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Photo Credit: Amy Becker Photography

We’ve all heard about the importance of “working on” a business, not just “working in” a business.
   But in the bridal industry (as in many others), burnout is real. And in great part, it’s a consequence of working too many hours in a retail operation, not taking periodic steps back from the day-in, day-out role and responsibilities to focus on higher-level strategies, goals and vision.
   On the flip side, storeowners who have the wisdom, ability and discipline to work on their businesses gain serious leverage over competitors. More than that, they gain freedom within their careers and often find an evolving, self-propelling sense of purpose that continually drives and sustains whatever entrepreneurial ventures they pursue.
   Sarah Lauer, owner of Sarah’s Bridal Gallery in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, is one of those very storeowners who has not only learned this valuable lesson in her career but really lived it. Over the course of two decades in bridal retail, Lauer has poured serious “blood, sweat and tears” into her business yet also managed to strike a balance, carving ways to reflect on its direction, make important shifts, take the time needed to nurture her own needs, and let the “why” driving her career change when necessary. Because, after all, the reason for working, employing others, and providing services or products to customers invariably evolves if you’re in the business for any significant amount of time.

An Eager, Early Start
   Graduating from a small Christian high school in Mount Pleasant, Lauer didn’t quite feel the calling to head off to a traditional four-year college. Yet highly motivated to pursue some career direction, she applied to dental hygiene school. Upon learning she was waitlisted, Lauer next enrolled in community college and took a part-time job at a bridal shop in a mall. This first taste of bridal gave her quick insight into an industry that she realized she loved right away.
   “It was a sink-or-swim kind of experience because the storeowner was never really there, always at her other location,” Lauer says. “But I really liked helping customers, and it was a lot of fun.”
   When the store unexpectedly shuttered without a word to its employees or brides, Lauer found herself without a job and unsure of what to do. Yet around that same time, her parents, who were realtors, had purchased an old house in downtown Mount Pleasant. Intended to be an investment, Lauer noticed the potential for a bridal salon, and discussions between her parents and her began for opening a shop.
   “I come from a background of entrepreneurial people in my family – my grandmother and my parents,” Lauer says. “I think my parents invested in this as my education because school really wasn’t my thing. They saw that I would learn way more figuring this business out and, if it didn’t work, we’d still have the house to sell.”
   The 800-square-foot house was zoned for commercial and with her parents co-signing on a loan, a business tax ID acquired, and renovations completed, the part-time business officially kicked off in 2002. Lauer was just 20 years old. But in spite of this early start, her energy and vision were inspiring – she and her mom headed to market “just to look” but wound up taking the purchasing plunge, buying a very small amount of cash-n-carry jewelry, discontinued bridal gowns and heavily reduced goods.
   Back home, Lauer had kept her options open, working part time in a dental office in the mornings while running the bridal business every afternoon and evening by appointment only. The traffic started rolling in, and it took only one year before she realized that to really do it all well, she had to commit to Sarah’s Bridal Gallery full time. What’s more, she needed a bigger space, which prompted what would become the first of three additions – initially one for more bridal goods, a second addition for a prom department, and a third allowing for more prom and a layout that supported clearly delineated departments while retaining its cozy, comfortable and somewhat intimate high-value feel.
   In ten years’ time, the space grew from an initial 800 to its current 5,000 square feet. Of note, with the second addition, Lauer took full ownership of the business and its loan, honoring that investment her parents had made in her entrepreneurial education.

