There’s no question that when W Network contacted Sam Pollari about featuring his store on “Say Yes to the Dress Canada,” he was thrilled.
    Being honored with this coveted spot on the series’ first season for 2015 was a big feather in Pollari’s professional hat. It was equally exciting for his wife, Rachelle, who co-owns Amanda-Lina’s Sposa Boutique with Pollari, serving as its in-house designer and stylist.
    To them, the news was a welcome validation of sorts – a long-deserved testament to the excellence of the store’s product and services, rich history and talented staff.

Standing Out From the Crowd
Helps to Create a Niche
    The story of Amanda-Lina’s began when Pollari entered into the bridal business because of his immigrant parents, Antonio and Lina.
    In 1969, the couple opened a modest mom-and-pop shop called Lina’s in the Toronto suburb of Woodbridge, Ontario. For about 30 years these industrious entrepreneurs applied their dressmaking, seamstress and tailoring skills to dress brides and social-occasion customers. And in 1979, the couple asked their son, Sam, to join them in the business.
    At the time, Pollari was pursuing a business administration direction in his career. However, after assisting his parents with certain projects and needs, plus going to the store to learn about the business out of genuine curiosity, he found himself helping out more and more, doing whatever they needed or couldn’t manage themselves.
    “That’s how I got caught – or got the bug, rather,” Pollari says. “I caught the bridal fever and realized I had a passion for it. Next thing I knew, I was involved and had so many ideas. I knew they couldn’t do what I envisioned, so I did it for them.”
    It took less than a year for Pollari to start shaking things up, implementing changes to the store’s product offerings. In fact, on his first buying trip while viewing the eveningwear collection from their store’s first supplier, Pollari spoke up – and this became a defining moment in terms of his new role with the store.
    “The supplier was pulling racks and racks of gowns, and I didn’t like any of it,” Pollari says. “I told him, ‘I’m so sorry, but it’s just not clicking. Nothing is suitable for our store and the new direction we are going.’ With that, the supplier called my father ranting and raving. But my father backed me on that and all the buying decisions going forward. And that was my big start, my big entry into the buying world.”
    Feeling supported and confident about this new direction, Pollari made a sort of unspoken promise to forever invigorate Lina’s with fashion-forward looks. Of course, he was smart enough to know he’d have to carry the bread-and-butter styles that a sizeable chunk of his Canadian audience would buy. But he would never shrink from carrying deadweight gowns, and he started instituting another strategy – buying trending designs from collections that other stores commonly overlooked or chose not to carry.
    “While I’ll have all the regulars available, I might buy the one Maggie Sottero dress that 30 other stores don’t buy,” he says.
    Working alongside his parents had its advantages: Pollari gained extensive experience managing a business, and learned he had an eye for fashion and a gift for buying the right product. However, as the years went on, he began dreaming of owning his own business – a polished, modern store that would afford him greater control and an official break from some of the common complexities that come from working with parents as partners.
    Interestingly, it was his own marriage to Rachelle that helped inspire Pollari to “cut the cord” and pursue his true professional dream in bridal retail ownership. Rachelle wasn’t just the love of his life but the perfect business partner for the bridal industry. After studying Fashion Technique and Design at Sheridan College, she had been hired by a prominent Canadian couture house where she work on designs and also modeled what was created. Several years after they tied the knot, the Pollaris decided to take a big risk and open their own bridal salon in 1995 – just as they were expecting a third child.
    “I remember when we started out, we had a couple of employees, and it was like, ‘How are we going to make payroll?’” Pollari says. “Leaving the other business and opening this store was the right thing to do – you have to leave the nest, and my parents soon came to realize this decision, as hard as it was at the time on all of us, was the right one.”
    He continues, “It was a big risk but a calculated one. We had to refinance the house to afford it because the bank loan wasn’t enough. We sacrificed a lot. It was like starting from scratch.”
