental space that already has painted walls and that didn't need much renovation. Williams found tables and stands from places like Dirt Cheap to go inside her store.
"Opening a business is a always a risk," Williams said, "but there are always ways to save money."
Williams, Ray and Oswalt have managed a retail operation before. Williams also owns a photography business. But the boutique market is new for all three women, who look to cash in on the steady growth of the university.
Continued success will depend on each owner's ability to deliver unique items. However, competition doesn't seem to bother those breaking into the Starkville market.
"The more boutiques you get, the more people are going stay in Starkville to shop," Oswalt. "They're not going to Tupelo or Birmingham. It creates more business. Let's say I'm the only boutique, people aren't going to stay because there's one."
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