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Reworked business model has allowed Purple Skirt to thrive during recession

by Cathryn Creno – Nov. 5, 2010 04:24 PM

The Arizona Republic

Five years ago, at the peak of the housing boom, credit flowed freely. It was nothing for some Ahwatukee Foothills women to walk into a boutique like The Purple Skirt and pull out the plastic for a $250 dress or an $800 jacket.

Everyone knows what happened next. Credit evaporated, along with the jobs and discretionary incomes. Boutiques that focused on only high-end customers went under.

But The Purple Skirt, which recently moved to a shopping center at 40th Street and Chandler Boulevard anchored by both a Safeway and a Trader Joe’s, has survived – even thrived – in the downturn.

“We’re still here because we are not high end the way we used to be,” owner Heather Cisek said. “You can still come in and spend $250 on a dress for a special occasion. We’ll have Nicole Miller for the holidays. But people can also come in and spend $29 on a top.”

She also is carrying $50 boots that closely resemble footwear that retails in the four figures at ultra-high-end boutiques and department stores.

Cisek has lived in Ahwatukee since she was a child and has a sharp eye for what women in the village and similar parts of the Southeast Valley like to wear.

“It doesn’t matter what people are wearing in New York,” she said. “It’s about their personal style.”

Cisek’s new store at the Plaza at Mountainside is 1,600 square feet, 300 square feet larger than her previous location a few miles east on Chandler Boulevard. Her new location also has lower rent and is more visible from the street.

Customers knocked on the door to buy things before she had finished moving in Oct. 18, Cisek said. She said she is busier now than she was before the move, even before a grand opening.

Retail vacancies in Ahwatukee were higher in the third quarter of 2010 than they were a year ago. But Plaza at Mountainside has managed to attract a lineup of new independently-owned stores, including The Purple Skirt, said Daniel Lupien, regional senior director of real estate for Kimco Realty Corp., who expects to keep the parking lot full.

Lupien anticipates pre-holiday openings for Los Dos Molinos, a local Mexican restaurant chain known for extreme spices; Another Bead Please, which already has a popular Tempe shop; an upscale deli; optometry; and wine and cheese store.

“We have six tenants under construction,” he said. “Not only is the center busy but it is busy with the right kind of traffic. We only sign qualified tenants. One of the mistakes some centers make is to sign undercapitalized tenants who don’t have enough money to make it through the first few years.”

One reason the center has been able to draw such a unique lineup of stores is that it has the only Trader Joe’s in the immediate area, Lupien said.

“The average Trader Joe’s draws shoppers from 10 to 15 miles away,” Lupien explained. “That is how far apart they space their stores.”

Cisek, who said she was urged to move to Plaza at Mountainside by the owners of Pomegranate, a vegetarian restaurant at the center, plans to experiment with staying open on Sundays to take advantage of the center’s high weekend traffic.

Cisek is the second owner of The Purple Skirt. She bought the boutique in 2007 and found herself having to rework the stores previously high-end business model.

She closed a related men’s store, Boulevard 48, next door, found less-expensive vendors, cut prices and laid off staff she could no longer afford. A new vendor that supplies her store now is Desigual, a Spanish company that creates inexpensive fashion.

“Now we have to work three times as hard for half the sales,” said Cisek, who has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Arizona State University and an MBA from the University of Phoenix.

Cisek said her store has continued to draw shoppers from as far away as Scottsdale and Casa Grande despite the downturn. She believes one reason is the personalized service she provides. She’s been known to visit some clients’ homes to better work with what they have in their closets.

“Someone can bring me in a piece from a few years ago and I will find a way to bring it up to date with accessories,” she said.