    Fortunately, the sacrifice was worth it. This first store, named “Amandalina’s Bridal Boutique,” soon experienced phenomenal growth thanks to its reputation as a very modern store with stylish bridal fashion and Rachelle’s ability to custom make or alter gowns to any bride’s taste. Five years after it opened, Pollari decided to open a second shop in the area, “Lina’s Sposa Boutique,” to honor and carry on the tradition of his parents’ store, which closed in 1999.
    While that decision satisfied an emotional need for Pollari, who felt his mother’s name should carry on in the community, he and Rachelle soon discovered the two successful stores competed with one another. That, coupled with the fact they were now working in different locations, eventually led to the decision to close one of the stores.
    The remaining venue, located in a Woodbridge shopping strip and redesigned to feature 20-foot ceilings, romantic archways, rod iron details and a more grandiose, upscale feel, became the home of “Amanda-Lina’s Sposa Boutique.”
    Officially given that name in 2005, it’s since become a brand that has ties to brides and customers of the past while speaking effectively to modern brides of the present. The 6,500-square-foot-space houses bridal, fashion-forward special occasion wear for MOBs and cocktail party needs, accessories and a robust prom selection. Price points run the gamut from modest to couture to appeal to a wide audience of budgets.

With the Right Product to Sell
The Right Staff Can Excel
    When thinking about the success of Amanda-Lina’s, Pollari says there’s no doubt that luck has been on their side at times.
    However, the positive year-over-year results are clearly attributable to the storeowners’ excellent work ethic, their passion for the business, and simply having the right mix of skills and talent to drive bottom-line achievement. Sometimes at markets or shows, Pollari somehow just knew what would or wouldn’t be a great dress – a sort of six-sense he learned to pay attention to after realizing at one particular Demetrius show, early in his career, that he had a unique gift for spotting stellar styles.
    “It was a standing-room only sort of event, and I’ll never forget it,” he says. “This wedding gown came out and it hit me. It was like I felt a force, like the dress spoke to me. The gown was outstanding, phenomenal. It almost knocked me over. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, so there was some luck involved. But I had to make the effort to be there – if I hadn’t, the experience would have never happened.”
    In addition to his gift for spotting great fashions and strategic buying, Pollari says he’s been blessed with an incredibly talented staff. The store has a total of 14 employees, a mix of part-time and full-time employees, including seasonal employees who work the prom department and one employee who has been with the owners since they launched their business in 1995.
    The Amanda-Lina’s team includes a diversity of ages and ethnic backgrounds – another strategy that supports its service goals. With fashion-savvy teens working the prom department all the way up to Pollari’s mother, Lina, who comes in every Saturday to help out on the floor, customers feel comfortable and welcomed by the Amanda-Lina “family,” which is all key to an effective selling environment.
    And, of course, Rachelle gives the store an elite advantage with her keen eye for fashion design and expert outfitting acumen. Her ongoing ability to make custom changes to a gown, should a customer request it, also comes in handy and further differentiates the store from its competitors.
    “This type of request doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but it’s still something our store offers that makes it incredibly unique,” Pollari says. “She’s a perfect example of how our strength is our people. We have very good people here, they are constantly trying to share ideas and discuss what they’ve learned with the customers. They are very interactive with their customers. You can have good dresses, but good customer service is really part and parcel to making it all happen.”

Multi-Channel Marketing Efforts
Build Buzz, Engage Customers
    Without a doubt, Amanda-Lina’s is one business that’s never dragged behind the times when it comes to marketing and advertising.
    The store’s polished brand makes a stand for itself and is consistently pushed through a multi-channel effort that includes television, radio, print and online marketing, specifically a strong social-media agenda as well. For example, Amanda-Lina’s has an active Twitter account and offers website visitors the ability to browse collections, see style numbers, view prices, pin their favorite gowns to Pinterest, and share their prom and wedding stories.
    In addition, the store hosts a weekly blog and is very active on Facebook, where it posts store activities, sales, promotions, trunk shows, and other signature special events such as its annual bridal gown sale at Canada’s National Bridal Show, where it sells designer gowns up to 70 percent off.
