If I gave you one hundred guesses of the jobs I have held, you would never get this one. Hell, I could give a thousand guesses. If you guessed busboy, waiter, camp counselor, bartender, salesman, engineer or lawyer, you would be right, at least at some point in time. But there is one job I had that you would never guess. Not in a million years.
Go ahead. Try it. Take a guess, or a hundred guesses, if you want. I have played this game many times, usually on first dates. No one ever gets it.
I managed a women’s clothing store. Here’s the story.
In early 2011, when we lived in West Lafayette, Indiana, my wife Trish told me that she wanted to buy a local woman’s clothing store called Collette. Trish was friends with the owner, a woman from Chicago, who had started the store several years earlier when her daughter was a student at Purdue. The store sold high end women’s clothing lines, like Free People, Splendid, BB Dakota and 7 for All Mankind, and Trish shopped there, because she shopped everywhere that sold high end women’s clothing. Trish was very into fashion.
I had never heard of Collette…or Free People or Splendid or BB Dakota or 7 for All Mankind, for that matter . . . because I’m a guy.
“It’s great stuff, and there is no other place like it in town,” Trish told me. “Maybe there is a reason there is no other place like it in town,” I thought, without saying that to Trish. The Lafayette area was notoriously cheap, mainly inhabited by factory workers, professors and, nine months out of the year, college students. People with money in Lafayette and West Lafayette tended to drive an hour south on I-65 to Indianapolis, or two hours north on I-65 to Chicago, to buy nice things. But Trish had her mind set on buying this clothing store.
I ran the numbers and began to convince myself that it could work. My law firm was also doing well at that point, so we could afford it, or so I thought. And maybe it would make money! That’s how businesses work. Right?
More importantly, Trish wanted to buy the store. Trish had not worked outside the home since I got my first job after law school. Trish volunteered everywhere, and was the cheerleading coach at the girls’ middle school, but had not worked at a full time job since 1994. I made the money, and she took care of everything else. But now she wanted something more, and I owed her at least that after 15 years at home with the kids.
We closed on the store May 1, 2011. Three weeks later, Trish was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.
Trish didn’t know this, but the doctors gave her little hope for recovery. The cancer had already spread from the lemon-sized tumor in her colon to her lungs, liver, thyroid glands and the lining of her abdominal wall.
After surgery to remove the main tumor, while Trish was still in post-op, I asked the surgeon about Trish’s chances for recovery.
“If you ask me that question, I have to give you an honest answer,” the surgeon told me. That was obviously not good. “I’ve never seen a cancer so bad in a woman so young,” she continued. Trish was 45.
“She might have 18 months, maybe, if the chemo goes well. Three years would be a miracle,” the surgeon told me. Trish made it 10 months.
After recovering from surgery, Trish returned to Collette and worked as much as she could. She loved every minute of it. All of Trish’s friends visited the store often, usually buying something, but sometimes just stopping in to say hi. Our daughters, age 14, 16 and 18 at the time, also worked in the store, and loved spending time with their mom, talking about what was selling well, and what they would order next for the store. Sales were brisk. Given the cancer, I considered asking the previous owner if she would take the store back. But I never mentioned that thought to Trish. To think that way would have admitted that Trish was going to die.
In August, we received notice that our lease for the store would not be renewed. Our building was being torn down to build a hotel. We were given an option to move to another similar location in the same shopping plaza. At that point, since sales were strong, I had the bright idea of moving to an even larger space, and a space closer to the Purdue college campus. Although somewhat close to campus, Collette was not “on campus.” I thought we could generate even more walk-in student business. So, we signed a lease in an old building on State Street, across from Harry’s Chocolate Shop, if you know Purdue. Our floor space tripled and our rent more than doubled. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Trish grew sicker in the fall of 2011, and was not able to work as much as she had. We appointed Renee, a recent Purdue grad, as manager of the store and started paying her a salary. Trish spent less time at the store and more time in chemo treatments, but was still involved in all the purchasing decisions.
Meanwhile, at our new location on State Street, we began renovating the new space. I had recently hired my good friend Skip to work for me full time on my farm, where we were attempting to mine peat moss and start a soil business, which is an entirely different story. Skip is very handy, and headed up the renovation of the new store, with me as his main assistant. That’s where it started. Rather than suing companies for infringing patents, where I actually make money, I was instead hanging drywall, painting and building cool store displays. I was also pouring money into the renovations, which cost a fortune. We ordered more clothes to fill the larger space, which also involved getting out the check book—my checkbook. We ordered new computers, and the best point-of-sale software and scanners, and a video security system. An investment, I told myself.
