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The White Dress by the shore - Stronger Together

A bride celebrates her dress choice during a premium White Carpet appointment.
A bride celebrates her dress choice during a premium White Carpet appointment.
Little decór touches make a big impact.
Little decór touches make a big impact.
Elegant touches abound throughout the boutique, giving it a more upscale feel.
Elegant touches abound throughout the boutique, giving it a more upscale feel.
Bridesmaids attire is stored in its own location on the property.
Bridesmaids attire is stored in its own location on the property.
Part of the boutique’s charm is its resemblance to a picturesque house.
Part of the boutique’s charm is its resemblance to a picturesque house.
The White Dress by the shore staff; owner Beth Chapman fourth from right.
The White Dress by the shore staff; owner Beth Chapman fourth from right.
Beth Chapman
Beth Chapman
Parts of the boutique feel just like a home.
Parts of the boutique feel just like a home.
Wooden beams hint at the boutique’s antique history.
Wooden beams hint at the boutique’s antique history.
More homey touches at The White Dress by the shore.
More homey touches at The White Dress by the shore.
More homey touches at The White Dress by the shore.
More homey touches at The White Dress by the shore.

When it comes to multitasking, Beth Chapman might be the master.
    
The 47-year-old married mother of two not only owns a successful 15-year-old bridal boutique, The White Dress by the shore in Clinton, Conn., but she also runs a complementary and booming secondary business, Beth Chapman Styling + Consulting, which sees her regularly bounce from speaking engagement to consulting project to styling gig, all within the wedding world.
    
It’s a lot to juggle, especially considering that, no matter what, Chapman’s family will always come first. The more impressive thing, however, is the focus of her efforts: A significant portion of Chapman’s time is spent helping other bridal storeowners run efficient and profitable businesses - essentially, in fact, strengthening her competition.
    
“Initially I was like: is this crazy? You know I’m selling my secrets, right?” Chapman says of the Series 2.0, videos she created to educate bridal storeowners on everything from elevating brand to increasing sales.
    
“It’s basically the way I run my business; I’m telling everybody how I’ve run a successful business for 15 years!” she says. “But, at the end of the day, my desire for elevating the industry was greater than that fear. I really feel like if we can individually elevate what we’re doing we can collectively elevate the industry.”

Falling into bridal
    
Looking back, it’s not surprising Chapman would end up in fashion. Growing up, she was the kid who, while always entrepreneurial and passionate about education, was constantly playing dress-up, making a beeline for the jewelry or hats in the antique stores she’d visit with her mother.
    
Fresh out of college, she started in an entry level position at Ann Taylor’s corporate office in New York City, where she eventually worked her way up to VP of Merchandising. Chapman essentially grew up at the company, marrying her husband of 23 years, Mark, during her tenure there. And while her relationship is awesome (“He’s my sounding board!” she says of the financial advisor for municipalities), her bridal shopping experience was anything but.
    
“I was disappointed with the level of service, condition of the gowns, and that I wasn’t able to customize and make my dress my own,” she says. “They looked at me like I had three heads when I asked if I could do that. I had a different vision for the way a bridal experience should be.”
    
Ultimately, through her connections in the fashion industry, Chapman was able to work directly with the designer once she found a gown she loved. The woman would serve Chapman cappuccino and Italian cookies during what proved to be a very collaborative, intimate experience in her showroom.
    
It planted a seed. Why, Chapman wondered, can’t this type of experience be translated into bridal salons? Her desire to create more of a boutique experience took root. She envisioned having a curated collection of gowns from different designers that appealed to one taste level. And she’d strive to work with designers who provided exceptional customer service so she could in turn do the same. Most importantly, she’d customize looks for her brides.
    
Five more years passed before everything aligned and she felt like it was time. She left Ann Taylor and opened The White Dress by the shore in 2004.
    
It was a decision on which she would never look back.

The more things change…
    
The White Dress by the shore today is located in the same building it began in, although much about its layout and approach has changed.
    
When the boutique, a picturesque house built in 1763, first opened, Chapman rented out its second story with apartments. She had two fitting rooms and no employees, instead enlisting her best friend and mother to help. After about a month she needed formal assistance and hired a very part-time stylist with previous bridal experience.
    
“I was feeling a little lost in the bridal world,” she says. “Even though I came from fashion bridal has its own vocabulary, fabrics and nuances that were all totally new to me so it was invaluable to have someone with previous experience teaching me the ropes.”
    
