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Photo Credit: Erika Stewart, It Clicks Photo LLC,

By any standard, Michelle McFarland is an undeniable success in the bridal industry.
   Not only does she own an award-winning 23-year-old boutique, The Wedding Shoppe in Berkley, Mich., but she’s also a leading bridal retail expert who heads up two important industry groups: the National Bridal Retailers Association, a 501c(6) non-profit focused on consolidating the voices of independent bridal store owners to effect change in the industry; and also the Better Bridal Group, a 501c(3) non-profit dedicated to mentoring and training bridal store owners worldwide.
   That would be a full plate for anyone, but the 51-year-old McFarland thrives on soaking up as much knowledge and experience as possible from a variety of sources, including peers, other businesses and markets (“That’s my favorite part of being a storeowner; I just love it!”).
   Doing so, in fact, is one of the main reasons her boutique has excelled. Recently while listening to an audiobook on her morning walk, McFarland heard something that really spoke to her: in this day and age, you can’t be a know-it-all because so much is changing all the time. At the rate we are learning/discovering new things and making scientific advancements nobody can possibly be a know-it-all; what you need to be now is a learn-it-all.
   “And I realized: oh my gosh! That’s what I am! I’m a learn-it-all,” she says. “I want to go to every conference; listen to every webinar; hear all the podcasts. I’m always trying to learn more about running a better business, and I really feel like that has been the secret to my success: I’m open to all ideas and trying new things all the time.”

A big gamble; “I’m all in”
   McFarland had been working in corporate America since graduating high school at 17. By 28, she was the cash manager at a large German steel company’s U.S. headquarters – a good job, no doubt, but not fulfilling to her at all.
   “I used to think I didn’t have to like my job if I made enough money, and I realized in my last position before opening my store that wasn’t true,” she says. “I wanted to do something I really loved and cared about, so I decided to open my own business.”
   McFarland had always known she’d likely have her own business someday; probably a retail business of some type, although she wasn’t sure what kind. At that time in her life, it felt like everybody she knew was getting married – not only had she herself said “I Do” nearly a year prior but many of her friends and colleagues were doing the same. With marriage a constant theme reverberating throughout her peer group, she thought, “Well maybe there’s something to this wedding thing.”
   So, she began researching and realized fairly quickly bridal was a viable option. It wasn’t so much a passion, mind you, but an opportunity.
   “It’s the funniest thing,” she says, present day, “I’m really not that big into weddings. Please don’t invite me to your wedding; I don’t want to go but I’d love to help you find your dress!”
   It also helped that McFarland had her eye on a specific spot, which she envisioned as the cutest little store. It was a small 800-square-foot space in the downtown district of Royal Oak, Mich., the city in which she’d grown up. It used to be a floral business and had an adorable aesthetic, with artistically painted walls, lifelike murals and four steps leading upstairs to another two rooms perfect for displaying accessories. It was also reasonably priced and she thought she could make a go of it right there.
   So, in December 1999 at age 29, she opened as a bridal accessories store.
   “And I just loved, loved, loved it – but it wasn’t enough,” she says. “We needed to have more income, so we ended up adding wedding dresses.”
   That realization would take nearly a decade to materialize, however. First, there were the early days in that small space when the boutique was selling only accessories – veils, headpieces, jewelry, guest books, pens, ring bearer pillows, baskets, invitations and shoes. “Everything but the dress” was its tag line and it was really successful those first couple of years. So successful, in fact, that within about 12 months McFarland took on the remaining space in that building.
   And then 9-11 happened, which business-wise presented “a little hiccup”, but things didn’t really start to go downhill economically until 2004. That’s when internet sales became a thing, leaving McFarland’s boutique to compete with the online world for veil and accessory sales, a considerable challenge. To combat this, they added alterations to the mix because brides were always asking where they could get their dresses altered.
   This helped, but didn’t solve, the issue. After all, they’d moved to an even larger 3,000-square-foot location by this point and expenses were so high that they needed something more. In 2007, a crucial turning point materialized. Things were looking “really bad, even ugly in the economy,” McFarland recalls, with sales going down and expenses going up. She really started to investigate what else they could do, and that’s when she discovered the Better Bridal Group. Attending her first conference in December 2007, McFarland’s mindset was, “I’m going to lose this business if I don’t do something now; I‘m out of money and can’t keep funding it.”
   In part due to the influence of that conference, a key decision was made: to add bridal gowns.
   “I always envision in my head that I’m sitting around a poker table with my chips and I just push them all in, like that’s it – I’m buying these wedding dresses with the last $10k I have on a credit card,” she says. “I’m all in.”

