By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
If they had asked, they would have learned that while working at Central Washington University’s Wildcat Shop, she created a women’s boutique that earned $100,000 in the first year, starting with one rack of clothing and a table of jewelry. By the time she graduated with a degree in apparel, textiles and merchandising in June 2013, the boutique area had grown to 300 square feet and was a profit center for the store.
“I had become really good at knowing what customers need, when they need it and at what price,” she said.
She loved running the boutique and being involved in every aspect of the operation from choosing the clothes and placing orders to designing the displays and talking with customers.
“Everything was trial and error,” she said, laughing. “Everything.”
Nothing costs more than $48
When she started looking for her first job after graduation, West realized there was a market for what she wanted to provide: a small women’s clothing store catering to diverse styles and tastes with a constantly changing inventory where nothing cost more than $48.
“We wanted to create a shop that was affordable to everyone,” she said.
At the Wildcat Shop, she had immersed herself in the business side of the operation and could quote sales figures from memory: “It’s all about margins,” she said, and she was certain she could find inventory women would want to wear at a price they could afford.
She spent months creating her business plan for Claim Clothing, including visiting other stores in the area, looking at consumer trends and working on financial projections. But when she went looking for funding, no one would talk to her.
“I’ve always had a go-getter attitude,” she said, but suddenly she was stuck.
Age not an issue for SBDC
Then she found her way to Evergreen Business Capital where senior loan officer Tom DiDomenico provided support and recommended she talk with Linda Johnson, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
Johnson, whose office is in Yakima, is one of more than two dozen SBDC advisors who meet with clients who want to start, grow or transition a business. The Washington SBDC Network (www.wsbdc.org) is supported by Washington State University, the U.S. Small Business Administration and local offices of economic development or higher education. The Yakima SBDC office is hosted by the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce.
When West and her husband Jared first met with Johnson, West’s age never came up: “She asked what we wanted to do and then said, ‘Okay, let’s figure out how to get this done,’” West said.
With more than 20 years as a small business owner and a small business advisor, Johnson provided incredible expertise, West said. The fact that Johnson had once owned a retail clothing store was an unexpected and welcome surprise.
For her part, Johnson said the Wests are a pleasure to work with: “They brought with them industry knowledge, technical skills, enthusiasm and energy with a great entrepreneurial work ethic,” she said.
Loan application impresses officers
Together West and Johnson pored over the financial data West had already compiled and then worked through her small business credit scorecard.
“It was daunting looking at those 20 tabs on the Excel spreadsheet,” West said, but with Johnson’s help she got it done.
When she and her husband finally presented their application for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Loan to cover costs such as tenant improvements, furniture, fixtures, working capital and building permits, she said, the loan officers were impressed.
“They didn’t take us seriously until they saw our projections,” she said, “but then it was like, ‘Wow, this girl really knows what she’s doing.’”
The loan was approved March 30 and West immediately set to work supervising transformation of a fairly non-descript office into an inviting retail space with brick walls, wood floors and high ceilings. The vibe at Claim Clothing is a bit like Emma Stone’s closet, if Emma Stone lived in a 100-year-old farm house in central Washington and shopped on a budget.
Varied clientele, community involvement
In fact, West said, through the first six months of operation she was gratified to discover that her store’s appeal stretches beyond the 18- to 24-year-old demographic that she courted at the Wildcat Shop. About 50 percent of her customers at Claim Clothing are between 18 and 33.
“Just last week I had a woman come in and buy an extra small dress for her 12-year-old daughter and the same day a group of women in their 70s were here buying jewelry and scarves,” West said.
From the beginning she has worked hard to do more than sell clothes: “We want to welcome everyone to downtown and be part of the entire community by catering to both local residents and college students,” she said.
Already she has provided clothes for the apparel, textiles and merchandising major’s annual spring fashion show and has participated in downtown events such as Jazz in the Valley and Girl’s Night Out. Plans are in the works for a Plaid Friday and a fashion show with Mango’s Salon and the Ellensburg Downtown Association in early March. In January she’ll be joining the board of the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m all about doing it all,” she said, and laughed. “I love having a hand in everything.”
For more about Claim Clothing, visit the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/claimyourcloset.