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#SupportSeattleSmallBiz Spotlight: Facing New Challenges, A West Seattle Boutique Transforms Its Business Model

Linda Sabee opened her boutique, Carmilia’s, on a “wild hare” impulse after moving to West Seattle and attending the street fair in July 2002. She explains that she saw lots of women, like herself, at the fair with strollers and young kids and saw an opportunity for more retail for women in the West Seattle Junction.

As a former kindergarten teacher, she had no experience in business, but was guided by a clear vision and simply believed she could do it. By November 2002, Linda had launched her shop on California Avenue selling women’s clothing, local jewelry, and apothecary items.

The West Seattle Junction storefront | Image courtesy of Linda Sabee

Linda focused on developing relationships with customers as a key marketing strategy; 100 percent of her business came from people who visited the retail space. Linda says she loved that model and it fit her personality. She cultivated friendships with customers outside work and built a local following, not only in West Seattle, but across our region.

As Linda grew her business, she also immersed herself in the life of the West Seattle community and beyond, spearheading school auctions and starting Northwest Hope and Healing’s fashion show fundraiser to benefit breast cancer patients.

Linda had virtually no experience with online retailing before March 16, when she temporarily closed her store following the Governor’s initial COVID-19 “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. A self-reported “computer illiterate,” Linda had a rudimentary website, but laughs that in the years prior to the pandemic, she had sold a “total of three dresses” online. Everything changed “practically overnight,” she says, as she’s had to rapidly modify her marketing strategy and business model.

Immediately after the store closed, Linda was forced to lay off her two employees and is now a “one person show,” working long hours each day without compensation. With some support from a web designer, Linda updated and reorganized her website, procured photos of her merchandise from vendors, posted images online, and figured out how to deliver orders. Now, in a dramatic reversal that still astounds her when she thinks about it, 100 percent of her business is conducted via the website, her Facebook page, and Instagram.

Linda posts photos of friends wearing the merchandise (L) and vendor-provided photos | Images from Carmilia’s website

Linda says that the transition has been extremely challenging, but she’s adapting. Though she shed “quite a few tears” over glitches in her website and the sheer volume of work to transition her store to an online platform, she remains determined. “I’m pretty nimble businesswise and want to do whatever I can to keep it going,” Linda explains. She’s selling face coverings in addition to her usual spring clothing, and is finding ways to enjoy her new tasks, including writing pithy, pandemic-apropos copy for merchandise late into the night. For example:

Comfort meets cool in these cotton twill cargo pants. They run big and are plenty roomy, which is key these days, am I right? I’d say order down a size, but if you’ve been snacking like the rest of us, order your true size and you’ll be a happy Corona camper.”

Linda Sabee, creative website copy

Linda preserves the “personal touch” aspect of her small business by delivering the local online orders herself. She sets her little blue bags on people’s porches and loves to watch their reactions – from a safe social distance – when they open their doors. Describing a delivery to a Kent customer, she recalls, “I drove down, put the bag on her porch, and sent her a text message. She came out and was so excited!” She explains that such moments of human connection keep her going through these tough times.

Some of Linda’s personally delivered bags | Photos and collage by Linda Sabee

Linda’s working seven days a week fulfilling orders that come in through her website, Instagram, and Facebook. She’s also managing inventory, delivering packages, inputting information about new spring and summer merchandise that continues to arrive, and continuously updating and improving the social media sites. Last weekend, she processed 22 orders and on Monday, delivered 18 of them herself (a friend delivered two, and her husband mailed two of them).

Despite the long days, Linda says it’s worth it.

Like other business owners in her neighborhood, Linda worries about the twin impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the West Seattle Bridge closure. For now, she’s been able to work around the bridge closure given the lack of traffic, but she knows that won’t last. She’s unclear about what the long-term effects will be and is taking a “wait-and-see” approach.

West Seattle Bridge, April 2020 | Photo by Chung Kwan on SDOT Flickr

The West Seattle Junction Association (WSJA) has been tremendously supportive of its members as they have coped with these unexpected challenges, according to Linda and other business owners in the area.

Among other proactive steps, WSJA has established and is hosting a fundraising campaign to help cover essential monthly expenses like utility bills and payroll taxes for merchants and service providers. Lora Radford, the director, has kept WSJA members informed of federal loan options and other relief funds and grants available to small businesses.

Moreover, the evening of May 7, WSJA hosted an online shopping spree event featuring six West Seattle businesses, including Carmilia’s. Each business was afforded half an hour to host a live-streamed presentation of its merchandise and shopping ideas for Mother’s Day (and beyond). Linda, accompanied by a friend who modeled different outfits sequentially, walked viewers through clothing, jewelry, body lotion, and perfumes available for online purchase.

The WSJA promoted the event and offered participant shoppers the opportunity to win a $150 gift certificate for each merchant. While preparing her store for the event took substantial planning, Linda appreciated the WSJA’s support and innovative commitment to helping businesses, and reports that she made 12 sales from the party!

Amidst uncertainty about the economy and the future for microbusinesses like hers, Linda strives to maintain an optimistic spirit. She notes that despite the stress of converting her business to an online model, it’s been a profoundly interesting learning experience and “growth opportunity.” Every day brings new projects and creative opportunities to try novel marketing strategies.

Asked about the long-term effects of the pandemic and the West Seattle Bridge closure, Linda avows that she’s a persistent “survivor” who will remain flexible and adaptive.

“My friends say I’m a Pollyanna,” she says, “but it [the bridge closure] could actually be good for us once we can reopen. Nobody will want to leave West Seattle. If 80-90% of our customer base here is unable to go downtown, they will shop here. And after all this social isolation, people will be hungry for human interaction. People will feel like getting out. I am hopeful!”

Linda Sabee