Adding dresses, saving business
   In May 2008, wedding dresses arrived and were promptly displayed on the sales floor. They were all private label – “I’ve been private label the whole time, before it was cool to be private label,” she jokes – and the early response was positive.
   “It was easier for us than a start-up because we had a reputation in the community,” she says. “People really loved the store and respected our business so the dresses just started selling.”
   This was, in fact, the boost The Wedding Shoppe needed. Adding wedding dresses helped McFarland grow and maintain the business, as well as survive the Great Recession of 2007-09.
   Booming dress sales did present a problem however: rather quickly they began running out of room for storage and display. As inventory increased, they paired down accessories’ offerings and moved alterations out of the building to make space.
   At first, seamstresses worked in and stored dresses at a different location, bringing gowns back into the store to meet with brides. By 2015, they realized they couldn’t keep doing this and rented/built out a second storefront. Alterations were done at this new location, and accessories were also sold in both places.
   This system worked well, but in 2016 McFarland happened to be talking with one of her husband’s good friends, a commercial real estate developer. They were discussing finding a bigger space for The Wedding Shoppe when its lease ended in 2018. He urged it would be smart to start making inquiries now because it can take a while to find the right building. So McFarland outlined the specifications and location she wanted.
   “And I’m not kidding when I say three weeks later, he called me and said, ‘I found your building!’” she says.
  On Thanksgiving weekend in 2016, they went and looked at this old, dilapidated 9,000-square-foot auto parts warehouse.
   “It was a disaster inside and out but my husband has been rehabbing properties the whole time I’ve known him so I could see the vision, and as we were walking through I knew ‘oh my gosh; this is going to be our building; it’s perfect for us!” she says.
   She put in an offer and less than a year later, in August 2017, they moved in.
   “It was a very fun, exhilarating thing to do to build out our dream building because it was something I’d talked about for so long with my team and family so I had all these great ideas of what I wanted it to be,” she says.
   For additional inspiration, McFarland and her sister, Danielle, who works as The Wedding Shoppe’s general manager, went on a cross-country tour to visit friends with larger spaces and get ideas from them.
   One of the coolest concepts she saw was in a Washington-based store. It had closed inventory, which McFarland wasn’t planning on doing, but she loved its layout – a long space, split up with mirrors along the right side of the wall, changing rooms in the middle and closed inventory behind the changing rooms. Stylists could therefore walk into a changing room with the bride, leave her there and go out the back door to grab dresses. This meant guests stayed in the appointment instead of pulling gowns that weren’t going to work for the bride, size, budget or style wise.
   “Danielle and I were just fascinated by this concept,” McFarland says. “When we got home we explained to the architect how cool it was, and we decided we wanted two doors in and out of our changing rooms, too.”
   Today, every private bridal suite at The Wedding Shoppe – and all are private bridal suites, by the way - has a door in and out so the stylist can remove dresses the bride doesn’t love or fit into without her guests seeing them and reacting.
   “It works out so well,” McFarland says. “It’s one of my favorite things (about the store).”

Outstanding experience, unique touches
   The Wedding Shoppe prides itself on providing the very best experience to brides, which begins the moment they enter its lobby. There, brides can sit with their group in a spacious lounge-type setup and enjoy a glass of champagne before or after their appointment (The boutique just received a liquor license from the state).
   There’s also a coffee bar offering free coffee, water and tea for those who prefer it.
   From there brides are taken into their private suite, where they enjoy an intimate experience with just the special people they brought and not everybody in the store.
   “They love that – they love having their own mirror and their own seating area where their guests are with them for the whole appointment,” she says.
   Each private bridal suite is also equipped with a TV for video conferencing. This feature was added when reopening the store after COVID shutdowns.
   “It was really important to us that our brides still share the full experience with their loved ones,” she says. “They enjoy conferencing in friends and family from all over the world to watch them say YES to the dress!”
   After saying yes to a dress, brides are taken back into the lobby for Instagram photos in front of a beautiful photo wall complete with “Yes” signs.
   Following that they get to sign the “Say Yes” wedding dress with sharpie markers, writing whatever they want to commemorate the occasion. There’s also a floral mural wall outside in the parking lot to pose in front of if they want additional pictures.
   “They love doing all that,” McFarland says. “It’s a celebration!”
   The Wedding Shoppe’s devoted, knowledgeable, passionate stylists are a key part of providing this amazing experience, and, in this area, McFarland considers herself very lucky.
   “We have a fabulous staff – many of them have been with us for so many years,” she says of her 28-person team, which includes multiple family members and has been expanding recently due to the store’s rapid growth.
   “I think the biggest thing is trying to be the best leader possible; you have to be adapting all the time because the employees we have now can’t be led the way employees were even two years ago,” she says. “It’s totally different, and as business owners we have to realize that our teams are our true customers and treat them as such because without them we can’t service our brides.”
   This includes training her managers to ask stylists: what can I do to support you? How can I help you do your job? How can I help you get the things that you want out of your life as well?
   “It can’t just be a one-way thing anymore where they come into work and get a paycheck and that’s all they get out of it,” she says. “I really want my team members to feel like this was one of the most transformational work experiences because they didn’t just grow professionally but they grew personally as well.”
   Along those lines, they train constantly, learning new techniques to help improve job performance.
   “I want to see them succeed: If they succeed, I succeed,” she says.
   McFarland is extremely proud of the fact her long-standing team makes a living wage and can do things like buy new cars or houses and go on vacations. They also have health insurance and a retirement savings plan, as well as receive paid time off.
   “I’ve built the business up to be this way,” she says. “This is not a job they go to; it’s a career that many have had now for 8-11 years.”
   To further incentivize and reward staff, McFarland is constantly doing fun things, such as running a contest to see who gets to attend market with them and taking everyone on a three-night trip to Florida if they hit their annual store goal.
   “It was so fun!” she says of this year’s excursion, from which they just returned in May. “They love to work hard, they love a challenge and it gives them something special to look forward to.”
   As mentioned, part of that staff is family – McFarland’s sister, Danielle, is the general manager, who has been with her since Day One. Her niece, Haley – just a kid when McFarland started the business - is also a manager, “my second righthand person for sure.” Another niece, Ally, does payroll and HR; one of McFarland’s daughters, Riley, works in receiving; and her other daughter, Maddy, assists with social media. While not formally part of the business, McFarland’s husband of 24 years, Chris, helps out by doing maintenance and other assorted tasks.
   “I know people say it’s really hard working with family, but it’s been nothing but a blessing for me honestly,” she says. “I know they always have my back, they love the business, they want to see it succeed – I am very fortunate.”