This employee was also an exceptional salesperson, which helped Chapman hone her own skills. The boutique grew organically from there, turning a profit its first year (Chapman’s business plan allowed her to put all earnings back into the boutique initially, a move afforded by her previous career). Because of the volume, she had two full-time sales associates within two years.
    
Six months after that, she took over the second floor for alterations and storage. Two years following, she did a major renovation: doubling the boutique to 2,500 selling square feet and adding two more fitting rooms. Today, there’s also an 800-square-foot renovated barn in the back where bridesmaids’ dresses are housed called chic by the shore.
    
And that’s not all that has changed.
    
“I think the only things that have remained the same are our target bride, which I sort of describe as a classic bride with a fashion twist, and our mission: to create an exceptional shopping experience,” she says. “Other than that, it’s so different!”
    
In addition to doubling in size, Chapman added four part-time stylists and two sales assistants and changed the way she does alterations as well.
    
When she first started, a seamstress came into the boutique and did the first fitting there, then all subsequent fittings at her home studio. Chapman did not get paid for alterations; she simply offered them as a service to her clients. In exchange, the seamstress would alter clothes for Chapman and sew a plastic two-inch hem on the bottom of every sample to keep it clean.
    
“It seems very extreme now but I did it because I was so disappointed in the quality and cleanliness of the gowns years ago when I shopped for my own gown,” she says. “Now with the number of samples we have there’s no blessed way that we could do that. I don’t even know how we did it then, so that was hilarious.”
    
Present day, Chapman has one full-time seamstress and three seasonal seamstresses. All fittings are done in the boutique, the alterations work at their home studios.
    
“I think alterations are very important to a bridal business but I recognize how extremely challenging they are, especially to find the talent to be able to perform the service,” she says.

…the more they stay the same
    
One constant has always been an unwavering focus on providing an excellent experience.
    
“I often say that experience is not about one thing, it’s about all the things,” Chapman says. “And really, it’s how all these different elements come together to create this experience for the client.”
    
At The White Dress by the shore, the experience starts before a bride comes into the store. Staff engage as much as possible via social media and, through a bride’s preferred method of contact, have in-depth interaction aimed at identifying what she’s looking for in her gown and developing a relationship.
    
Once she arrives at the boutique, coffee and tea are served in antique cups, as well as still or sparkling water. Each private fitting room boasts the name of a European city, and staff always lets the bride know what room she’s going to.
    
“We’ll joke she’s taking a trip to Paris or Versailles and we escort her to the room and they think that’s a sweet, special little detail,” Chapman says.
    
From there, the appointment is all about the bride.
    
“We always say we’re helping her to buy a gown vs. selling her a gown, and we make her feel that way,” Chapman says. “We try to make it as memorable as possible by being her advocate and helping to educate and assist her in finding the perfect gown.”
    
For brides seeking extra pampering, there’s the White Carpet Experience. For $325, they can rent out the entire boutique for three hours on a Sunday, when it’s typically closed. A photographer captures the experience, champagne and customized food is served, and the bride may bring unlimited guests. She does not receive credit for a purchase but is gifted an amazing swag bag.
    
White Carpet appointments have been in existence for more than five years and the boutique averages about two a month.
    
“They’ve been very, very successful,” Chapman says. “We’ve had no pushback on the price. It’s an elevated level of our experience that brides really appreciate.”
    
In fact, eager to expand upon their success, the boutique launched a complement called The Bridesmaid Soiree. Instead of a typical hour-and-a-half bridesmaids’ appointment, for $225 a bridal party gets the entire studio space for two hours. Mimosas and cupcakes are served, and each maid gets a swag bag.
    
“There’s a lot of polarizing conversation in the industry right now about whether or not we should charge for appointments, so this is sort of our workaround for it,” she says. “I don’t know that I’ll ever charge for our regular appointments but we’ve been very successful with these elevated level of experience appointments that we do charge for.”

Family environment
    
Of course, the success of any appointment depends on excellent staff. Chapman is fortunate in that aspect: one associate has been with her for seven years, another for almost five.
    
“We always joke that none of our associates ever really leave The White Dress,” she says. “They may go onto to have children or do something else but often if we’re in a pinch they’ll come back and work for me again, which is nice. We really view our staff as a family and they view it that way too, which is amazing.”
    
The way associates are found has evolved over the years; lately Chapman’s had success through Instagram and Facebook. Her manager will phone screen potential stylists first looking for, more than anything else, personality. Chapman will then conduct face-to-face interviews with qualified candidates. Often, especially for full-time stylists, a second meeting takes place over lunch. This is based on advice from a sales executive friend who only hires people he feels he could buy something from at the end of a meal.
    