Keys to Initial Success
   When Lauer reflects on aspects of her bridal niche that have contributed to and continue to support its success – an approximate 2,650% growth since the business’s inception – her thoughts turn to stellar customer service and first impressions, which are undoubtedly creating lasting impressions for many brides.
   While many salons allow for booking appointments and confirming those online or via text, SBG brides always get a personal phone call right upon booking their appointment. This introduction is both a discovery call as well as a chance to just be personal and real with those brides it hopes to help and sell.
   “From that first call to when she’s here in the store, I always think bridal is 100 percent about the customer experience,” Lauer says. “This is also about celebrating her biggest day. I always tell my stylists who are selling dresses all day, every day that, for a bride, it’s more than likely this is her most expensive piece of clothing she’ll buy and the most photographed piece for sure. So as the leader in the business, I remind the staff that it’s not just another dress or number. It’s a celebration of her.”
   To boost the celebratory factor, SBG added a paid-for experience for brides a few years ago, where they can book a private appointment for up to six people. It comes with champagne, food, a floral arrangement and a gift from SBG. And it’s a service that’s being tweaked all the time. For example, the store will soon offer a more expanded paid-for experience outside of regular business hours for a higher fee. Also, once resistant to allowing her staff to accept tips, Lauer has changed that policy so customers can leave tips, a new standard that’s helped with employee engagement and the customer experience.
   “I have to remind myself that I’m the boss and if something doesn’t work, that’s ok,” she says. “Being able to try different things in this industry is so important.”
   No doubt, SBG has a few “different things” going on today, including in-house Merle Norman make-up sales (the closest make-up counter to Mount Pleasant is an hour’s drive from the town), where customers can purchase products and book makeovers. Lauer also ran ready-to-wear sales out of her store for a time but has moved that to its own brick-and-mortar downtown location called “Lillian Grace Boutique.” Some cross-promotions between the two shops and the same signature customer service elevate both brands.
   In the high-growth, initial years of SBG, the store responded to market needs, expanding beyond bridal, including pageant wear and, of course, prom, which has become a huge offering for the store and is in the process of blowing out into an even bigger business this spring.
   “If the girl is driving from one to two hours away, I want her to have plenty of dresses to try on in her size,” Lauer says. “We’ve done this for 15 years, and customers have come to know that the drive is worth it.”
   As part of Top 10 Prom, they receive exclusive designer gowns and capitalize on cutting-edge marketing, SEO and SEM provided through this organization. Using BridalLive software, they streamline the purchasing experience while helping ensure no two teens from the same school will be sold the same dress in the same color.
   No doubt, the prom business, like bridal, requires a lot of energy and focus to continually net rewards. So it pays to have other less demanding yet lucrative customer offerings, such as tuxedos. For years in Mount Pleasant, various random businesses – a florist, a dry cleaner, a hair salon – were renting tuxedos. So it only made sense for SBG to add this to its mix, dial it in and do it well. One of Lauer’s longtime employees, Deb, is absolutely passionate and gifted in fitting tuxedos and working with the clientele. In addition, asks like last-minute orders or changes can usually be managed thanks to Milroy’s Tuxedos, which drives tuxedos up every Friday night and can accommodate most any request. Because SBG has become so well known for its excellent tuxedo business, Lauer doesn’t ever see a need to do coupons. Customers are more than willing to pay for the value received, from the expert fitting and convenient customer service to the quality of the tuxedos themselves.
   “Anyone can throw a book (catalog) on the table and have tux business,” Lauer says. “But I feel like the brides that use us have confidence that everything coming out of this store is going to fit perfectly and making sure of this over the past 20 years has helped tremendously.”
   Also helping tremendously, particularly with all the business mechanics and the data and tracking behind it is Lauer’s husband Ryan. In addition to his career running a grain elevator and farming 5,000 acres, he has a very active role in SBG, having learned the business and all its financials inside and out. A numbers guy with a master’s in economics, he thrives in recognizing fiscal trends and opportunities, noticing what’s working and what’s not, then providing those insights for market buys and other strategic business decisions. He’s regularly traveled to the trade shows to tag-team with Lauer in buying, plus has been asked to present to industry trade groups on their business expertise. And during prom season, he helps run staff meetings – another skill and something he genuinely enjoys.
   “He has his other job, but it’s really been a good mix – the two of us,” she says, noting he’s also taken the lead in marketing and managing the website. “He’s generally involved in the whole business, and we go to conferences together and not just bridal conferences but conferences for business in general.”

The ‘Why’ and Its Tie to the Business
   Business conferences. Mastermind meetings. Retail trade shows. And time off.
   Stepping beyond the front doors of the business to learn new strategies, evolve the business’s vision, and even take a break from time to time have all contributed to Sarah and Ryan’s ability to gain new perspectives, gain knowledge and understanding, and undertake new directions for the good of the business, themselves, their staff and their customers.
   In fact, some years back, Sarah stepped away from daily operations and put her energy into starting a family. Key to that was having an amazingly talented staff upon which she could rely and who carried on with the business with both passion for their work and excellent communication with customers. Now that Sarah’s kids are in school, she’s returned full time to the store feeling inspired, full of vision, and focused on a number of projects and updates.
   “At SBG, we started very small and learned the value of building things a little at a time,” says Sarah, recalling the various stages of business, from start up to its current maturity. “For a long time, my ‘why’ was to sell dresses, then it shifted to providing employees with a good-paying job in a small town, and now it’s like 50/50 with being able to pay those good jobs but also provide the experience and selection I’d like to have if I were to go shopping. Some storeowners aren’t ok with their ‘why’ changing or even realize it is happening, but I’m ok with it changing even though I recognize that I’ve struggled with it at times.”
   And no bridal business owner, much less the business itself, is immune to struggle. Sarah speaks to some of the struggles, whether it’s COVID-related challenges or sourcing those passionate and communicative staff members, as very real. But because of her strategic grit and how she’s capitalized on opportunities in her local market, SBG operates from a place of security not scarcity – and she doesn’t shy away from any challenges that may present.
   “We’ve worked so hard over the years and have a cushion, so we can weather storms,” says Sarah, noting that her store did not experience the frantic energy that so many others faced throughout the nation during the COVID shutdown. “My feeling is if there’s one storm out there, there will probably be more, but it’s going to be ok.”
   The payoff for all the hard work over time is SBG sits prepared for challenges, which allows Sarah, Ryan and all the staff to work together to problem solve proactively versus reactively when and if any “storms” do arise.
   More than just “ok,” this business operates from a truly healthy state, so much so that it’s possible for the staff to take time away from the store, build connection, strengthen its culture, and have fun together. In fact, Sarah has been known to reward her staff with five-day trips to Florida for rejuvenation and relaxation – an experience that always serves to not just reinforce Sarah’s why but also confirms for this storeowner that taking that entrepreneurial path was the right choice for her, the SBG staff, and, of course, the customers who’ve come from far and near for what’s now amounted to an impressive 20 years of retail service.