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Credit: Paige Ivey Evatt, Ivey Photo,

To excel in business, you must identify what you do best and do your best at it.
   This is an approach Monica’s Bridal has taken to heart. The Chattanooga, Tenn., boutique, co-owned by Stephanie Palmer and Allie Holland, is exclusively focused on bridal, with the goal of providing the very best luxury experience to brides. As well, Stephanie and Allie – who met in a “total luck-of-the-draw” way – approach each decision confidently and with conviction.
   They also make a complementary team.

   “This business partner of mine, she just doesn’t live in the world of no,” Stephanie says of Allie. “She takes trying new things to a level you’ve never even imagined whereas I’m more a creature of habit who’d do the same thing the same way 150 times.
   “If she wasn’t here to shake that up and know she can’t give me time to back out, we wouldn’t have tried half the things we’ve done already.”

An Unlikely Beginning
   The roots of the current ownership of Monica’s Bridal go back 23 years, when Stephanie, then 20, took a break from accounting school and had a child. Before going back to the numbers game, she wanted to do something fun for a while. She began working at Monica’s full time in February 2000, intending to stay about a year. Within three months, however, she realized: I love this job! it isn’t going to pop and fizzle like I thought it would.
   At the same time Allie, then 13, would come into Monica’s regularly to visit her mother, who worked as the head seamstress. Allie loved the store’s joyous atmosphere and viewed it as a second home, frequently doing homework there while admiring pretty dresses.
   It was through these visits that the girls inevitably crossed paths. Nonetheless, neither could have imagined, in those early days when teenage Allie would breeze confidently through the front door past Stephanie into the back, that they’d someday become business partners.
   That thought would first permeate years later. Stephanie was still having a blast working at Monica’s, and had even told the owners she was in it for the long haul. Allie, whose constant exposure to the store had “kind of put (this industry) into my blood”, loved being in a cheerful, celebratory atmosphere.
   They began joking about buying Monica’s Bridal around the time Allie left for college. They knew the Murphys, who owned the store, intended to retire within the next decade, so the idea made sense. Allie planned to get her retail and consumer science degree with business minor from the University of Tennessee, then buy the store with Stephanie afterwards.
   It was, they say, an inevitability in their minds.
   “I look back now and think we were kind of freaking crazy to plan this for five, seven years down the road,” Stephanie says. “It was never ‘maybe we will’ it was ‘sure, absolutely!’”
   “That’s exactly how it was,” Allie confirms. “We never had to look at each other and say ‘do we want to do this?’ The question was: OK are you ready?”
   When the Murphys approached the girls with their five-year exit plan, preparation kicked into gear. Stephanie remained working at Monica’s, while Allie finished her degree. She came back to help with the store on breaks and worked various jobs to save up money.
   During this time the Murphys acted as mentors, allowing Stephanie and Allie to observe them doing various business tasks before they actually bought the store.
   That moment would come in July 2015, when Allie was 27 and Stephanie was 34. And it was such that the girls who’d met by chance during two very different points in their lives became co-owners of Monica’s Bridal as well as business partners.