As the day neared when we had to be out of the old store, we worked day and night on the new store. Many of our family, especially my dad, and friends in the community, pitched in to help. Although Trish couldn’t do much at that point, she often joined us while we worked at the store, and our friends and family helped to paint, lay tile, hang curtains, organize and get the story ready. Our community rallied around Trish and her store, and came together to make the new store happen.
When we were finished, Collette was beautiful. We designed creative fixtures and displays, getting ideas from stores like Urban Outfitters and Aeropostle. Trish was very proud of her new store, and her spirits were lifted during the darkest times of chemotherapy, and when we received news on March 1 that there was nothing else the doctors could do.
Trish died three months after we moved into the new store, on March 30, 2012. At that time, as far as Trish knew, Collette was a success, and she had left a wonderful legacy for her daughters. I struggled to maintain that legacy.
Although Renee was an energetic young manager, she was not that strong with the finances. In early 2013, the electricity at the store was almost turned off because the bill had not been paid. I brought Skip in to go over the books, and we found that we were behind on everything, including the rent and Indiana sales taxes. The State of Indiana did not take that well, and was prepared to shut us down until I came up with $20,000 to bail the store out. I was quickly getting tapped out.
Up to this point, other than the renovations and legal issues, I had had little involvement in the store. Trish and my daughters liked it that way, because Collette was their thing. But this was getting ridiculous, and I couldn’t afford to keep bleeding money. So I came in, along with Skip, and started running the store. If you buy a dress for $60, and sell it for $120, how do you not make money??? It didn’t make sense.
Skip and I identified several ways that we were losing money. First, my daughters were treating the store like their personal closet, and taking a lot of the new stuff as soon as it arrived. I had always known this, but figured it was cheaper than them driving to Indianapolis and spending my money at Neiman Marcus. Our employees were also buying the new stuff with their employee discount as soon as it came in the door. This left all the best clothes basically picked over before they even hit the floor. In addition, the high-end fashion with the highest profit margin, like Free People, was just not selling as well at the new location on campus. After Trish’s death, we also lost most of the local “over 40 with money to burn” demographic.
In view of these issues, I had the bright idea to buy cheaper and “sluttier” clothes that might better appeal to the college girls. I started traveling to the LA Fashion Market, where I would spend a couple days picking out skimpy dresses, costume jewelry and shoes to sell at Collette. This was a terrible waste of my time. Rather than finding new patents to litigate and new companies to sue, I was instead buying “little black dresses,” which, as you may or may not know (I didn’t), are the staple of every girl’s wardrobe.
We also started advertising. We hosted special events for the Purdue sororities. We sent out mailers to the incoming freshmen women. We sponsored events on campus, getting the Collette name out there and giving away free shit. I also cut a local TV commercial, with me as the star.
Looking into the camera at the store with clothes and displays behind me, I asked “Are you looking for a gift for your wife? My name is Tony Dowell, and I own the women’s clothing store Collette. Long story. But if you need a gift, we can help.”
I held up a white blouse for the camera. “Would your wife like this? Maybe.”
“How about this?” I asked, holding up a blue dress, shrugging. “You don’t know.” Putting the dress down, I continued. “Let’s face it. We’re guys. We don’t have a clue. But here’s the answer.”
Pulling a gift card ouy of my suit pocket, I declared, “The Collette Gift Card!”
Cutting to a close up of the Collette Gift my voice continued in the background. “Because it not just about the clothes, it’s about the entire shopping experience. You can order the Collette Gift Card online. A couple of clicks, your shopping is done, and you can get back to the game.”
Cutting back to me in the store, I declared “The Collette Gift Card. It NEVER disappoints.”
The commercial cost about five grand to produce, which I paid for, and we aired it during Monday Night Football, a couple of weeks in a row before Christmas. We sold a grand total of eight $100 gift cards that holiday season.
Nevertheless, we persisted. We always believed that some upcoming event would drive more sales and save the store, like Mom’s weekend, or the students returning in the fall. In advance of each upcoming event, I would get out my checkbook and invest in more inventory so that we would be ready for the onslaught of profit we would surely receive. That’s how business works, right? Right???
By the Spring of 2014, I was tapped out. I had no more to “invest,” and we closed the doors at Collette. We sold off the inventory at pennies on the dollar, and whatever fixtures people could carry off, and sent the rest to the dump. On May 1, 2014, Skip and I swept up, locked the doors, left the keys on the counter, and walked out, still owing at least 4 months of rent.
Although a financial disaster, which could not have come at a worse time, I still remember fondly my days running a women’s clothing store. Skip always says that maybe I bought Collette for a reason, to allow the community to give something to Trish in her final weeks. He always looks at things that way. Maybe I should too.