Imagine you are a bride.

You walk into a highly recommended, independently owned salon eager to search for your dream dress. You may or may not have made an appointment, as this store loves to accommodate walk-ins whenever possible.
    Immediately you’re greeted by a friendly consultant and given an iPad, which is linked to TVs in your luxurious bridal suite. You’re then able to scroll through the salon’s extensive inventory (24 lines, including all niches!) and mark gowns you’d love to try on.
    If you brought your fiancé with you, there’s similar technology in place for him. A tux builder app allows couples to put together the tuxedo and see it on a large TV. Actually, they can build their entire wedding party and see it on the big screen. They can even take a picture of the groom and build the tuxedo with his head on it to see how he’d look!
    Sound like a dream?  Such a scenario is everyday reality at Elegant Occasions, a 10,000-square-foot, high-tech bridal salon located in the heart of Wausau, Wis. This salon, which recently moved and remodeled, is thriving under the guidance of a business-savvy, dedicated leader who recognizes the importance of changing with the times.
    “Throughout our store’s history, we’ve always tried to reinvent ourselves every three to five years,” owner Greta Wood says. “(In this industry) we constantly have to wow new customers by making things new and exciting. It was time to get more technological for the future.”

Opportunity Knocks,
A Passion Is Born
    Greta Wood always knew she was destined to own a business.
    In fact, the self-described “responsible, take-charge type natural leader” started her own babysitting service by age 10. Wood spent the time she wasn’t out marketing herself for that eagerly counting down the days until her sixteenth birthday, when it’d be legal for her to get a real job.
    “Every position I had I ended up being a key holder or someone in charge,” says Wood, now 43. “I knew (entrepreneurship) was my calling.”
    Less clear was what type of business Wood wanted to pursue. So in the meantime she earned degrees in Operations Management, Human Resource Management and Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. From there she held professional positions in production planning, purchasing and materials management in various manufacturing facilities. Yet the wheels of entrepreneurship never stopped turning.
    Six years after beginning her professional career opportunity presented itself. As a young adult Wood had been involved in about 10 different weddings – “always a bridesmaid,” she jokes – which opened her eyes to a certain reality while going through the shopping process.
    “I kept thinking: I could do this, and I could do it better,” she says.
    It was a feeling that was only solidified after her own 1999 wedding to Will, an airline captain.
    “By (that) time I knew what was lacking in central Wisconsin - a high customer service level bridal store with up-to-date wedding gowns and a wide selection of bridesmaid gowns,” Wood says. “I really got serious about pursuing it at this point.”
    For Wood, ever the hard worker, “pursuing it” meant plenty of studying. She wrote a full business and marketing plan; went to Chicago market twice to research brands and talk to people; and worked with a local seamstress to learn about how bridal gowns are sewn and altered.
    “Although I knew I was going to hire (a seamstress) from the outside, I needed to know how to talk the talk,” she says. “Once we opened, in order to sell a gown, I had to be able to talk to brides about how it can be altered. I had to be the expert.”
    Elegant Occasions’ first location – 2,500 square feet located on the highest-traffic road in town – opened in January 2001. It was the beginning of a rewarding, enjoyable career path for Wood that would span 15 years (and counting!) and involve three different moves. It would also include valuable lessons and precious memories. For although Wood entered the bridal world because she sensed a business opportunity, with time it has transformed into a passion.
    “(The best part) is the fulfillment that comes from seeing brides find the gown of their dreams,” she says. “There is nothing quite like the end of a super-busy Saturday when we’ve made our sales and everyone is completely exhausted but smiling from ear to ear because we’ve had so many happy brides that day!