Stylists are hired on a six-week trial basis and go through an extensive training process that culminates in spending several weeks shadowing Chapman, her manager and all other stylists.
    
“I think it’s important they shadow (everyone) because while I have a selling system I use and train everyone has their own unique personality and nuances as to how they sell,” she says. “I think they can learn a little bit from each person even if it’s only to say, ‘Oh, I’m definitely never going to do that!’”
    
The final step is Chapman or her manager will shadow the new hire; altogether, new stylists aren’t allowed to work with brides on their own for about two months. However, once someone has completed training, she’s a member of a well taken care of family.
    
Staff are incentivized through regular contests rewarded with American Express gift cards, which Chapman receives from her business credit card points.
    
“I’m also very generous; I love birthdays,” she says. “Usually I’ll give them a gift card and a personal little gift of something I know they’d love.”
    
In the rare case someone isn’t a good fit, Chapman follows admittedly difficult advice:
    
“Shoot the dogs early,” she says. “If you’ve identified someone who just isn’t working you have to cut them loose. As painful as it might be or as much time as you might have invested, it’s better to just cut your losses and go about finding someone who is a better fit.”

Approach to brick-and-click
    
Chapman is a firm believer that a bride should not buy her wedding gown online, and The White Dress by the shore targets a bride who’d never consider doing that. At the same time, she understands the reality that certain brides online shop for a reason. Nonetheless she strongly feels there’s a space and place for brick-and-mortar stores.
    
“If we continue creating exceptional experiences, we’ll be able to continue capturing that business,” she says. “She can be an online shopper in every other aspect of her life, and that’s why I think shopping in a brick-and-mortar store can be even more special because it seems like such a novelty. And then, P.S., if it’s an incredible experience that makes it even more special!”

Despite Chapman’s conviction, The White Dress by the shore isn’t immune to the challenges Internet selling presents – particularly, right now, with brides buying accessories online.
    
“Nothing gets under my skin more than when they walk into my boutique for their fitting and have a box from Sara Gabriel, one of my accessories designers who happens to sell online,” she says. “That drives me a little bit batty so it’s a real issue that we have to address but I think there is room for both brick-and-mortar and online retailers.”
    
The solution, Chapman believes, is two-fold: first, retailers must work with their designers. To that end, she scheduled a call with Sara Gabriel to discuss how to preserve her sales.
    
“I can’t put blinders to the fact that she is going to continue to sell online because that’s what’s best for her business,” she says. “So what can we do to protect my business? We have to come up with ways we can work together instead of battle each other.”
    
Additionally, Chapman believes, it’s crucial to educate brides on the fact that it’s hard to buy accessories without being in a gown. The White Dress by the shore offers special accessories reveal appointments that allow brides to see their whole look and include additional family or friends.
    
“I think that solves a couple of issues we’re dealing with right now,” she says. “First, you’re encouraging her not to bring an entire entourage when shopping for her dress and second, you’re reminding her that accessories should be done in-store so hopefully she won’t be going to Etsy or one of your designers to purchase them online.”
    
That said, Chapman believes brick-and-mortar stores must incorporate some element of e-commerce to combat online shopping; personally, she thinks it should be in the way of selling samples to liquidate inventory. The boutique offers a service called The White Dress at home – all sample gowns are pictured on its website and a bride can select up to three to be shipped to her home.
    
“And I’m being very clear - it’s my sample gowns, inventory that I’m selling off the rack, not my reorderable gowns,” she says.
    
Brides, who pay for shipping, are sent instructions for a try-on party in the privacy of their own home as well as a little YES sign in case they find a gown they love. Anything they don’t want is sent back; if they purchase a gown shipping is credited back to them. Recently, The White Dress by the shore started partnering with a company called Style Locator to make this process easier.
    
“Whether it’s gifts or even just allowing bridesmaids to pay for their dresses online, (it’s crucial) in this day and age for us to have some online convenient element of e-commerce to be able to compete and survive,” she says.

On the side
    
As if running a bridal boutique didn’t keep her busy enough, Chapman also owns a thriving secondary business, Beth Chapman Styling + Consulting, which serves two distinct purposes.
    
On one hand, Chapman provides styling services for brides as well as a day-of-wedding dressing service and some editorial styling.
    
