There was no long-term plan.

No long-clutched childhood dream coming to fruition.

No light bulb-like entrepreneurial moment.

Betsy Robinson simply fell into the bridal world, an accidental bridal retailer who has outfitted thousands of brides throughout the last 40-some years and established her Pikesville, Md., store – Betsy Robinson’s Bridal Collection – as a destination for brides from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and nearly everywhere in between.
    And it’s a journey, however unintended, Robinson continues to savor nearly 44 years after selling her first wedding dress.
    “The beauty of our business is that we’re not like any other retail in which a customer comes in, buys an item and is never seen again,” Robinson says. “We form relationships with people and are part of a magical moment in their lives. That’s something special that continues to motivate and inspire me.”

Falling Into Bridal Retail
Was Never The Plan
    The Robinson family holds a long history in retail.
    In the 1940s, the Robinson clan started a junior department store in Glen Burnie, Md., a middle-class, blue-collar suburb about 10 miles south of Baltimore. There, they peddled everything from apparel to housewares and found success in general retail.
    By the 1960s, however, automobile-fueled suburban sprawl coupled with the emergence of shopping malls and specialized big-box stores began to weaken the Robinson family’s department store setup, and leadership transformed the operation into a men’s and women’s clothing store: Robinson’s He and She Shops.
    By the time Betsy Rogers married into the family in 1972, Robinson’s He and She was trotting along, fighting for its spot in a rapidly evolving retail climate. Amid the shop’s formal and casual attire, it also hosted a small selection of wedding dresses.
    “There were maybe a dozen of them sitting in a corner, the most expensive of which was $175,” Robinson recalls. “If the store sold one or two a month, people were excited.”
    A few months into married life, Robinson’s husband, Allen, asked if she could fill a Saturday shift at the store. The young wife, then working in the hospitality field, obliged.
    That day in the store, Robinson helped a bride find her wedding dress, an experience that altered the trajectory of her life.
    “As a child, I always loved playing dress-up, making clothes for my dolls and performing imaginary weddings on the front porch,” she says. “In some ways, working with that bride felt like a return to that. It was fun and exciting and rewarding.”
    So much so that Robinson decided she would work in the store regularly on Saturdays. While brides-to-be didn’t flood into Robinson’s He and She, Robinson personally helped nearly all who did. She became increasingly interested in bridal and, within a year of that first fill-in shift, Robinson became full-time at the store and began transforming its bridal department. She traveled to New York City during Bridal Week and hand-selected gowns for the shop. As the bridal inventory swelled, so, too, did traffic, sales and notoriety.
    “Within two years, we were carrying dresses up to $1,000,” she says, “and they were selling.”
    Suddenly, Robinson was entrenched in the bridal retail game. And she has never looked back, embracing the life with a relentlessly positive spirit.
    “As a teen, I worked retail at a [Baltimore area] dress shop. I enjoyed it, but never in my wildest dreams thought of it as a career,” confesses Robinson, who studied fine arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art. “It’s turned out to be one wonderful career though.”

