After graduating from the University of Arizona, Lyall got to New York City and studied fashion and design at the Tobe Coburn School of Fashion, which as noted in the archives and manuscripts department of the New York Public Library was founded in 1937. Tobe Coburn quickly became a nationally known and respected fashion institution. In its teaching, the school was dedicated to all aspects of fashion providing a very intense training of eight to 10 subjects per semester. This also included on the job training, which in some instances had class trips to Paris.
While traditional ‘brick and mortar’ retail stores have been closing – going into bankruptcy, specialized boutique shops like Helen Lyall’s Clothes for Women on the Riverfront in downtown Napa is still alive and well.
This 4th of July weekend Lyall opened shop with an Independence Day sale, eager to drum up business. But mostly to reconnect with customers and the public amid the setbacks of the Coronavirus quarantine ordinance.
“People are a bit wary, which is understandable,” Lyall said as she spoke to this reporter between customers stopping by the shop. “Yet, we are doing all the protocols and taking the precautions of wearing face masks, distancing and cleaning/disinfecting.”
Mentioning the unprecedented aspect to the Coronavirus situation and the vigilant efforts everyone must make while being open for business, “in over 43 years I have learned no matter what, retail requires hard work.”
Lyall is accustomed to it as she grew up in it. Raised in Superior, Arizona a small town of less than 3,000 people about 70 miles north of Tucson, as highlighted on Wikipedia. It was primarily a copper mining town.
Lyall, her parents, and eight siblings lived in a few rooms at the back of their family store, called Mitchell’s Dry Goods.
The dry goods store sold everything from thread and fabric to work boots and moccasins, to baptismal gowns and confirmation dresses. “My interest in merchandising and fashion began at an early age, she said. It’s been my passion.”
“After graduation from there, I spent seven years in New York before returning to the West Coast,” said Lyall. Grateful and pleased of the training and experience she added.
“You can only train so much. I think there are aspects about fashion that are instinctive; it is something one is born with.”
As Amazon seeks to establish a warehouse/distribution center in Sonoma, (20 minutes away from Napa) Lyall like other boutique shop owners believes that “the full effect is better.”
“For a customer to touch and feel the fabric and try the outfit on is probably better than only seeing it on a computer screen. It might be the old fashioned way, said Lyall. But customer satisfaction is greater and more complete.”
As Amazon at present is the top in e-commerce sales on the Internet, not even the most advanced algorithim can provide the level of committed customer service that Lyall and boutiques like hers can. She refers to this as “personalization.”
“That is what is missing today in the shopping experience. Part of the hard work in retail, Lyall said is being creative, innovative and getting to know a customer, her lifestyle as well as her needs.”
Getting to know a customer is delicate thing and is something that is built with honesty and trust. “Getting to know a customer is important and it has to be done in a way that is not nosey but caring. I am not here just to make a sale, she added. I am here establishing a relationship, one that a loyal customer can rely upon.”
This is not possible online or in an average retail store in at the mall. “We have always been a specialized boutique shop. When I buy, said Lyall, I am buying for customers I know. I look for the highest quality, the most unique-original designs and well-made items available.” Lyall still enjoys putting together annual fashion shows as they help to bring in business far and wide in the best way possible. “I love dressing up and helping my customers to dress for any occasion, event or situation they need and want to look and be their best in.”
When asked what advice she would give to those just starting out or perhaps these days we should say, ‘starting up’ in the retail business. She noted that to be successful…
“You have to operate/manage the store yourself, in person and be there on the floor.”
“I have an outstanding staff – Beth Grega and Paula Gonzales are excellent with a good sense of fashion. I rely on them for sure. Again, she reiterated, “plan for a lot of hard work. This is the advice I have for those pursuing a career in retail.”
For Lyall and dedicated shop owners like her, “the more a sales person/manager-owner enjoys all the various aspects to retail, the more the quality of service excels.”
Not one to fret too much over marketing, whether in print or online. Lyall believes and knows that the best advertising is word of mouth.
“When a customer looks smashingly wonderful in an outfit that I helped to put together with her in mind, that is the best advertising ever,” Lyall said.
Even with the setbacks upon the economy due to the Coronavirus, Lyall is confident things will adjust and eventually the pandemic will end. “What else can I say? Lyall concluded. My life is my store!”
Independence Day sale continues through Sunday. Helen Lyall Clothes for Women boutique is located at 650 Main Street, in downtown Napa. For details call 707-252-7400. Or visit the web site.