“It’s a fun, creative outlet for me,” she says. “And it’s opened me up to a whole other level of the industry that I’m not necessarily seeing on a day-to-day basis, which is amazing!”
    On the consulting side, Chapman helps other bridal storeowners run efficient and profitable businesses. This resulted from a training program she created more than four years ago, which she realized might be useful to other storeowners; as well as simultaneous industry changes she noticed, including major retailers testing the waters in bridal and competition from designers getting into e-commerce.
    “As bridal storeowners we sort of felt this pressure from all sides,” she says. “And as a solopreneur I didn’t have a business partner so it was hard at times because I felt like I was on an island by myself. I started to realize if I’m feeling this way, I can’t be the only one.”
    Chapman noticed collaboration in other areas of the industry and wanted to translate that into the bridal retail aspect, which had traditionally been “funny” about competition.
    So, in addition to launching the Series 2.0 as a training vehicle, she developed a community called The White Dress Society, which started as a Facebook group. Now 900+ members worldwide strong, it’s a vehicle for bridal storeowners to ask questions of each other, speak their minds and share frustrations or victories. The group has an annual retreat, entering its fourth year.
    “It was all designed to rise above fear and this new inundation of online retail,” she says. “I really feel like if we can individually elevate what we’re doing we can collectively elevate the industry.”
    Of course, running two businesses simultaneously can be difficult. The time spent on each varies weekly depending on where she’s needed, but Chapman thrives on the challenge.
    “The why I do what I do is simple: I’m an entrepreneur through and through and I get tired of doing the same thing over again, so I’m always onto the next idea and constantly evolving it, making it better – that’s a passion of mine,” she says.
    Nonetheless searching for balance, especially once you throw in family obligations and the regular workouts she loves, is “like the holy grail, right?” she jokes. “We’re all looking for it and it’s hard to achieve!”
    Fortunately, not only does Chapman have an amazing, well-trained team and solid procedures in place, which allows the boutique to run smoothly in her absence, but she also has a family lifeline: Both her dad and stepdad were entrepreneurs whom she can call if needed for advice.
    “The How I do what I do is with a heck of a lot of support,” she says. “I think my family realizes (the bridal industry) is what makes me happy and what I’m passionate about, so they support me in all that I do.”

Bright future, big plans

Moving forward and true to her entrepreneurial nature, Chapman is full of exciting ideas.
    She’s already planning the White Dress Society retreat for next May, and is also going to be rolling out mini retreats, which will take place at individual bridal storeowners’ stores. She also wants to bring the White Dress Society retreat overseas, perhaps to London or even Australia.
    Also on the radar: growing the retreat. Last year’s event, held in Chicago, had 55 bridal storeowners; next year she plans to increase it to 75.
    As for the physical boutique, The White Dress by the shore will stay where it’s at, continuing to provide an amazing shopping experience in a picturesque environment. Reflecting back, Chapman is most proud of two accomplishments: when the boutique hit $1 million in annual sales around its fifth year in business, a benchmark they’ve since exceeded; and just being in business for 15 years, especially in light of all the changes that have occurred in the industry. The best part of her job remains seeing brides happy.
    “Making them look beautiful, but more importantly feel beautiful, never gets old,” she says.
    Chapman’s goal is to evolve and sustain her business, and she’s currently trying to figure out what form that will take. There will definitely be a new branding video coming soon, as well as more time spent on marketing efforts. Beyond that, Chapman’s own schedule will change this fall: true to her “family first” nature, she’ll be attending her 16-year-old son’s football games on Saturdays instead of being at the boutique (she and Mark also have an 18-year-old daughter and 8-year-old Labradoodle).
    It’s a big leap of faith for her as well as a test of her staff, training and procedures. It also goes along with her number-one piece of advice to other storeowners: Don’t be resistant to change.
    “In order to survive we have to evolve, especially in this day and age,” she says. “So just have an open mind and don’t be afraid to try things out. Entrepreneurship is about change so we really have to embrace what’s going on and see where it can lead. I’m very passionate about working together to make some changes, keep up with today’s bride and help (the industry) thrive.”


