You could say Erin Thull is a natural-born entrepreneur.
    As a child, she invented a different name for herself – Ruby. She just really liked the name, so upon meeting new people, she’d introduce herself not as “Erin” but as “Ruby,” a self-bestowed brand that never really stuck until it found its place, decades later, in the name of her Milwaukee, Wis.-based store.
    Today, Miss Ruby is an industry leader, a clear example of a boutique thriving in spite of a number of challenges during what has been described by some as the retail/bridal “apocalypse.” There are the struggles with combatting online sales, selling to the bridesmaids’ category, and attracting/retaining talented staff, particularly those who can continually demonstrate why superior in-person customer service matters.
    And yet Miss Ruby has conquered these challenges with creativity and dedication, cornerstones of the 12-year-old boutique.
    For not only do Erin and her mother, Pauline Ellington, who partnered with her in the venture, employ a frugal mindset and love a creative challenge, but they also believe in strategic, proactive communication with brides and bridesmaids alike. These factors, combined with a passion for entrepreneurship, have served Miss Ruby well.

Carving a clear niche
    Erin opened Miss Ruby in 2007 first as a bridesmaids-only boutique. She and her mother each brought $1,000 to the table when asking for their small business loan.
    Her mother, an accountant, had career experience in bookkeeping, payroll, taxes, accounts payable/receivable and other finance skills. Erin came with an international business degree and a couple of international manufacturing jobs under her belt, which helped her realize she had a true passion for marketing, entrepreneurialism and business success in general.
    “My skills and interests were really around owning a business – I wasn’t really super fashion-minded,” Erin says. “I just wanted to own a business where I could be creative and have some control over its success.”
    So why did she and her mom enter the wedding industry? Like any good entrepreneur, always thinking of solutions, Erin spotted a void in the local marketplace when looking for her own wedding and bridesmaids’ dresses about 15 years ago. A fairly nontraditional bride, Erin opted for a tea-length dress that was super simple – no frills – which wasn’t easy to find in the Milwaukee region. Even tougher to find, however, were bridesmaids dresses she loved, not to mention a store that offered these customers a positive, engaging shopping experience.
    More often than not, Erin would find a store’s small sample of dresses hung squished together in some dark corner, making it tough to navigate and choose. Also, getting good service for bridesmaids, who sometimes might not be thrilled to be in a wedding in the first place, felt even more impossible.
    “I started down this path of what it would take to offer just bridesmaids, particularly for shoppers like myself who wanted something simple and classic,” Erin says. “Simply none of the shops around here were offering that, and I realized I could do it and offer an experience that would be enjoyable.”
    And so that’s what Erin and Pauline did. And they named the store Miss Ruby – a perfect name given its generic feel and potential to evolve as a brand. Turned out, that name was slightly prophetic because soon afterward they did expand. Still aiming to cater to a more modern, fashion-forward customer, Erin and Pauline entered into bridal between 2009-2010, having survived not just the first few years of business but the recession that hit in 2007.
    “The economy tanked just a few months after we opened,” Erin recalls. “But with my mom being an accountant and my having a frugal mindset, we managed to be successful. We were just very scrappy and really kept an eye on finances.”
    And they still do. Having an accountant as a partner serves the business with consistent, timely and relevant data that Erin greatly values in guiding store decisions – everything from payroll to marketing, buying and more. In addition, whenever possible, Erin has embraced the opportunity to engineer business mechanics for herself versus contract them out to other professionals.
    This is in part due to that frugal mindset. But it’s also because Erin has always loved a creative challenge, such as designing the store’s website herself or creating robust, effective sales training programs or playing the role of the store’s IT person. In the end, it’s the diversity of the challenges that motivates her, almost testing her to source and engineer solutions that deliver results.

