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Photo Credit: Samantha Dahlborg, Studio Citrine

It was the English scientist Charles Darwin, architect of the theory of evolution by natural selection, who said: It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.
   Managing change is definitely a strategy that The Ultimate in Peabody, Mass., has mastered. The 10,000-square-foot store has been in business for 54 years and counting, reinventing itself multiple times throughout the decades with inventory and also location in order to thrive. They’ve carried everything from swimsuits, sportswear and designer jeans to prom, pageant, quinceañera and, most recently, bridal gowns. They’ve survived natural disasters, experimented with marketing tactics and moved three times. Throughout it all one thing has remained constant – an unwavering commitment to excellent customer service in a welcoming, upbeat atmosphere.
   “Our secret? Honestly, it’s changing with the times!” says Heather Siegel, who co-owns the store with her sister, Fawn Merlino. “If you want to try to ride on your past success and think that that’s going to carry you through forever, you might as well hang it up!”

Humble Beginnings
   The Ultimate was founded in 1969 by Frances Merlino, Heather and Fawn’s mother, in the basement of her Revere, Mass., home.
   At the time, Frances was a single mother of three looking for something she could do out of her house. She discovered her six-room ranch was zoned for business and decided to put a shop in its basement. Initially, it was just three racks of clothing – whatever she thought the neighbors might want to buy – and few expectations. Certainly, Frances had no idea The Ultimate would blossom into the empire it is today.
   “Our mother was unbelievable - a fabulous entrepreneur, great at business, people loved her,” Heather says. “Even now, we still have so many people come to the store and say, ‘Oh my god I remember the days shopping in Revere with your mother – she was amazing!’”
   The store was situated in a walk-out basement with a separate entrance, and its early inventory consisted largely of pants, tops and dresses – attire for an afternoon or evening out. Most customers were neighbors and often became friends; Frances would occasionally invite them upstairs for coffee and to hangout.
   Heather and Fawn grew up with the business engrained in their lives. Fawn, only five when the store opened, recalls playing underneath its racks as a child. In 1982, when she graduated high school, she began working in The Ultimate’s stock room.
   Heather, 14 years older than her sister, got laid off from the airlines in New York in 1971. Although she had no desire to be in her mother’s business, she needed to make money temporarily so she went to work for what she thought would be a few months, doing sales.
   Neither sister ever left. Instead, together with Frances, the three women slowly turned the small home shop into a large booming business.
   Heather and her mom did shows in New York and California to expand inventory. They’d always carried dresses, which people bought for special events such as attending weddings, but the bulk of their business in those early days centered around bathing suits, designer jeans and sportswear – due largely to their location on a main street five minutes from the beach.
  They carried kids clothing and men’s attire for a while, too. Fawn recalls modeling the former in fashion shows, whereas the latter was a natural evolution because designer jeans were so popular and most were unisex.
   In the late 70s, the girls’ brother, Tedi, came to work at the store. He did the register and bookwork, as well as attended shows with Heather to buy men’s wear, sticking with the family business until his tragic death in a 1997 ski accident. Heather fondly recalls her brother being “a hot-looking guy” who female customers loved flirting with, exiting dressing rooms in their tight jeans and bikinis saying, “Um Tedi – how do you like this on me?”
   “If you want another laugh, I think we started the first prom registry in the country,” Heather says. “Because we’d developed a younger clientele we got very big into clubbing clothes (that girls bought as) prom dresses. And nobody wanted to have the same dress on, so we started a registry in the early 70s.”
   As the home-based business continued to grow, it expanded to about 15 employees. Eventually Frances added an addition to the back of the house for extra space.
   “We became huge in the area – people would line up outside our place until we opened waiting to get in,” Heather recalls. “We just grew and grew and grew and grew.”
   Marketing methods evolved over time. In the early days, Frances, Heather and one other young employee – self-described “sun worshippers” – would lounge around the backyard pool in their bathing suits near the store’s entrance. A cow bell on its front door would ring whenever a customer entered, and they’d take turns putting on long-sleeved terrycloth robes and going to help people.
   “It was a very unique business,” Heather recalls. “Sales reps would come and we’d work by the pool. We’d used to tell them bring a rolling rack and a bathing suit!
   To capitalize on the heavy walking and driving traffic the store received, they’d have yard sales out front, complete with a blow-up doll and sales consultant wearing matching outfits.
   “It was a lot of fun,” Heather recalls. “We had many outgoing girls in their 20s and 30s working for us at the time who loved fashion. We were friends too and had a great time together.”
   There were, of course, challenges. The same location near the ocean that attracted lots of traffic also left them vulnerable to natural disasters. Multiple storms shut the business periodically throughout the years due to its location in a flood area.
   The worst was the blizzard of 1978, which caused the streets and basement to flood so severely that Fawn and Frances had to be evacuated by row boat. The store was closed for several months for repairs, during which time Frances set up shop in the living room, allowing customers to utilize her bedroom as a dressing room.
   “Things like that were definitely hard,” Heather recalls. “But my mother always found a way to make it work.”