    “The website was a big undertaking – we hired an IT person to design it,” says Pollari, noting that Canadian bridal magazines are only published twice a year. “It’s very effective for us in terms of marketing, but it’s got to constantly evolve and be updated because with SEO, you’ve got to be on top. You’ve got to be the first one to pop up in a search.”
    The website also prominently promotes a handful of its team members who are being featured on “Say Yes to the Dress Canada.” Each smiling face represents different skills and strengths in terms of what these staff members offer customers both on and off the show. Their photos and bios are part of the marketing offered by the network, giving viewers an introduction to who is featured on the various episodes.
    Speaking of the series, Pollari says the experience of being chosen has been something he’ll forever treasure. W Network sent someone to “secret shop” the store to scope it out before an official meeting was scheduled to discuss the possibility. After being chosen in July 2014, the store had only one month to update itself for filming needs, which included changes to lighting, flooring, and even a special wallpaper that was not available in North America. It was flown in, direct from England.
    With all the changes that had to quickly take place, there wasn’t a moment to lose – and everything had to be just perfect. However, the Pollaris didn’t mind one bit – after all, the opportunity to be on the show was a chance of a lifetime.
    “It was wonderful. . . to be featured in the Canadian version of the iconic wedding show,” he says. “We were excited and anxious to prep for the series and welcomed the cameras into our store. We felt like we were letting viewers become part of our family.”
    Taping of Series 1 ran August 11 thru November 2, an intense period in which the staff had to balance its traditional business with the business of the show. Between the network and its producers, there were an average of 45 additional people on site at the store during the taping. Participating staff would come in for makeup, coaching and taping, and then often return to the floor for a few more hours of off-camera selling to its non-show clientele.
    During the taping, it wasn’t always easy to balance the needs of the show with those of the store. It took commitment and creativity to maintain a sense of normalcy for non-show customers and staff, plus meet the day-in, day-out business responsibilities and demands of the store. But such challenges were the kind they all joyfully embraced.
    Participating in the show enabled Amanda-Lina’s staff members to more publicly reveal their love for wedding dresses and the intimate connections they create with their brides. As well, it gave the staff a chance to showcase their proficiency in problem solving and demonstrate how to consistently deliver superior bridal-gown shopping experiences.
    “The overall experience was wonderful, and we enjoyed working with the production company and W Network,” Pollari says. In addition, “We would be very pleased to continue our association with ‘Say Yes to the Dress Canada.’ In Season 2, we would continue to improve, contribute and showcase Canadian culture and the wonderful stories from Canadian brides. There is always more to show about how we do business and the reason we have been so successful for so long.”

Building on What Works Today
Impacts Outlook for Tomorrow
    Despite the “nail biting” involved in waiting to learn whether their store gets reselected for the next “Say Yes to the Dress Canada” series, Pollari and Rachelle aren’t wasting a moment’s time wondering.
    Forever passionate about improving upon the business, they’re busy polishing and perfecting what they currently offer customers, always scrutinizing and planning their next business moves. For example, as mentioned, the store has experienced phenomenal sales in the prom category, which according to their regional market research was previously being underserved in the area. Given this big gap in revenue-generating product, Pollari now plans to take a further stand in growing this seasonal category – one of several initiatives in store for the business over the upcoming years.
    Whether it’s with prom, bridal, social occasion – or all three areas of their business – the Pollaris know they’ll continue to pursue sustainable avenues of growth and build their busting-at-the-seams business as best they can. (Yes, an expansion is in their future!)
    While providing customers real value in their experiences, remaining profitable, and working together are key motivators for the couple, recently bringing in their two daughters to work with them in the business is now sparking fresh motivation and very personal rewards. It’s added a different dimension, new meaning, and a unique purpose behind their passion – their work. No doubt, it gives this store added character and a good reason for retailers industry-wide to watch what becomes of Amanda-Lina’s in the near future and generations to come.