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Photo Credits: Marissa Dillon Photography,

Pam Stieve had a decision to make.
   Back in the early 1980s, Stieve was working as a medical assistant and hit a personal crossroads. She could either pursue a nursing career or chase a different professional adventure. While nursing offered stability and the comfort of a familiar field, embarking on a different occupational path triggered uncertainty but also potentially energizing opportunities.
   As Stieve endured this internal debate, her mother offered a suggestion. She knew a woman in Florida who had previously owned two bridal shops in Maine.
   “Have a chat with her,” Stieve’s mother proposed.
   Stieve obliged and met Donna Cochran in New York City, where Cochran introduced Stieve to a dress manufacturer and detailed some of the ins and outs of bridal retail. For Stieve, a self-described introvert, the idea of opening a bridal store – and in a tiny 2,000-person rural Michigan town, no less – seemed a far-fetched plan, but Cochran urged Stieve to give it serious consideration.
   Around the same time, Stieve’s husband, Larry, a high school math teacher, got pink slipped. While diving into entrepreneurial waters seemed a risky proposition, the couple also recognized the potential rewards and merits of controlling one’s own destiny. So in 1983, they collected what little money they had, purchased a small collection of wedding dresses, mothers’ gowns and tuxedos and leased a 400-square-foot storefront in Auburn, Mich.
   “I was petrified,” Stieve says.
   Today, however, more than four decades later, Unique Bridal has blossomed into a thriving destination boutique that brides frequently travel hours to visit. Having overcome multiple challenges, including personal health struggles, Stieve has nonetheless continuously steered her business with a relentless energy centered around the customer experience, solidifying Unique Bridal’s longevity and excellent reputation.

Small town, little money, big hopes
   In the earliest days of Unique Bridal, Stieve was a one-woman sales force. She serviced brides. She sold gowns. She managed the inventory. She peddled flowers. She even attended weddings to ready her brides and troubleshoot any issues.
   “Working in the medical field really helped me gain empathy for people, to care about them and want them to be happy,” says Stieve, whose husband created order forms and managed the books.
   Stieve’s inherent attentiveness and people-pleasing mindset generated early momentum for Unique Bridal. She soon hired a seamstress to handle alterations and provide some sales support. She also took over an adjacent retail space, more than doubling her boutique’s square footage.
   Having a steep industry learning curve and limited funds, Stieve approached ownership with an ultra-diligent attitude. At market, for instance, she took pages of notes on products and corralled as much literature as she could hold. When she returned to her hotel room each evening, she reviewed her notes and her current inventory before placing any orders.
   “With such little margin for error, I had to be really careful about ordering,” she says.
   As Unique Bridal’s fifth anniversary approached, however, Stieve felt confident enough in her store’s direction that she contemplated expansion. The boutique was withstanding a competitive environment and thriving with its personalized service. A bigger retail footprint seemed the next logical step. In 1987, Stieve relocated Unique Bridal to its current location in Auburn, a strip mall storefront covering 2,500 square feet.
   “We were certainly moving in a positive direction,” she says.
   In the early 1990s, Unique Bridal was humming along in its new space, which would eventually grow to consume 3,400 square feet. But life, like entrepreneurship, rarely comes without its challenges.

Finding a way forward
   As a teen, Stieve lost hearing in one ear to Ménière’s disease, a condition which destroys the nerve endings in the inner ear. By the mid-1990s, the hearing in her “good ear” was evaporating as well.
   “I could only hear like four words out of 100,” she says. “I couldn’t keep going as is because customers didn’t understand. I’d constantly worry they’d think I was being rude if I didn’t know they were talking to me.”
   Stieve responded in earnest, adjusting to new realities and crafting creative interventions. She hired a manager to oversee the sales floor. She traveled to market with Larry serving as her “ears.” He recorded style numbers and relayed information from presentations, albeit somewhat selectively.
   “I’d sometimes ask him for clarification on something and if he was looking somewhere else, he’d say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t anything important,’” she says. “It was a difficult time, but we found a way to make it work.”
   A cochlear implant in 2002 – “A blessing from God,” Stieve calls it – restored Stieve’s hearing and brought her back to her fast-moving ways, which was important as the store’s manager departed and traffic continued flowing into Unique Bridal.
   In 2007, Stieve hired a new manager, Angie Gansser. Though no stranger to retail, Gansser was a bridal industry novice largely attracted to the opportunity to work in a family-owned small business close to her home. Gansser spent months working behind the scenes while Stieve served as her dedicated teacher.
   “Honestly, I thought bridal would be easy compared to what it is,” Gansser says. “The first time Pam threw me into a room with a bride, I was scared to death and wanted to burst into tears.”
   Yet, Gansser pressed on and gained confidence. Even more, her outgoing personality complimented Stieve’s more reserved nature.
   “We realized we were a good team,” Gansser says.
   Together, the duo propelled Unique Bridal’s continued evolution, making strategic decisions to strengthen the bottom line, fuel brand awareness and enhance the customer experience. In 2014, for example, Unique Bridal dropped prom as dress prices accelerated and teen girls increasingly navigated online for their purchases. The investment necessary to remain competitive, both in inventory and employees, also compelled the shift.