New Era, Fresh Focus
   When Stephanie and Allie took over Monica’s, they immediately zeroed in on two things: upgrading the décor and scaling back the number of categories carried.
   Physically, the nearly 4,000-square-foot store, which had been a hunter/emerald green from head to toe, would go through two transformations.
   The first was immediate. During Labor Day weekend in 2015, they repainted everything light pink and recarpeted to tan. The second, much bigger renovation, occurred in December 2019. This time, they put down hardwood floors, painted tan/khaki-colored walls and got all-new furniture (three months later COVID hit).
   “The evolution was from very preppy and a bit dated, to a little more girly, to bringing in more of our personalities,” Allie says. “We added more color and put lots of emphasis on customer service.”
   In terms of categories, originally Monica’s Bridal sold many: flower girls, bridesmaids, mothers, bridal, prom, veils, accessories and jewelry, in addition to renting suits and tuxes. Stephanie and Allie knew immediately they wanted to focus on bridal, so they took a pause on things like flower girls and jewelry.
   “It’s not that we just threw them out the door, but we definitely stopped investing money into those smaller areas until we got the bigger areas right,” Allie says. “We really focused on building bridal up because we knew that was obviously our money-maker.”
   They were so fixated on making the bride’s experience amazing that, ultimately, they got rid of bridesmaids and special occasion.
   “We felt (those categories) detracted from our goal,” Allie says. “You’ve got bridesmaids over here being loud and wanting the music turned up, and a bride over there trying to have a moment with her mom. We just kept honing it back to what we wanted our brides to feel like.”
   An additional factor involved inventory.
   “At one point we had 400 special occasion dresses and moms would be like, is this all you have?’” Allie says. “I don’t have a magic wand to always have their size. We weren’t doing justice to the selection we needed, so we weren’t serving that customer perfectly. And that’s what I want to do.”
   Eliminating these categories had an unforeseen benefit.
   “It created a much healthier environment for our sales team,” Stephanie says. “No one wants to be the person who gets the five bridesmaids who get measured and still order something online, while the other two get a bride who buys a $2,500 dress and get bonuses.”
   Now focused exclusively on the bride, Monica’s carries wedding gowns and categories directly related to bridal, such as veils and jewelry. It also still rents tuxes and suits. Nothing is sold online, and about 30% of inventory is plus size.
   “More than 25% of our city is in the plus-size range,” Stephanie says. “It’s our job to do them the service of making sure we have enough inventory so a girl who’s an 18, 22 or 30 isn’t going to come here and only be able to try on three dresses.”

Providing a Top-Notch Experience
   Monica’s Bridal operates by appointment only, something that took Stephanie and Allie two years to transition to. In addition to helping control staffing, it allows them to drive home that upscale vibe. As a result, their average sale went up, from $1,100 when they took over, to $1,500 when they first went appointment only, to $2,200 today.
   “I think it made our customers a little more serious by forcing them to really think about whether they’re ready to spend money on a dress,” Allie says. “It also lets our vibe be a bit more special and important.”
   When brides book an appointment, they receive a questionnaire that asks pretty personal questions like: are you taking his last name? What’s your favorite wedding song? Do you like cold or room temperature water?
   This allows stylists to get to know them better and customize the appointment to their preferences. On weekends, local bakeries bring individual boxed treats for each bride and florists arrange mock bouquets for brides to use.
   When brides say yes, they receive special gifts, including a necklace with the letter of their new last name. They also receive a coozie, enjoy a photo booth, and get to pick a treat from a special bride selection
   “It’s about giving them little things that don’t cost you a lot but make them feel like, this was great!” Allie says.
   Monica’s Bridal offers perks such as free gown steaming and storage. It’s also the only boutique in the area with an in-house alterations team, which Stephanie dubs “our secret sauce.” That team is comprised of two full timers and a part-timer who assists seasonally.
   “They’re wizards, the best in their field,” Stephanie says. “(Alterations) changes the dynamic of what we’re capable of. We get to have a magic wand where the sky’s the limit as long as you have the time and want to spend the money.”
   It has also resulted in a much more knowledgeable staff.
   “All are well-versed enough in gowns, fabrics and what’s possible to say yes or no confidently,” Allie says. “That gives brides confidence, especially if they’re not good at picturing things.”
   The boutique’s follow-up is designed to make girls feel special, right down to a post-wedding appointment where Monica’s unbustles, boxes and sends a gown in for preservation for brides.
   “We’re with them every step of the way, from beginning to end,” Stephanie says.