Photos for White Dress by the shore: Jennifer Conti Photography

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Previous Retail Standouts

For over 25 years, VOWS magazine has had the privilege of profiling some of the finest bridal salons in North America. What follows is a sampling of those salons gracing our pages, listed in alpha order:

Anderson’s Bride, Anchorage, Ak. www.andersonsbride.com

Angelique’s Bridal Salon, Blaine, Minn. www.angeliquesbridalsalon.com

Anjolique Bridal & Formal, Huntersville, N.C. anjolique-bridal.com

Arlene’s Bridal Salon, Bloomfield, N.J. www.arlenesbridals.com

Azteca Bridal, Phoenix, Ariz. www.azbride.com

Beautiful Weddings, Missoula, Mon. www.beautifulweddingsbridal.com

Becker’s Bridal, Fowler, Mich www.beckersbridal.com

Bella Sera Bridal & Occasion, Danvers, MA www.bellaserabride.com

Betsy Robinson's Bridal, Pikesville, MD  www.betsyrobinson.com

Brickhouse Bridal, The Woodlands, Texas www.brickhousebridal.com

Bridal and Formal Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio www.bridalandformalinc.com

Bridal Garden, Marlton, N.J. www.bridal-garden.com

Bridal Reflections, Massapequa, N.Y. www.bridalreflections.com

Bridal Superstore by Posie Patch, Indianapolis, Ind. www.posiepatchbridalsuperstores.com

Bridal Trousseau, Branford, Conn. www.bridal-trousseau.net

Bridal Warehouse, Elizabethtown, Ky www.usabridal.com

Bridals by Lori, Atlanta, GA www.bridalsbylori.com

Carlisle’s of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa. www.bridalwear.com

Catan Fashions, Strongsville, Ohio www.catanfashions.com

Champagne & Lace, Abbotsford, B.C. champagneandlace.com

Charlotte’s Weddings & More, Portland, Ore. www.charlottesweddings.com

Chic Parisien, Coral Gables, Fla. www.cpbride.com

d’Anelli Bridal, Lakewood, Colo. www.coloradobridal.com

Deborah’s Bridal, Upland, Calif. www.deborahsbridal.com

Doreen Leaf Designs, Hartville, Ohio www.doreenleafdesigns.com

Elegant Occasions, Wausau, WI www.elegantoccasions.net

Elizabeth’s Bridal Manor, Northville, Mich. www.elizabethsbridal.com

Emmy’s Bridal, Minster, Ohio emmysbridal.com

Fiancée Bridal, Minot, N.D. fianceebridal.com

I Do Bridal, Seattle, Wash. idobridal.com

Imaginations Bridal, Brookhaven, Miss. www.imaginationsbridal.com

J&B Bridal, Chambersburg, Pa. www.jbbridals.com

Jay West, Haddonfield, N.J. www.jaywestbridal.com

Jessica’s Bridal & Formal, Bay, Ark. www.jessicasbridal.net

JJ Kelly Bridal, Oklahoma City, OK www.jjkellybridal.com

Kleinfeld, New York, N.Y. www.kleinfeldbridal.com

Little White Dress, Denver, CO www.lwdbridal.com

Low’s Bridal & Formal, Brinkley, Ark. lowsbridal.com

Mariella Creations, Rocky Hill, Ct. www.mariellacreations.com

Mark Ingram Atelier, New York, N.Y. markingramatelier.com

MB Bride & Special Occasion, Greensburg, Pa. www.mbbride.com

Mestad’s Bridal & Formalwear, Rochester, Minn. www.mestads.com

Mon Amie Bridal Salon, Costa Mesa, Calif. www.monamie.com

Poffie Girls Bridals & Formals, Gastonia, N.C. www.poffiegirls.com

Prevue Bridal & Formal, San Diego, Calif. prevueformalandbridal.com

Rebecca’s Wedding Boutique, Louisville, Ky. www.rebeccasweddings.com

Special Memories, Leadington, Mo. www.specialmemories.com

Terry Costa, North Dallas, Texas www.terrycosta.com

The Bridal Centre, Calgary, AB, Canada www.bridalcentre.com

The Bridal Collection, Centennial, Colo.www.thebridalcollection.com 

The Bridal Path, Jackson, Miss. www.bridalpathinc.com

The Plumed Serpent, Westport, Conn. plumedserpentbridal.com

The Gilded Gown, Knoxville, Tenn. www.thegildedgown.com

The Wedding Tree, La Crosse, Wis. www.theweddingtree.com

TJ Formal Profiled: Joplin, Mo. www.tjformal.com

Uptown Bridal & Boutique Chandler, Ariz. uptownbrides.com

Vera’s House of Bridals   Madison, Wis. www.verasbridals.com

Wedding Belles Stevensville, Mich. www.weddingbellesbridalsalon.com

Wedding Shoppe Inc. St. Paul, Minn. www.weddingshoppeinc.com

Wedding Wonderland Knoxville, Tenn. www.wedding-wonderland.com

Weddings by Debbie Katy, Texas www.weddingsbydebbie.com

Wishing Well Bridal East Providence, R.I. www.wishingwellbridal.com

 

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