Personality Abounds
Throughout This Salon
    Two things stand out upon entering Elegant Occasions’ new 10,000-square-foot location, which opened in April 2016 after Wood took advantage of a Small Business Administration program to procure a building with very little money down (see Most Memorable Moment pg 163).
    Yes, there’s the expert way they integrate technology into the bridal gown shopping experience. There are also the bible verses referencing marriage painted elegantly on their walls.
    “(Prior to the remodel) I did a lot of soul searching,” Wood says. “This is my building, and I’m a private business owner who has the right to express what’s important to me. There’s a lot of political drama out there but I’m a Christian. I hold true to my beliefs, and I’m not afraid to express it.”
    In fact, Wood challenged her staff – currently comprised of five full-timers and seven part-timers – to come up with verses that are important to them. Collectively they determined which to display on the wall, including Wood’s favorite verse: “I have found the one whom my soul loves.” (Song of Solomon 3:4)
    “There are so many ways this could be interpreted,” she says, adding that numerous customers have thanked the salon for not being afraid to express its beliefs.
    “I think it really adds to the sincerity of our story,” Wood says. “It helps create a warm, inviting atmosphere. We’ve had no negative responses.”
    The sincerity of their story is present in other ways as well, such as in the way staff gets to know and works one-on-one with customers throughout the entire shopping process. 
    “We hire very loving and caring individuals and that special quality flows through to how we treat our customers and how much our staff cares about each of our brides,” Wood says.
    In terms of finding great staff, many Elegant Occasions employees start off as store models (Wood’s children, 13-year-old Spencer and 9-year-old twins Anna and Mason, also model for the store and work shows). Others have been hired as high school helpers who turn into sales reps that work throughout college, then become full-time staff – even management!
    “We love to hire empty nesters,” Wood says. “They are used to juggling a lot and are loving and caring ladies that can now work weekends. Plus they have a great work ethic as well as practical skills.” 
    The salon also relies on Facebook. With more than 15,000 followers, a simple “we’re hiring” post usually attracts some good applicants.
    And here’s where things get unique: Before making a hiring decision, prospective employees spend about 30 hours at the store.
    “We look at it as an on-the-job interview,” Wood says. “They can experience us, and we can experience them during this time. If after 30 hours we choose to extend a job offer to them and they choose to accept, we start their training.” 
    This usually involves pairing new hires up with a more senior employee for the day until they’re ready to take customers on their own. Once working solo, staff is compensated via base pay plus commission after hitting their sales goals. As well there are periodic sales competitions and bonuses, both individual and group. Wood also buys her employees lunch every Saturday. 
    “That’s the day we make our money so I want them to be able to grab a quick bite and move on to the next customer,” she says. “They really appreciate that!” 
    Speaking of appreciation, Wood says flexibility is key to successfully dealing with staff. This includes accommodating time off requests, covering each others’ shifts, taking care of one another’s customers, offering rides to work, and making a meal for someone who has a death in the family.  
    “We are there for one another when in need,” she says. “Our staff is like family. . . we even give free hugs when needed!”
    As the boss, Wood also makes a point to discover everyone’s currency: money, stability, flexibility, praise, an occasional Starbucks, etc. 
    “If you know what makes everyone tick, you can provide that for them and they will work hard for you,” she says.