Overcoming challenges, forging ahead
   That’s not to say it’s been all smooth sailing for The Wedding Shoppe. Like all stores, there are issues they struggle with – most recently, keeping up staff and systems wise with the rapid pace of growth, which leaves them feeling like “we’re trying to play catch-up all the time!”
   Then there was COVID. While closed for two months, The Wedding Shoppe was, in fact, more fortunate than many other stores upon reopening.
   While restrictions dictated they were only to allow 10 people in the building, McFarland met with the fire marshal to discuss because she needs a bare minimum of eight people to run her business. He agreed that the building’s size meant it fell into a different level of restriction that allowed for 30% occupancy, like grocery and big-box stores.
   “That’s pretty close to what we consider full capacity, so we were able to reopen without worrying too much about how many people were in the building,” McFarland says. “Our private bridal suites also provided the perfect social distancing for our brides and guests. They felt very safe and cared for.”
   That said, the store switched to a paid appointment model on the weekends, Friday through Sunday, which it has stuck with. The cost of the appointment is credited toward a wedding dress purchase.
   “This has been wildly successful,” she says. “What’s amazing is our closing ratios on the weekends can be anywhere from 70-100%.”
   She attributes part of this rise to the fact they no longer encourage brides and their groups to look through dresses.
   “The stylist is in control of what is being pulled and she is pulling all the right things,” McFarland says.
   The Wedding Shoppe is unique in two other ways: it doesn’t sell anything online (“I tried years ago with accessories but you just can’t compete; they want the cheapest price possible,” she says). As well, the boutique works with private-label companies like Sophia and Camilla, as well as design houses that will customize samples specifically for The Wedding Shoppe. Couture lines were added in 2021 to further diversify the store’s offerings.
   This decision dates back to McFarland’s first BBG conference in 2007, where she had been listening to everyone discuss their business.
   “It was very clear to me, even then, that the only path to true profitability in bridal was going to be with private label because it eliminates the competition,” she says. “I don’t want to compete with the store down the street on price; I want to compete on merit and gown styles. That’s too hard if you have the same dresses because brides aren’t foolish; they’re going to buy the less-expensive dress, so I just eliminated that from my business model altogether.”
   Moving forward, The Wedding Shoppe, which still carries a great selection of accessories, is focused on growing all aspects of its current business, particularly the high-end dresses for which they have some “really, really solid lines.”
   There are no plans to open a second store, although McFarland will continue to learn and teach both as a store owner and also as founder and president of the National Bridal Retailers Association and president of the Better Bridal Group (see sidebars).
   “I’m always looking to grow personally and professionally and help other people to grow personally and professionally as well,” she says.
   One of her most valuable recent lessons, inspired by COVID, is something she would advise all storeowners on: the importance of having a plan in place in case something catastrophic happens again.
   Along those lines, McFarland recently told her banker she’d like to bump up her line of credit in case the economy takes a turn for the worse in the next several months.
   “I’m always trying to plan ahead and be a little weary yet optimistic,” she says. “I want to be sure I have my back covered, taking care of my team and our brides, but always be looking toward the future.”