Building the Dream Team
   Stephanie and Allie know how valuable an excellent staff is, and they put a lot of effort into hiring, training and rewarding.
   While they’ve found great employees in multiple ways, including the occasional walk-in, they’ve had the most success with sites like LinkedIn and Indeed.
   “We feel like those candidates are the most serious about jobs,” Allie says.
   For training, they utilize Do You Speak Bride? videos and their accompanying worksheets, which they had printed and bound. New hires are paid to go through them, and also take different in-store classes, such as “the top 10 gowns and what’s important about them” or “how to discern sizing.”
   They’ll do mock walk throughs, going over every detail of the appointment including how to walk a bride to the door. New hires then shadow seasoned stylists for a few weeks before being set loose on the floor.
   “Our employees have a very clear idea, very early on, how we expect each appointment to run,” Allie says.
   The training process has taught Stephanie and Allie a valuable lesson as well.
   “Honing in their people skills is the most important thing before teaching them about fabrics and fits,” Stephanie says. “Because that gets overwhelming and a client understands if you’re new as long as you’re kind and know how to converse.”
   In terms of compensation, the two full-timers are salary while the part-timers and seamstresses are hourly and can earn commission. So, if a seamstress sells the bride a veil during her final fitting, she gets commission on that veil.
   Consultants get commission on everything they sell. There are also bonuses for stuff like monthly close ratios, closing the first day, or selling a gown exceeding $2k. They’ll do occasional contests like offering an extra $50 to the first person to sell a particular dress.
   “Any kind of little challenges, our girls personally eat that up,” Allie says. “And honestly money talks bigger than anything else. They don’t want nail polish or face masks, they want money.”
   While no family works in the store anymore (Allie’s mom got a new job prior to her buying Monica’s Bridal, so they never actually worked together), and it took time to compile the right team, their current staff is a great fit.
   “They’re top-notch and we’re very lucky to have them,” Allie says. “We treat them how we’d want to be treated and probably even a little better because we know how valuable they are to us.”
   In terms of their own roles, Stephanie and Allie wear two different hats. Primarily, Stephanie handles the alterations team and does payroll/accounting, while Allie focuses on employee training and does all social media. They’ll both assist with various tasks as needed, and they meet weekly to discuss collectively handled matters, like scheduling.
   “Predominantly the reason we work so well is because we don’t try to do each others’ jobs,” Stephanie says. “We also don’t huddle over the top of each other once we set something in stone that works for one of us.”

Finding the Perfect Location
   As part of their 10-year plan, Stephanie and Allie knew they eventually wanted to own their own space to build out how they desired. As such, they created a “pipe dreams” Pinterest board where they collected inspirational photos.
   Then, in mid-2022, opportunity struck. Their landlord announced the building would be vacated and asked if they’d like to move to another one of their properties.
   In addition to not being thrilled with the options, Stephanie and Allie were shocked to see how much leasing prices had gone up. They realized it made more sense to buy, for reasons that went beyond financial.
   “It was time to level up,” Stephanie says. “We felt we’d gotten ourselves and our staff into the next category of service and our space needed to match that because that’s what’s going to get us into the next category of client.”
   Although the real estate market was difficult, they began searching. Within weeks, they’d found their space: a wide-open, near-identical size corner building, all concrete and windows from floor to ceiling. It was less than half a mile from their old location, in the desirable North Shore region. The building, which rounds out in front, is highly visible and also came with guaranteed parking (a rarity in that area).
   “Allie and I left just looking back and forth at each other, speechless,” Stephanie recalls. “And that said a lot to us because we knew we were both thinking: We like this space so much but are we ready for this?”
   Ready or not, and with the same definitive confidence that had driven their decision to purchase the business in 2015, they jumped, buying the building in June 2022. A tenant leased it back from them while they planned details with their architect. Then, in May 2023, renovations began, lasting through mid-October. They packed up their old store and moved to the new one in ten days from start to finish.
   “It was a whirlwind,” Allie says. “Our contractors think we’re delusional, everyone thinks we’re delusional but we get it done. I’m not sure what fairy dust is on us sometimes!”
   In designing their new store, Allie and Stephanie drew inspiration from luxury brands they love, really focusing on creating privacy for the bride.
   Previously, store traffic had to walk past the bridal suites, exposure that would occasionally upset brides if they saw someone else wearing “their” gown.
   In the new location, each bride has a private, comfortable suite exclusively for her and her guests. This ensures no one outside of her party will see her in her gown, contributing to a romantic, luxury experience.
   “Brides get very nervous and overwhelmed while shopping and to know they can feel their own feelings in a room by themselves with just their people is important,” Stephanie says. “It doesn’t matter what size the bride is or how long she’s been engaged, many just want the experience to be private.”
   Additionally, everything about the new boutique – including walls, trim, furniture and fixtures – is fresh and upscale. The building’s top story boasts a wonderful rooftop pavilion, complete with spectacular city view, where they’re considering letting Monica’s brides exclusively do their portraits.
   “This new store allows us to really make it about the brides and make it more luxury,” Allie says. “We’re always carried expensive items but I want someone to feel like they get a luxurious experience as well. I think that goes a long way toward the bride saying yes, feeling like she got her luxury experience TV has taught us she deserves. And she does deserve it!”

