Toward the back of Oakmont’s Carabella Boutique, past racks of blazers and shelves displaying sweaters, a beige couch holds a few hundred signatures.
Each one is accompanied by a loving message about the boutique – from simple hearts to detailed accounts of why the customer loves it so much.
Photo: Ryan Pearson
“Customer service is our main focus,” shop owner Carol Kinkela said, stopping mid-sentence to greet a loyal customer who came to buy a gift for her daughter.
Across the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, the small business market is booming. Now more than ever, shoppers have the opportunity to buy local versus big name stores, with boutiques in nearly every neighborhood. From Downtown to Lawrenceville to the South Side, locally owned boutiques are the new “it” shopping experience.
The support system among small business in Pittsburgh is perhaps why so many are successful, said Mike McAllister of Urbanist, an online guide to Pittsburgh and other American cities. He noted the history of Pittsburgh as contributing to its present growth and charm.
“Historically, mom and pop shops were the heart and soul of Pittsburgh,” he said. “Each shop in Pittsburgh is differentiating itself in the shopping scene.”
Carabella Boutique opened its doors in September of 1996 and has remained a local favorite. Even at noon on a Tuesday, the shop has customers coming in with the expectation of a personalized shopping experience.
Photo: Ryan Pearson
Martha Feldmeier of Upper St. Clair stands in a small dressing room in the back of the shop, admiring her new outfit in the mirror.
“What I love about this place is it is a smaller shop that offers exactly what I’m looking for, from the help I get to the variety and brands of clothing available to me,” she said.
Kinkela said she loves making Carabella Boutique a part of the Oakmont community. The shop is actively philanthropic as well, hosting an annual event toward the end of August to support research to cure Alzheimer’s disease, a cause very dear to Kinkela’s heart.
“Interaction with my customers is essential,” she said. “Our reputation and loyalty is virtually all word of mouth. I know what my customers want, so each of them is offered a variety of hand-picked options.”
When it comes to the rise of boutiques in the city, Kinkela has not and does not foresee the shop taking a hit from the growing competition.
“I wish them well,” she said. “They know what it’s like to pour your blood, sweat and tears into a company. It’s not easy.”
Aiming for a demographic of young, urban shoppers, Flaunt boutique has locations on the North Side and South Side. It is the go-to for customers looking for a sexy outfit for a concert or an upcoming vacation.
Photo: Ryan Pearson
Owners Femi Akintola and Ruthie McMiller came to Pittsburgh eight years ago and said they saw an untapped market just waiting for a local treasure. Flaunt’s customers are the heart of this business, and the owners give them exclusive updates on merchandise.
“When items arrive that I know my customers like, I’ll call them directly and sell them that way,” McMiller said.
The store contains a variety of well-known and unknown brands, including Steve Madden and Chinese Laundry.
“We visit conventions all over, like Magic in Vegas and Fanny in New York City,” Akintola said. “We’re looking for the latest, hottest products for our customers.”
As the company seeks to expand its customer base online and in-store, both owners said they keep the customer’s needs at the top of their priority list.
“We learn from our customers,” Akintola said. “If someone comes in with a photo on their phone of a really cute item and asks, ‘Will you get this in?’ We’ll order the products we see a need for.”
Flaunt opened its doors in the North Side in August 2012. The business grew so rapidly that the owners opened a second location on the South Side’s East Carson Street in January.
Surrounded by many other boutiques, including Fig Leaf, Threads, Highway Robbery and One Up skate shop, the owners said they feel a sense of community.
“I’ve known the owners and employees of all the shops around us, and we maintain both professional and friendly relationships,” Akintola said.
McMiller said the owners can get along with their neighbors because each store’s product availability is so targeted.
“There’s no competition [in Pittsburgh],” she said. “What we sell, you won’t see anywhere else. Our biggest competitor is online sales where cheaper prices draw in customers.”
To combat this, the owners have pushed a presence on Instagram, with more than 20,000 followers.
“We also offer our customers 10 percent off when they tag their outfits from Flaunt on Instagram,” Akintola said.
Lawrenceville offers another stand-out boutique, Mid-Atlantic Mercantile, run by Emily Slagel. Lining the walls are hand-poured candles, rich leather goods and the finest threads Slagel can get.
What stands out about this boutique is its selection of menswear items as well as women’s wear. Shopping local is much more than a trend for this shop. Its owner’s passion lies in American-made, ethically-sourced products created in small batches, she said.
“We’re very lucky to be connected to a national community of independent designers, makers and shop owners who share similar ideals and values and help to promote one another as well,” Slagel said.
The shop opened in May, and since then, it has grown tremendously. With nearly a five-star rating on its Facebook page and a slew of raving reviews, the shop has become a gem in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville.
“Not only are they [customers] contributing to their neighborhood’s economy, but they are able to personally connect with the products and the stories behind them,” Slagel said. “My favorite part about the shop is the daily conversations that I have with my customers. Customers become friends, and friends become family.”
Photo: Ryan Pearson
The demographic is trendy 20- and 30-somethings who want a shopping experience a big-name retailer cannot offer. When it comes to the competition, Slagel said she is proud to have a shop unlike any other in the city.
The higher price point for small boutiques and businesses is often a turn off for shoppers, but McAllister, of Urbanist, said he believes the money is worth being spent. The shop owners know what is in their store, where it came from and the story behind it. When customers see the price on a tag, not only are they supporting the shop and local economy, but the person behind the production, he said. Engaging the shop owner reinforces the worth of each item.
“Though Pittsburgh is a little behind, when you consider the markets of Portland, Austin, etc., it’s great that people are filling the holes of the needs in the city,” McAllister said. “What I like is that people are just doing it, not complaining – just taking the initiative to provide and supply for Pittsburgh.”