Getting ahead of the challenges
    Doing more than simply addressing potential barriers in business as they’ve surfaced, Erin has developed solid ways to conquer roadblocks and pitfalls, responding to lessons learned. The strategic, proactive approach means Miss Ruby has been better able to get ahead of challenges, particularly in areas that could otherwise be suffering.
    For example, after Erin launched her business with a bridesmaids-only focus and the recession hit, coupled with the growing impact of more bridesmaids shopping online, Erin worked smarter, not just harder to keep her doors open. She committed to delivering top-notch service and relevant fashion for these oft-overlooked customers.
    At the heart of it, consistently valuing and not just giving up on this customer’s relevance or this aspect of her mission was key. Consequently, she became the go-to boutique for bridesmaids in her area and has sustained that reputation even as she’s grown her niche as a destination for modern brides. Today, the 3,200-square-foot store devotes 45% of its space to bridesmaids. Of the six dressing rooms, three are designated for bridesmaids and three are for bridal. Bridesmaids customers get pampered with 90-minute appointments, as do brides.
    Dresses aren’t jammed together on racks but have plenty of room to hang and be displayed prominently. They can be seen, touched and managed with ease. Perhaps most importantly, in addition to the standard 90-minute appointment, Miss Ruby offers brides a private bridesmaids’ consultation with a stylist. After the bride says yes to her dress, she is offered a second opportunity to come into the store, have the private consult with the bridesmaid stylist, and receive guidance around colors, styles and fabrics.
    In addition to addressing much of the bridesmaids’ sales process ahead of the 90-minute appointment, this particular consult gives the bride a chance to share insights (and any issues) with the stylist about the bridal party so the 90-minute appointment – if booked with Miss Ruby – can go more smoothly and successfully. Of course, brides don’t have to order their bridesmaids through Miss Ruby after this special consultation, but most do.
    “It’s more work for us upfront, but it’s way easier on the bride and the bridesmaids,” Erin says. “Nine times out of ten, they will buy from us when they return for their bridesmaids’ appointment – and this has helped our bridesmaids department and sales out immensely.”
    Similarly, Miss Ruby gets ahead of the bridal consultation, calling brides before they come in for their bridal appointment, welcoming them and asking a number of strategic questions. This pre-appointment discovery helps stylists collect basic yet important information, plus offers a chance for them to surface any issues on behalf of the bride.
    “With this questionnaire, we ask if there are any concerns or worries, and then we address those up front, and this really helps in breaking down any walls that may be there,” Erin says. When a bride walks through the door, her stylist already has the relevant knowledge and background about her, which puts the bride at ease and enables the stylist to set the experience up for success, increasing the odds of getting to yes.
    Finally, Erin says she’s consistently faced barriers in staffing her store over the years, which is par for the course in bridal but also a sign of the times. More recently, with the consumer culture ever-shifting toward online versus in-person shopping experiences, finding talent who appreciate face-to-face sales and understand the value of an excellent brick-and-mortar customer experience is downright tough. So she’s always on the lookout for someone with a great personality and who is clearly passionate and excited about bridal – and, in fact, sometimes this may be a Miss Ruby bride, a customer’s relative or her friend.
    Erin invests an extensive amount of time both in sourcing and interviewing candidates as well as training new hires with the store’s official training program, developed personally and with the help of bridal industry sales and business consultants. The more time upfront that goes into interviewing and training, the greater chance of employee retention, cutting costs in the long run.
    “We weed out people who aren’t a good fit instead of hiring everyone who is interested,” she says. “It takes a lot of interviews to find the right people. But something we’ve learned over time is what types of employees thrive and what types of employees do not. A lot of it really boils down to the right personality. Someone who is warm and easy to talk to is crucial because at the end of the day, girls don’t like being sold to. . . it’s about trust and connection. And we train for at least a month to six weeks before anyone goes out on the floor.”

Empowering the Culture
    In getting ahead of challenges and better managing common bridal-retail barriers, Erin has excelled in creating a dynamic culture in which both she and her staff thrive.
    She talks a great deal about how important customer relationships are to her, and she’s carved a way for her to continue enjoying this part of her job: delegation. More specifically, by delegating more responsibility to her stylists, which develops their skills, empowers them, and keeps them highly engaged. With her staff taking such responsibilities, Erin has been able to get out on the floor a little more to connect with customers and engage in this way herself.
    Equally important, as Miss Ruby stylists help with ordering, receiving and unpacking goods, training new staff, marketing, coordinating community service activities and other responsibilities, Erin has found she’s able to shift more time and energy to big-picture business planning, visioning and sustainability, including ensuring her staff members feel supported and nurtured and that they are all able to “give back” through the business, such as through charitable fashion shows and volunteer holiday activities. (See Most Memorable Moment sidebar below)
    For Erin, it’s this evolution in the business culture and the growing involvement of her staff that testifies to the store’s health and vitality. In a way, Miss Ruby has come full circle for the mom-and-daughter duo who came to this business with a combined $2,000 and a small business loan. And yet it’s still evolving, remaining ever-open to whatever may come next. After all, that’s what entrepreneurs do best.
    “We’ve experienced huge growth in the past two years, and where we’re at now is a combination of it all finally coming together,” Erin says. “So much of it has really just been about all the learning and responding.”
    No doubt about it, “learning and responding” aren’t easy practices for many retailers in today’s business climate. They require noticing, humility, patience and that drive to consistently do better. However, for true entrepreneurs, these innate traits tend to make, not break, a business. And, in the case of Erin, Pauline and staff, these traits are making Miss Ruby stronger, building both momentum and meaning over time.


Most Memorable Moment

In October 2019, Erin Thull and her co-owner/mother, Pauline Ellington, closed Miss Ruby boutique for an unprecedented day.
    The staff carpooled to a beautiful home on the shores of Lake Michigan for its first-ever staff retreat. It was to be a daylong exercise in joyful living, emphasizing contentment and gratitude. Erin hired a professional partner (Hazel Shoppe) that specialized in employee retreats to plan and guide the day. Among the activities: yoga on the deck, build-your-own breakfast parfaits, mindset work focused on empowerment and lifting each other up, writing gratitude letters to one another, and plenty of play – including board games, bocce ball and even a cartwheel challenge! The retreat mixed in down time, too, complete with relaxing, chatting with one another in the sunshine, watching a video of New York Times bestselling author Brené Brown (well known for her TED talks), and feasting on a hearty pasta dinner. . . and all this without the stress of work hanging over anyone’s head.
    “I know a lot of stores invest in their staff, but this was the first year I was really able to do this,” Erin says. “To be able to bring us all together in this rejuvenating way, it wasn’t just powerful but a dream come true. It was like, ok, my business is finally at ‘that point’—it’s ‘here,’ and we’re making this amazingness happen.”