Judy Snider doesn’t exactly remember why she never saw the movie “27 Dresses” when it came out in theaters in 2008. But when she did finally watch it on TV a couple of years later, something clicked.
    “I always knew the wedding day was a special day,” says Snider, who at that point had co-owned Las Vegas-based Celebrations Bridal & Fashion for about 25 years with her husband, Robert. “But when that movie came out, I realized the dress is a symbol for what is really important, which is the marriage itself. The customer is more than buying a gown; she is partnering with us in a life experience.”
    Through that new lens, business at Celebrations was no longer focused solely on numbers. The new philosophy? People first, no matter their budget.
    “Nothing happens if you don’t make the sale, so my mantra is always ‘Make the sale,’” Snider says.
    However, helping a bridal customer remains top priority.
    “I cherish that honor of being part of her life,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what she is spending; her day is no less important to us than the bride who bought the most expensive gown.”

Taking a Gamble on Change:
From Ready-to-Wear to Bridal
    Snider started her career working ready-to-wear at The Limited in the late 1970s through the mid-80s.
    Working up the ranks, she became a sales manager who often traveled to new areas to facilitate the opening of stores, which meant long, grueling hours and a lot of time away from home over the years. But it also meant she received plenty of in-the-trenches experience building and training staffs, honing management skills and cultivating expert selling abilities.
    But as the chain’s national success skyrocketed, Snider started dreaming about owning her own business. Married and about to start a family, she was working at a mall on the Las Vegas Strip when a customer from her hometown of Rockford, Ill., came into the shop.
    “She owned a very successful restaurant,” Snider says. “While telling her about my dream of working for myself, she gave me the sage advice to stick with what I know, which was women’s clothing. Thinking only of ready-to-wear, I thought, how could I ever compete with women’s fashion?”
    At first Snider thought she probably couldn’t. But after the birth of her first child in 1986, she felt a more extreme sense of urgency to break away from the chain and do something on her own. At that time, a bridal store in the Las Vegas area came up for sale, and so Snider started going on her lunch hour to different bridal salons in the area to see if bridal might be something she would want to do. She thought it was. Craving flexibility and a career that would support her role as a mother and provide a decent income, she made a sudden, life-changing decision.
    “While living in the biggest gambling town in the world, I have never been a gambler,” she says. “But I decided to gamble on myself and cash-advanced my credit card for the down payment.”
    Snider bought the store and changed its name. But since she was stuck with a lot of damaged and tired merchandise, her immediate goal was to turn the stock as soon as possible. As such, she says, she treated every customer who walked in the door, “like it was the last opportunity I would ever get to move that inventory.”
    Within two years, she had accomplished her goal and was able to give her store a fresher look. She started to bring in quality lines she really believed would sell, both to local customers and destination brides who had flown in, suddenly got engaged in Las Vegas and needed a dress – quickly.
    The first store was 1,000 square feet, but it was clear to the Sniders that the business had potential for growth. In fact, it was Robert who convinced her to explore a new lease, then took a vacation from his job in hydraulics and high-lift equipment to negotiate and help with that move.
    That first move would become the first of three more relocations to leased spaces, followed by a final move to their freestanding, independently owned, 6,000-square-foot building featuring bridal and bridal party wear, formal fashions and prom attire.
    That initial move also marked the official start of Robert engaging more as an in-store partner, doing everything from answering photos to waiting on people in the store and much more, Snider recalls.
    “It was Robert who secured the financing for the building we wanted to buy,” she says. “We had three children, two under the age of 3, at that point. And he negotiated everything, and later got the store all computerized and set up with the BBL System, and taught the whole staff how to use it.
    Snider continues, “I would have never been able to do it without his vision and his drive,: she says. “He is a great asset in problems that arise, in issues with orders with our vendors, or customer disruptions.”