Leveraging social and appointments
   Gansser also spearheaded a more ambitious marketing approach rooted in bridal shows, styled shoots and social media, especially as brides walking in the door clutched a world full of information in the palm of their hand. When brides visited and pulled up their Pinterest boards, Gansser and Stieve scrolled through a smattering of varied ideas and felt like sleuths trying to decode a bride’s real wishes and needs.
   “We had to become mind readers almost,” Gansser jokes.
   Rather than seeing social media as a frustration, however, Unique Bridal embraced the medium as an opportunity.
   Active on Facebook since March 2010 and later folding an active presence on Pinterest and Instagram into the mix, the boutique leverages social media as a way to showcase gowns, highlight happy brides, share store news and engage with customers. But most of all, social media serves as an invitation to build and strengthen relationships with brides.
   Pre-pandemic, Gansser explains, Unique Bridal gladly took appointments and gathered basic information on the bride and her wedding. (The store, it’s worth noting, long embraced walk-in traffic with a sign-in sheet for incoming customers.) Given pandemic restrictions on in-store capacity, however, Unique Bridal began pairing an appointments-only policy with a more intentional and thorough screening process for its bridal customers.
   When a bride schedules an appointment online or via phone call today, Gansser gathers an assortment of wedding details as well as the bride’s social-media handle. She then sends the bride a friend request, which enables easy, two-way communication between the bride and the store, and also peruses the bride’s feed to get a read on her background, life and interests.
   “When a bride walks in our door now, we know who they are and what they’re going to like. We already have it in our mind,” Gansser says. “It helps them feel more comfortable with us because they already have a relationship with us.”
   For customers who do not use social media or are unwilling to share it, Gansser oversees three phone calls, including an appointment confirmation, to gather more information about the bride, her wedding, her personality and her preferences.
   The added steps have improved Unique Bridal’s closing rates and, in Stieve’s estimation, enhanced customer service at a boutique with an already stellar reputation in that area.
   “We have a lot of competition right now and girls have high expectations when they come in our door,” Stieve says. “The best way to give them the rich experience they want and expect is to get to know them before they arrive.”

Looking ahead
   As Stieve reflects on the last four decades – Unique Bridal celebrated its 40th anniversary last November, she uses the word “blessed” often. In addition to dealing with hearing loss, Stieve endured two bouts with breast cancer, continuing to work even amid chemotherapy treatments and radiation. Amid those personal struggles, however, Unique Bridal continued to mature and flourish.
   “I don’t feel it’s anything I did except for hard work and determination,” Stieve says.
   There’s modesty in her statement, but also plenty of truth.
   Stieve steered her business with a relentless energy centered around the customer experience and solidifying Unique Bridal’s long-term health.
   During the pandemic, for instance, Stieve oversaw a comprehensive remodel of her boutique, including fresh paint and a revised showroom layout creating more privacy for brides and a more contemporary environment. And while the store hosts a “Say Yes” wall like many of its bridal retail peers, it also provides gown-purchasing brides a gift bag filled with goodies like store-branded sunglasses and socks as well as lip balm, mints and a ring box.
   Stieve’s careful financial stewardship, meanwhile, has kept Unique Bridal grounded and debt free, which has enabled the business to withstand “ups and down in the industry and in the world,” according to Stieve.
   The boutique’s financial health has also empowered Stieve to consider next steps with heightened clarity. Having no children of her own but a desire to see Unique Bridal endure well into the future, Stieve has discussed a shift in ownership to Gansser.
   “I know she’s the only one who loves it as much as me, and it’s my hope she has the business someday,” says Stieve, who has empowered Gansser to run Unique Bridal as if it was her own over recent years.
   For Gansser, the opportunity to continue Stieve’s legacy at Unique Bridal is both humbling and exciting.
   “I’ve always loved my job and after 10 years, I knew owning Unique Bridal was something I’d love to do,” says Gansser, adding that Stieve’s passion and drive created a vibrant, successful business she’s eager to guide well into the future. “The goal is to keep the foundation of what Pam started many years ago and find ways to continue building on it.”