Business owner combines best of two stores

Owner Erin Thwaites, left, is joined by employee Kirstyn Grant at The Bel Boutique at 28 W. Loockerman St. in downtown Dover. (Special to Delaware State News/Arshon Howard)

DOVER — Erin Thwaites always wanted to provide an exceptional experience to customers who visited her two stores, The Bel Boutique and The Loocke in Downtown Dover.

But when the retail landscape changed and Ms. Thwaites wasn’t able to provide that feeling any more at The Loocke she knew it was time for a change.

“I was no longer willing to work with large corporate brands that did not support their small retailers,” Ms. Thwaites said. “Selling online has been a necessity to stay relevant, but I also wanted to continue to offer amazing experience and atmosphere. Personally and in business, I was spread too thin to show up in the best way possible for my family and business.”

But instead of closing the women’s fashion boutique at 123 W. Loockerman Street in Dover, Ms. Thwaites decided to combine both The Loocke and The Bel Boutique into one business.

The Bel Boutique held a soft opening of their new design on Jan. 18 and plan on doing more of a reopening/launch in the sprint.

“I wanted to bring the best items from each shop together to make one amazing shop,” Ms. Thwaites said. “I love what I do for a living but I wanted to do it a little differently. It was time to make a change. Instead of being spread pretty wide across two shops and several product lines we will be much more focused to ensure the quality and experience of each product we offer and transaction we process.”

“We will be able to run a more efficient business to be present with our customers,” she added. We will be able to find the balance to be present with our families as well-which is the most important thing.”

Ms. Thwaites opened her first store, the Bel Boutique at 28 Loockerman Street in Dover in 2008. The store brought in a lot of great products, but it was hard to provide the best atmosphere and experience within the store walls as displays became crowded with the shop’s growing assortment.

“I was between moving to a larger location or expanding to a new shop,” Ms. Thwaites said. “I love our downtown community and made the choice to open a fashion-focused boutique The Loocke in 2017, so Bel (The Bel Boutique) could offer more gift items in the atmosphere we wanted to provide.

“It has been a pretty amazing ride and The Loocke was great and I was lucky to have an amazing team take on a lot to make it run well.”

But the decision to close the shop was bittersweet.

“It was something I was considering since I had my first son, but I was cautious and thoughtful about the decision,” Ms. Thwaites said. “It wasn’t easy that is for sure. We put a lot of time, money, heart and energy into The Loocke and there was so much good that came from it, so it was definitely bittersweet. Once I made the choice I knew it was 100 percent the best choice for myself and my customers.”

Ms. Thwaites made her final decision to close the shop in November, so by the time she announced it on the shop’s Facebook page at the beginning of January, she was nervous and excited at the same time.

“I knew exactly every detail of what needed to be said as it was on my mind so much,” Ms. Thwaites said. “I couldn’t wait to do it. I was truly overwhelmed and heart-warmed by the positive and supportive reactive of our customers and the community. Everyone has been so excited for us, although of course many of them loved The Loocke, our longtime loyal customers understood where I was coming from.”

Moving forward the Bel Boutique will incorporate both shops’ strongest suits.

“Expanding into online was something we never got to with Bel, but we will be bringing the experience of The Loocke’s website success to Bel,” Ms. Thwaites said.

“We are also bringing in some fresh products, promos, events and customer experiences both in-store and online,” she added. “Keeping things fresh and relevant is a big deal for us.”

To prepare from the change Ms. Thwaites and store manager Brittany Tieman worked closely together to provide the best experience for their customers.

“We had to analyze what would stay and what would go,” Ms. Thwaites said. “The closeout sale of major brands over the holiday was a huge hurdle. The physical move of inventory and redesign of the shop was a big job we pulled off in a short time.”

“Juggling the marketing and educating our customers with our message as well as preparing to roll out all the new and exciting things proved to be a heavy lift, but we handled it,” she added.

“Since the New Year, we have had a final clearance sale, physical inventory, planning meetings, buying trips, photoshoots, a renovation and reopening amongst other things. We are just so excited to re-open and roll out everything we have in the works for our customers.”

The Bel Boutique had a soft opening on January 18, as Ms. Thwaites was surprised by the turnout.

“It was great,” Ms. Thwaites said. “January is a slow month in retail in general and we have several projects in the pipeline to roll out now that we have remerged into one shop. One of those is a rebranding and we will be doing more of a reopening/launch with that this spring.”

Ms. Thwaites said the sky is the limit for the Bel Boutique moving forward.

“We love the new look,” Ms. Thwaites said. “It truly blends the vibes of both stores. I feel it is more relaxed, cozy and pleasant to shop, which brings it back to that experience that I have wanted to offer our customers since the beginning.

“I truly feel that we have taken the best of each shop to make one amazing store. Streamlining into one shop will allow us to offer more value to our customers both in-store and online.”