Robinson’s Evolves As
Bridal Claims a Growing Role
    By 1980, bridal was no longer a bit player at Robinson’s He and She Shop, so much so, in fact, that the Robinson family decided to focus the entire 3,000-square-foot space on bridal. The Glen Burnie storefront rebranded itself as Robinson’s Bridal, while the men’s and women’s apparel inventory shifted into space at a nearby mall.
    “We just kept growing and growing and started drawing people from all over the Baltimore area and D.C.,” Robinson says of the bridal business.
    In 1986, with the sale of its original building, Robinson’s Bridal moved from its Glen Burnie storefront into a 5,000-square-foot space four miles away. There, the shop hummed along for another dozen years, further establishing its credentials and fan base, spurred in large part by referrals and a can-do attitude.
    Whereas some bridal shops were strictly couture or dealt solely with modest price points, Robinson distinguished her bridal outpost by carrying a diverse array of styles and, more importantly, price points. That something-for-everyone mindset remains a hallmark of the business today with current dresses ranging in price from $850 to well north of $10,000.
    “Regardless of a bride’s budget, it should always be a fantastic experience and that’s what we try to deliver time and again,” Robinson says.
    In 2000, a unique opportunity knocked: a retail entrepreneur approached Robinson about opening a second store in Pikesville, an affluent Charm City suburb.
    “He sold tabletop gifts and wanted to build his own building,” Robinson says. “He wanted a bridal shop there to capture the synergy.”
    For six months, Robinson declined the businessman’s overtures, but his recruitment persisted.
    “I was quite content with one store, but he kept making it more and more attractive,” Robinson says.
    In 2000, Robinson’s second store opened in Pikesville and flashed a new name for the business, Betsy Robinson’s Bridal Collection. The store in Pikesville allowed Robinson to capture more high-end business.
    “We had done our share of couture business, but this move [to Pikesville] put us in a different position,” Robinson says, noting that she nevertheless retained her focus on carrying a wide spectrum of price points. “That’s central to our business and a key point of differentiation.”
    For nearly six years, Robinson operated the two stores located about 20 miles from one another – one on Baltimore’s northwestern edge and the other south of the city’s downtown core. While she was able to maintain success at both outlets, she elected to leave the Glen Burnie space in 2006 when her lease came due. She closed Robinson’s Bridal and consolidated operations and inventory at the now-thriving Pikesville store.
    “Bridal is such a hands-on business and once you connect with a bride and her family, they like you around,” Robinson says. “The trouble is, you can never be in two places at once and it was just too difficult to deliver the type of customer service we like to give when operating two stores.”

Wonderful Team, Laser Focus
Results In Continued Success
    Today, Robinson’s Reisterstown Road spot is surrounded by established national names – Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Corner Bakery Café and Starbucks, a nod to the area’s sophisticated, upper-middle class vibe – while her immediate neighbors include a spa and a two-level jewelry store.
    Robinson’s focus is almost entirely on brides, sticking to what she knows and loves and actively looking for new designers and lines with compelling offerings. She carries more than 20 bridal lines alongside accessories like veils, jewelry and beaded belts.
    Only slightly does Robinson veer from her bridal-only focus: a selection of bridesmaids dresses from 11 designers and a limited mother of the bride section. Years ago, in fact, she extracted the shop from the prom and tuxedo business because it was stealing time, space and resources from bridal.
    “I just love bridal too much to give anything up,” Robinson says.
    She attributes her sustained success, which includes a 2003 DEBI (Distinctive Excellence in the Bridal Industry) Award from the National Bridal Market, to the diversity of her inventory and calls her staff of 30 the lifeblood of her operation.
    “I think of our team as a family and I believe that’s critically important to our success,” says Robinson, whose own daughters, Joy and Alison, each worked at the store for more than a decade, while husband Allen, who long ago swapped life in retail for a career as a financial planner, helps Robinson manage financial aspects of the business.
    “In this business,” she continues, “it’s so easy to adopt a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude, but I’m always trying to treat my team with respect and recognize the important things they do for our store.”
    Robinson hosts several staff events at her home each year, including a boisterous summer event as well as “Friendsgiving,” an annual holiday kickoff event the Saturday after Thanksgiving attended by staff and their families. This past July 4, she also hosted a surprise 50th birthday party for store manager Maria Gordon.
    Robinson’s focus on creating a tight-knit, spirited atmosphere and honoring her team’s efforts continues to breed loyalty and low turnover. One seamstress has been with Robinson for 35 years, while a number of sales associates have been with Betsy Robinson’s Bridal Collection since the store’s 2000 debut.
    “I’m truly blessed with a wonderful team that individually and collectively understands what it takes to provide wonderful customer service and goes out and does it every day,” she says.
    And now, after more than four decades selling bridal gowns, Robinson refuses to slow. Though she does not help brides one-on-one as much anymore, she floats around the showroom every day to troubleshoot and connect with customers and employees.
    “I’ve never been much for sitting at my desk,” she says. “I love the floor too much.”
    Over the last decade, Robinson has found herself selling bridal gowns to daughters of past customers and it’s those rich personal experiences with customers that keep her energized.
    “I love the people we help,” Robinson says. “There are so many lovely, interesting people I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise and that’s one of the most rewarding parts of this business. You never know who’s walking in your door.”