Retail fashion responds warily as reopening comes slowly

click to enlarge Suzy Gage, owner of Echo Boutique. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Suzy Gage, owner of Echo Boutique.

By mid- to late-February, Affordable Elegance would be full of mostly teenage gals searching for the perfect prom dress. By May, the focus would be wedding dresses, according to Erika Bates, who runs the Coeur d'Alene store with her sister Emily Applegate-Fraser.

"We need our 'prom season' to survive," says Bates, who took over the store from their mother in 2009 and is a little concerned about the future.

While their business was denied federal support, they continued working one-on-one with customers who'd already placed bridal dress orders. Many were postponing or downsizing their wedding plans, yet still wanted a dress, says Bates.

Affordable Elegance also made masks, posting a photo on Facebook with a link to their Etsy shop that turned into a groundswell of inquiries about purchasing them. Surprised, Bates and the team worked until the wee hours of the morning making masks, including some for donation.

Since reopening, they've seen a modest uptick in business, such as families doing private "proms." And they're optimistic that support for local businesses will get them through.

Fewer special occasion dresses plus canceled events has Echo Boutique founder Suzy Gage rethinking whether or not they'll continue taking formalwear on consignment. Gage created the curated consignment shop in downtown Spokane in 2012.

Like Affordable Elegance, spring is a prime time for fashion for Echo Boutique.

"Our February was the best February we have ever had in eight years," says Gage, who jokingly describes the couple months they've been closed as "the longest five years" ever.

Although they were able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan, the requirements seemed to change every few days, Gage says. She hustled to bring full-time employees back and spent the time rebuilding the store website, amping up social media and figuring out e-commerce.

Their pivot involved curbside pickup for online sales, but no incoming consignments.

Now they're figuring out guidelines for retail, says Gage, who describes them as comprehensive but confusing. Their plan, in addition to all the CDC and local precautions — masking up, cleaning high-touch surfaces, having sanitizer available — is to set aside anything someone has tried on for 24 hours, then steam cleaning it before putting it back on the rack.

Ensuring customers feel safe in the store is only part of her concern, says Gage, who emptied her showroom on the advice of local officials during recent protests. She even took down their signs welcoming LGBTQ community for fear it might set someone off.

"We shouldn't have to think about things like that," Gage says.

The upside, however, has come from customers and long-time consignors, many of whom have called just to inquire how Gage and her staff are doing.

In the end, Gage says, it's about relationships, which are key to helping local businesses survive.

Her request?

"Think of us before [you] hit the Amazon button." ♦

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July 10-Aug. 28
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