Upgraded Technology
A Huge Hit With Brides
     Throughout its 15 years in business, Elegant Occasions has moved three times. Its third and current location – 10,000 square feet – is the first building Wood has purchased as opposed to renting, however. As such before opening its doors she wanted to ensure things were perfect. She collaborated with several long-term staff members, utilizing their industry knowledge to help build a store that worked with the future of bridal while providing the couture gown-shopping experience brides want.
    “We are very excited to present our brides with the technology that we have in place at our new store,” Wood says. “It never gets old to see their eyes get really big and their jaws drop as they realize the nice space they get to use, combined with the technology we’ve put into place!” 
    Indeed, the iPads linked to TVs in the bridal suites and new tux builder app are impressive. Prior to the remodel, Elegant Occasions had already been offering a bridal slideshow for years. However, brides had to go into a separate room to look at gowns on a computer, then return to their dressing rooms to try them on. Upgraded technology – in addition to looking cutting-edge – now means brides can review additional styles from the comfort of their suite.
    “It has really helped us,” Wood says. “It cut down on time in rooms with brides and loved ones as well as improved conversion rates because we are able to show them so many gowns before they can get exhausted trying them on.”
    And while brides love the convenience, Wood says the benefits extend beyond that.
    Other members of the wedding party can also look at products and services they’re interested in while the bride tries on gowns. Additionally, the TV screen savers also outline the different programs and products Elegant Occasions offers. 
    “It’s a never-ending opportunity for self-promotion!” she says.
    As successful as their high-tech touch is, Elegant Occasions has not abandoned traditional advertising. The store, which spends four percent of its total budget on marketing, sends Thank You cards to customers after every visit; mails reminder postcards to keep them on track with wedding planning; and sends congrats cards with a little gift when they get married. They also take advantage of radio, digital ads and ad network programs throughout Wisconsin. Finally, they attend every bridal show possible within a two-hour radius, making sure to identify their target customer beforehand and follow-up with each person after the show.
    At the core of it all is a guiding principle: whatever they do, they make sure to do it BIG.
    “In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is spend a little bit of money on media,” Wood says. “People need to hear/see your ad seven times before it is effective. If they are only going to hear you once or twice, you will not see results.”  
    Of course, social media is also a huge part of their marketing strategy. A dedicated social-media manager works closely with Wood to manage the salon’s Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter pages.
    And although Wood acknowledges a good sale post will definitely capture her audience’s attention, she has learned that posts of interest to potential customers – which she’ll occasionally pay to boost – are far more effective. 
    “This may or may not have something to do with my store; it might not even have anything to do with weddings,” she says. “A feel-good post that goes viral will get more action than a product I am trying to advertise.” 
    Regardless of the marketing method, Wood stresses the importance of always testing and measuring results. Knowing basic numbers like your average dollar sale, net profit, conversion rate and expected customers from running a promotion allows you to figure out where your dollars are best spent. 
    “If you are going to spend $1,000, you want to make certain you are getting a good return on your investment,” she says. “Take that knowledge through to the next marketing decision and utilize it.”  

Valuable Business Lessons,
Ambitious Future Plans
    Listening to Wood discuss marketing, it’s easy to see how her prior business background contributes to her salon’s success.
    She analyzes everything. She’s a big proponent of knowing your numbers and not getting emotionally attached to inventory.
    “If a gown isn’t moving for you, get rid of it as quickly as possible and invest in another gown that will make you money,” she says.
    As well, she believes in not getting stuck in debt. Rather, buy your building if possible (“The tax benefits alone will nearly take care of paying your mortgage!”); control overhead (“Know your daily breakeven. If you aren’t achieving it, have a plan in place”); and limit open credit with suppliers (“Keep it to a manageable amount so you don’t get stuck in a situation that you are on credit hold all the time.”) 
    “We now pay up front for almost all of our inventory,” she says. “We own it and don’t have anyone calling us looking for money.  Our suppliers hold product until we can pay for it and bring it in. It’s a great feeling!” 
    Despite all that Elegant Occasions has done right, no business exists without its challenges. In addition to occasional financial turbulence (“The biggest part is to know the why when a bad month hits and adjust going forward,” Wood says), it can be tough to keep staff motivated and on task with customer communication. Wanting everything documented, Elegant Occasions sends lots of e-mail - but customers rarely read all the information. Nor do brides always hear what they’re told.    
    “We try to be very thorough with the details of customer orders; our goal is to under promise and over deliver so as not to disappoint,” Wood says. “Through retaining many employees for several years, we have a very seasoned staff that knows our products and services well and can best assist them with their formal wear purchases.”  
    Of course, everything is a work in progress, and Wood is continuously exploring new brands and winning combinations to stay profitable and keep the Elegant Occasions brand on top. But now, with her store “currently working like clockwork”, she’s also focusing on a new pursuit: her consulting business. 
    “I love to help others create success and have been working with other storeowners to help get them back on track,” she says. “I have 15 years in this business now and have been through all the ups and downs of business ownership. I am now in a position that I can share my knowledge with others to help them create a more profitable situation for themselves.”