Brand Strength Builds From
Key Lessons, Smart Strategies
    Having learned early the danger of deadweight stock, Snider has since strived to avoid overstocking her store. Her strategy has been to ask vendors about their top-five reordered gowns as well as the top-five new gowns for the current season. Based on that, she makes her key strategic buying moves.
     “I am also very value-conscious,” she says. “I ask myself: Would I buy this at this price-point? I also make sure our best sellers are stocked. And if it’s a proven style, I will bring in the gown in alternative sizes.”
    And despite her sensitivity to the customer’s wallet, she’s made every attempt to never be viewed as a budget brand, starting with her décor. Gowns are out of bags, so customers can touch and feel the authenticity and quality for themselves. As well, merchandise is displayed throughout a spacious presentation so each piece pops out against the backdrop of the store, which is accented in sleek grey, stark white and touches of blue one season, blush the next.
    Such individual efforts to communicate the salon’s value have added up over the years, proving vital to sustainability. In the mid 1990s when David’s Bridal first moved into the area, this event forced Snider to step up her services and go the extra distance to provide an excellent experience for brides and achieve a competitive edge. It wasn’t always easy, she says, but it was a challenge that pushed her business to change in a positive, more productive way. She notes how bringing in lines like Allure and Maggie Sottero enabled Celebrations to compete on product. Meanwhile, the store’s alterations department has always played a major role in defining and supporting its brand of excellence and ensuring extraordinary, sometimes unusually demanding, levels of customer satisfaction.
    “Without our seamstresses, I don’t think we could give the customers the experience and the service that is necessary in a bridal salon,” she says. “It sets us apart to be able to customize a gown or turn around a bridesmaids gown that just arrived and have it ready that next day. We also get the occasional bride who has decided to tie the knot in Vegas and wants to get married in four hours! It’s fun and our head seamstresses, Cindy and Margot, are always excited and up for the challenge.”
    No doubt, the right products and stock, backed by a solid alterations department, are some of the nuts and bolts of this business’ success. But a number of other key factors have ushered in additional customer accolades and strengthened this bridal salon over time.
    The store always goes the extra mile for its customers, providing special touches or going through with unique requests when appropriate. For example, in the case of former brides who have lost a loved one, the store has sewn special messages left from that person into the gown and even embroidered the autograph of a father who had died before seeing his daughter marry into the dress.
    Customers who shop at Celebrations invariably pick up on another differentiating aspect of their experience with this store. It’s a business that routinely preaches and practices “fun.” From her earliest days as a staff manager with The Limited, Snider has learned the importance of motivating staff in creative, sometimes silly ways to infuse the culture with laughter and a sense of teamwork while creating ownership for their jobs and the results. Most recently, the store has been playing its own version of “The Hunger Games,” with the staff split into two “districts,” or teams, undergoing various sales, physical and mental challenges in the spirit of friendly competition. One “battle” entailed shooting bows and arrows against a target Snider set up in the back fitting room.
    “We have silly things like that going on, and our staff members really get into it!” she says.
    However, it’s not always fun and games despite Snider’s success at creating an empowered staff and positive work environment. For example, as no bridal store is perfect, Celebrations has faced occasional customer complaints over the years. Before the Internet and social media, these could only be managed if heard about via traditional word of mouth. But today, such talk now tends to surface online, which is bad in the sense that it can be broadcast to virtually everyone but good in the sense that the source can usually be tracked and the issue addressed quickly. In fact, the latter scenario gives Celebrations an opportunity to demonstrate effective problem solving, which usually bodes well for the store in the end.
    “Negative online reviews can stop a customer from visiting us whether deserved or not,” Snider says. “We try to respond to every review and have even asked reviewers if we can try to resolve the issue. In the past, we have been able to come up with a compromise, and they have even reviewed or amended the negative post.”
    Whether online or in person, Snider acknowledges that the key to addressing any such complaints is to tackle them immediately. Also, regardless of the situation, really listening to the person who is upset is vital.
    “Customers want to be valued or heard,” she says. “When an issue arises, which is usually about delivery dates, I assure our customer that it matters to us as much as it does them. We will call the vendor immediately to get all the options available and do everything in our power to relieve the customer of her anxiety. It’s crucial that all phone calls are returned without them having to call us a second time.”
    Naturally, anything that another staff member can’t handle goes to Snider or her husband, Robert. In the mind of the panicked bride, this is the fastest way to get to a possible solution, and it also gets a rattled sales staff back on track, particularly if the altercation has been emotional or confrontational.
    “We try to diffuse any negative situations,” she says. “Sometimes you can’t but you at least give it your best effort because an unhappy customer can upset the whole day for your staff.”

Customers, Staff Remain at the Heart as the Business Evolves
    Going forward, Snider and her husband have made it their goal to continue developing staff and, of course, have as much fun as possible while achieving their sales goals and maintaining a tightknit family feel to the business.
    After all, they say their group of employees is like family. With some of them having been there for 20 and 25 years, everyone is extremely close, and the team even includes a mother-daughter duo. Meanwhile, a couple are literally their family members, considering two of the three Snider children work for the business. Much to their mother’s surprise and delight, these young ladies have been showing a growing interest in their work and contributions to the business.
    “Our daughter, Patricia, is our right-hand and our partner,” she says. “She went to UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and majored in business marketing, and her young perspective is refreshing. She also helps to evaluate the business and the financial aspect of our operation.”
    The Snider’s youngest daughter, Roberta, also works at the store.
    “She has helped us in the social-media trends and loves fashion,” Snider says. “She is currently studying education but loves the business and wants to keep that option open.”
    Only time will tell if these girls, who have grown up in this business, will continue in their parents’ footsteps. Meanwhile, Snider says the store itself and all those who work there feel blessed to be serving now multiple generations of brides.
    In fact, she says, it’s the ultimate reward when a bride comes in with her mother who was once a Celebrations bride years ago. Serving generations in that way is the ultimate compliment, she says because “that is when we feel we have been truly successful.”
    It is also confirmation and peace of mind for this hard-working retailer. . . a precious piece of proof that her choice in opening a bridal salon years ago was, in fact, a very good gamble.