Balancing Act
   Monica’s Bridal has been in its new location for more than a month now. The process of vacating their old store and moving into the new one so quickly was a whirlwind no doubt. But it’s a challenge they rose to and thrived on, just like with other past changes.
    And now, kicking back in their luxurious new environment, Stephanie and Allie reflect on their near decade as owners.
   “I think the smartest thing I’ve learned is do not immediately react,” Stephanie says. “You have to really think about everything involved before you open your mouth or sign a document that’s going to effect the rest of your life. Life is a lot easier if you just breathe for a minute before you react.”
   She’s also a huge believer in the importance of developing new relationships.
   “Whether you’re going to know that person for just one day or the next 18 months or forever, (it) has everything to do with business success,” she says.
   For her part, Allie thrives on helping people who are often nervous and unsure of themselves push past those boundaries to celebrate something big in their lives.
   “Getting them to understand their worth is honestly half the battle,” she says. “If you can connect enough to make someone feel relaxed and joyous, that’s impactful whether or not you get the sale. I’ve had girls cry on the phone because they didn’t buy their dress with us, but they loved us. And honestly that means the world to me. It’s really what this business is about.”
   Both Stephanie and Allie credit the Murphys – whom they describe as “incredible people who do nothing but celebrate us and tell us how proud they are” - for teaching them the core values Monica’s Bridal centers around today.
   “Whether it’s in our dress or not, we want everybody to feel as beautiful as they are,” Allie says. “That’s where we start every decision, whether it’s picking up a line or how we’re going to answer a question. It all goes back to how are we going to make somebody feel?”
   Moving forward, Stephanie and Allie are excited to take Monica’s Bridal to the next level in its beautiful new location. They also look forward to returning to the work-life balance they cherish, which got temporarily out of whack during the move.
   Allie and her husband Josh have two kids, Noa, 8, and Bobby, 6, whom their activities center around. She also loves to shop – shoes in particular! – and used to be big into weight training, once even competing in a power-lifting competition.
   Stephanie’s life outside of bridal is polar opposite of her life inside the store. The “quintessential blue jeans, ball cap, beer and hot wings kind of personality”, she grew up riding dirt and street bikes. One of 18 cousins who are all very close, she loves spending time with her family, which includes wife Jessie, a 24-year-old son and her first granddaughter.
   Stephanie and Allie value a great work-life balance so much, in fact, that it’s the reason they don’t plan to open any more locations. (Fun fact: they once considered opening a separate bridesmaids’ store, even going so far as to draw up a business model, but abandoned the idea after realizing somebody would have to work out of town).
   “The book The Pumpkin Plan really taught us that being great at something is better than being everywhere,” Allie says. “We just want to do this really well and give our city something to be proud of so brides don’t feel that they have to go to a ‘big city’ to find this amazing experience. And that would be enough!”