Finding the Perfect Location
   The Ultimate stayed in its basement home for 25 years. Then, in 1994, Frances decided she wanted to move into a real store in a commercial area.
   Collectively, The Ultimate would end up moving three times – each location off of busy Route 1. The first was a 2,800-square-foot store in Saugus, which they outgrew quickly. When that 10-year lease was up, they moved to a 6,300-square-foot location in nearby Peabody. Although bigger, they still ran out of space; additionally, it lacked parking.
   After that 10-year lease was up, they knew they had to move again to something larger with its own parking. This time, Frances wanted to purchase instead of renting. One day, riding along Route 1 in Peabody, she spotted new construction with “coming soon!” signs in a great location with excellent visibility and lots of parking. Excited, she decided to check it out.
   Unfortunately, the property’s owner didn’t want to sell anything; he planned to develop it and become a landlord.
   “And we told him: we either buy or we’re not coming,” Heather says. “Because he knew we had a strong name in the area and that would attract people, he was willing to work with us.”
   The agreement they reached was for the owner to build a second story onto his building (which he wasn’t originally planning to do), and for The Ultimate to purchase it as a condo.
   Today, the building’s bottom level is comprised of seven rental units, which the owner leases out. The whole top floor, all 10,000 square feet, belongs to The Ultimate, which owns it as a condo (paying condo fees, etc).
   While the process of buying their current location began in late 2011, it took a couple of years to get all necessary permits and coordinate with designers. Sadly, Frances Merlino died in October 2012 about a year into this process. Finally, on the afternoon of New Years’ Eve in 2013, they closed on the new store, one of their most memorable moments.
   Altogether, it took three days to move 15,000 dresses in the middle of a 20-inch snowstorm.
   “All available hands were on board to work with the moving company to pack up and set up in the new 10,000-square-foot location,” Heather says. “Our staff gave teamwork a new meaning. We were finally to realize Fran’s dream!”
   They opened their current location on January 3, 2014 with lines of people outside waiting to shop at the “new” Ultimate. There had been no advertising – just people seeing signs at their old location about the move and phones ringing.
   “Unfortunately, we lost our mother before she got to see opening day of her vision for us, but we know she is with us every step of the way,” Heather says.

Changing with the Times
   Throughout the moves, inventory expanded and changed as well.
  In their second location, The Ultimate dropped men’s wear and went strictly women’s apparel, remaining big into sportswear, bathing suits and the like.
   In the mid-90s, they saw the potential for a new category. They’d noticed girls buying bridesmaids’ dresses for prom, so they started working with a couple prom manufacturers, largely on special orders.
   “Then we found that if we really wanted to sell, we had to have things for people to try on and not just expect them to see one size and guess what they were going to look like in it,” Heather says.
   So, she started buying four or five sizes in each style, including very small and large sizes.
   “It was just off the charts from there,” Heather says. “That’s how we got really, really big into prom.”
   They’ve also had success with bridal-related customers.
   “It was always surprising to me that we did as well as we did with bridesmaids and mothers considering we didn’t carry bridal gowns,” she says. “But we always had a very strong presence in that area.”
   As time went on, some of their formally popular niches began falling out of favor as dressier things came into style. As such, The Ultimate reluctantly let go of jeans, bathing suits and sportswear – the latter of which was most difficult.
   “We all got our clothes through this handler, and we had great stuff!” Heather says. “But there was a time we knew we were trying to shove it down peoples’ throats and we had to let it go and utilize our space for what was really making us money.”
   This was eveningwear. In addition, The Ultimate does a great quinceañera and pageant business; in fact, they’re the official wardrobe sponsor for Miss Massachusetts USA and Miss Massachusetts Teen USA.
   Perhaps there’s no better example of their ability to pivot, however, than the decision to add bridal gowns.
   The catalyst was COVID.
   After being shut down for three months in 2020, they reopened only to face the reality that, in Massachusetts, there’d be no proms for two years. This essentially brought prom dress buying to a halt, drying up a substantial portion of their business. In search of an alternate avenue for profitability they settled on bridal gowns. After all, even if ceremonies were smaller, many women were still getting married and wanting that beautiful bridal gown.
   The category was an instant hit.
   “I think one of the reasons bridal has taken off as quickly as it did for us is because so many people had shopped with us for other events, so they knew of us and loved our store,” Heather says.
   Today, about 10% of The Ultimate’s inventory is devoted to bridal. They’ve created a separate bridal room and have a lot of appointments, both on weekends and during the week, as well as walk-ins.
   “We’ve done well,” Heather says. “Are we as strong in bridal as the store that has been around doing bridal for 30-40 years? No. Prom is still our number-one thing but bridal has progressed very nicely.”

