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Photo Credit: Elisabete Oliveira (Lis),

Geri Cardinal and her daughter, Erin Corbett, never intended to operate a bridal shop, but when the opportunity to purchase a nearly 20-year-old boutique in their hometown of Essex Junction, Vt., arose in 2011, the mother-daughter team snatched the opportunity.
   Over the subsequent 11 years, Cardinal and Corbett’s Main Street storefront in a cozy town of 11,000 has emerged a popular destination for gown-searching brides across Vermont and the greater New England region.
   From its 2,800-square-foot, pink-walled shop on Main Street, Fiori Bridal Boutique puts brides at the center of its world, promising – and then delivering – an intimate shopping experience, diverse, yet accessible inventory and friendly, no-pressure service.
   A business now consisting of three generations of family members, Fiori Bridal is here to stay and continues to thrive.

Diving into bridal retail
   Nicole Roberts opened Fiori Bridal in 1993 and built it into a successful destination for brides over the next 15 years. In fact, Corbett’s sister, Heather, purchased her wedding gown at Fiori and, like many, raved about the experience.
   “The store had a great reputation,” Corbett says of the Essex Junction business.
   Roberts’ 2008 relocation to North Carolina, however, spurred the sale of Fiori Bridal. (Coincidentally, Roberts spent nine years working on the designer side of the bridal industry before returning to the retail game in 2017 with the opening of The Magnolia Bride in Kernersville, N.C.)
   Absent Roberts’ experienced and involved hand, Fiori Bridal struggled under its new ownership. It lacked the necessary direction and systems to ensure results and its numbers plunged.
   Corbett, a new hire at Fiori Bridal, wasn’t privy to the store’s bigger problems. Instead, she was busy falling in love with bridal retail and the daily opportunity to help brides look their best on their wedding day.
   Pressing bridal gowns in the back of Fiori Bridal one busy Saturday, Corbett professed her fascination with the bridal industry to the store’s owner. The matter-of-fact nature of her employer’s reply stunned her.
   “Well, it’s for sale if you’re interested,’” Corbett recalls her boss saying.
   Immediately, Corbett phoned her parents, a pair of entrepreneurial souls who ran a daycare, construction business and catering operation between them.
   “Can you imagine how fun it would be?” Corbett asked her mother, a woman whose living room featured a wicker female mannequin sporting an antique wedding dress.
   Later that day, Corbett’s father took the phone and offered an abrupt retort to his daughter’s continued inquiries: “We’re looking into it.”
   This, from a man of few words, hinted at intrigue and a potential purchase.
  “I couldn’t imagine it going out of business because it was a staple in Essex,” says Corbett, who remembers rumblings that the town might purchase the shop if no one else bought it.
   In summer 2011, Cardinal became the owner of Fiori Bridal, purchasing the business for $60,000 and installing Corbett as the manager.
   “Basically, the name and inventory,” Corbett says of the deal.
   Then, of course, the real work began.

Executing a turnaround
   Now leading the operation, Cardinal and Corbett quickly discovered the extent of Fiori’s troubles. Though the boutique enjoyed a steady stream of traffic and fully booked Saturdays, closing rates languished. Corbett attributed the weak performance to a mix of “vanilla” stock that failed to resonate with local brides and stylists who either lacked the training to do their job effectively or, even worse, the motivation to improve.
   “It was an overwhelming and rough start,” Corbett says. “I think my mom cried every day over the first month.”
   Resilient and determined, the mother-daughter team crafted a plan to elevate Fiori Bridal by putting the bride at the center of every store decision.
   Believing the current inventory failed to reflect the desires of their New England clientele, Cardinal and Corbett hosted a sale to expunge the existing inventory from the store and start anew. During that process, the duo also dropped bridesmaids and mothers’ gowns.
   “If we were going to be all about the bride, then there was no sense in having these other gowns around,” Corbett says.
   Hunting new designers, they favored more accessible price points, seeking “that sweet spot” between discount gowns and couture prices. Noting that size 22 was their second-most popular size, the store also invested in plus-sized gowns.
   “We were going to miss out on a whole lot of brides if we didn’t have anything for them to try on,” Corbett says of the curvy brides visiting Fiori Bridal.
   In addition to turning over inventory, the new ownership shook up the staff’s ranks as well, a particularly taxing feat given that some employees were once Corbett’s co-workers. Still, it was necessary to employ only those committed to the work.
   “This can be a hard job. You have to be ‘peopley’ and ‘on’ all the time,” Corbett says. “We needed people for whom this wasn’t a job, but a passion, so that’s what we prioritized.”
   Corbett also made the executive decision to ditch the tan paint color on the walls in favor of pink, giving the space a more feminine look while simultaneously incorporating Cardinal’s favorite color.
   “That might not be a big thing to others, but it was huge to her,” Corbett says of the pink walls that dazzled her mother.
   Though the changes were fast and furious, Corbett says she was never nervous, never afraid. She maintained confidence that Fiori Bridal sat on a better trajectory.
   “I felt there would always be girls getting married and believed we had an attractive business to serve them,” Corbett says.

Finding the winning formula
   Arduous as they were, the early changes propelled Fiori Bridal to stable ground, though the family-owned operation has continued to focus on evolving in service to its brides.
   After initially picking dresses online and rejecting trips to market because Cardinal did not like to travel, Corbett realized that process hampered leadership’s ability to select the proper inventory. Attending her first market in Chicago, Corbett was energized by meeting designers, industry personnel and fellow retailers excited about brick-and-mortar bridal shops. Yet more, she gained exposure to more designers that enabled Fiori Bridal to enhance its inventory mix.
   Evaluating inventory remains a constant task among leadership, who regularly pour over data on sales trends and monitor customer feedback to inform buying. A recent rise in brides coming in with $5,000 budgets, in fact, has compelled Fiori Bridal management to investigate gowns retailing more than $4,000, the current high-water mark on its existing inventory.
   “We understand nothing stays the same,” Corbett says.
   On the business operations side, the store installed BridalLive, dropping its antiquated pen-and-paper reporting methods in favor of computerized, industry-relevant software that put the entirety of its business in one spot and empowered more responsive customer service. And speaking of its clientele, Fiori Bridal rejects any sales tactics that might be perceived as pushy and pays its consultants a more favorable hourly rate rather than commission to cultivate friendly, pressure-free appointments.
   “We will tell a bride to sleep on it if she needs to. We don’t have a dress for everyone and we’re okay with that,” says Karsyn Goulet, the store’s assistant manager in addition to being Cardinal’s granddaughter and Corbett’s niece.
   Adds Corbett: “We’re down-to-earth country girls, so there’s nothing over the top or fake about us.”
   At every turn, Fiori Bridal embraces a practical, pragmatic approach. When early advertisements on radio and in local magazines failed to generate any noticeable benefit, the store stopped spending its marketing dollars there. When bride after bride said she visited Fiori Bridal after seeing the store’s windows, store leadership doubled down on creating vibrant scenes in all seven of the store’s floor-to-ceiling windows – and then changing out those windows every week – to generate even more attention.
   “The windows are Lily’s job,” says Corbett of her teenage daughter who works at the boutique.
   Fiori Bridal’s status as a family-owned, family-operated business packed with three generations of family members gives its customers confidence and ignites a deeper commitment to the operation.
   Cardinal, now 66, remains a steady presence in the business, rejecting any thoughts of retirement because she enjoys coming into work, her daughter says. Corbett, meanwhile, is preparing to hand daily operations over to Goulet, though the exact time of that transition remains to be determined.
   “We’re not going anywhere,” Goulet promises. “And we’re far from done.”