The Ultimate Family
   In terms of their staff, which ranges from 25-100 depending on time of year, Fawn and Heather feel fortunate. The Ultimate doesn’t have a large turnover; most employees have been there for many years.
   “I think it’s because we treat them with respect,” Heather says. “We don’t run our business where we’re watching over people constantly; we’re not as rigid as some other stores may be.”
   Instead, Heather and Fawn feel strongly that everyone has their own style of working, and they give staff lots of flexibility in how they handle customers, so long as it falls within the store’s perimeters. Rarely do they have to intervene with an appointment; on the rare occasion a stylist isn’t clicking with a customer, they simply make a change.
   “I think they like that freedom and flexibility,” Heather says. “And that in itself can be quite a reward.”
   Of course, there are the standard rewards too: compliments for a job well done, tips, incentives, contests, an elaborate annual employee appreciation party.
   Heather also takes girls on market trips and to manufacturer events.
   “They love it,” she says. “They get wined and dined, participate in buying next years’ line and see the behind the scenes of what I do.”
   Training is largely a “learn by observing” approach.
   New staff work with experienced consultants, and get intentionally switched around with different people so they can pick up the ideas and habits they feel most comfortable with.
   The Ultimate has also found success promoting high school girls who started working for them doing basic tasks like putting dresses away.
   “Over time these girls have seen, heard and learned from the consultants they work around,” Heather says. “Often within a year or two they’re ready to do sales and don’t even require much training because they’ve picked up so much along the way.”
   As for themselves, Heather and Fawn co-own The Ultimate and split duties clearly. Heather is hands-on in-store – overseeing day-to-day operations and doing the hiring, interviewing, scheduling and buying.
   Fawn manages everything online, as well as does bookkeeping and invoicing. Since COVID she has been working mostly from home, going into the store in the mornings before opening and completing various related tasks. Their niece, Krystal Siegel, has worked for them since graduating college doing invoicing, payroll and stock/counter work.
   “We’re a family business all the way and have been since the day our mother started and took us under her wing,” Heather says. “We’ve gone through 54 years with the same basic philosophy: the people who work for us are part of The Ultimate family. We have strong bonds with them and people in general mean a lot to us!”

Building a Legend
   The Ultimate today carries 20,000 dresses across 25,000 square feet of racks, and has become something of a legend among New England brides.
   “Whatever we had before has doubled, tripled, quadrupled – lots more employees, a much larger customer base, people coming from further away, much more inventory,” Heather says. “But one thing we still do that we’ve always done, and our mother did, is provide excellent personalized service. That is huge!”
   This showcases itself in multiple ways, from the store’s welcoming, upbeat atmosphere to the individual attention from caring and knowledgeable consultants that every single customer receives no matter how busy things get. Walking people through The Ultimate’s enormous inventory - one of the larger in the country, and definitely the largest in the northeast, Heather says – helps put them at ease and gets them excited to shop. They also carry all kinds of accessories and love outfitting people from head to toe.
   “The best part is seeing the smile on customers’ faces,” Fawn says. “Just making somebody’s dress dream come true is worth it!”
   The Ultimate has a strong commitment to social responsibility, and is constantly looking for ways to support its local community. They contribute to various good causes, do high school charity fashion shows, host an annual prom dress giveaway (as of 2022, more than 8,000 dresses have been donated to local schools and non-profits) and have even given away an entire wedding (see sidebar Most Memorable Moment).
   “And that’s really a lot of who we are and what we do and who works with us and what they bring to the table,” Heather says.
   About six years ago, The Ultimate – which in addition to its physical presence sells almost all inventory online, mostly to out-of-state or international customers – decided to open a pop-up prom store in Dedham, about an hour’s drive from the main store. It’s an idea that had always appealed to them, although they needed to find the right person to run it.
   Then, as luck would have it, Alfred Angelo closed their stores, and Heather and Fawn stumbled across an old Alfred Angelo location.
   “We’d heard some wonderful things about the manager of that store, and we approached her and she said she’d come to work for us and that was it,” Heather says. “Exactly what we needed!”
   The approximately 6,000-square-foot pop-up debuted in 2018, and typical opens from the end of December through May. It’s been such a hit that in September, they’re opening it permanently and bringing in all other niches.
   “Basically, it’ll be just like our first store but a little smaller version,” Heather says.
   This is the only change currently in the works, although the sisters do have another future plan – an “unbelievable idea of Fawn’s that we’re really excited about,” Heather says – that for now shall remain secret.
   In the meantime, they plan to enjoy their current location – “We don’t ever picture moving; it’s fabulous!” they both enthuse – and continuing focusing on the core principles that have carried them through five-plus decades of business success.
   “Well, who knows what tomorrow brings?” Heather laughs. “It’s changing with the times and maybe we’ll do some other changes as life progresses. Only time will tell!”
   Fawn agrees, adding:
   “If it wasn’t for our mother, we wouldn’t have the life we have. I thank her every day!”