Lessons Learned: Primp Boutique Owner Wesley Uthus
Primp wrote the book on the modern clothing boutique experience at fast-fashion prices—and did it a decade ago, when most successful brands were rushing online. In contrast, Primp focused on store experience and community building. The Twin Cities company, founded in St. Paul by Wesley Uthus and Michele Henry with $16,000 and no outside investors, peaked with nine stores and a focus on secondary markets that took it to places like Mankato and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Now Primp is down to five stores. The downsizing started in 2018, and two more stores closed permanently since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Uthus had to make those unexpected decisions alone, because her partner exited the business nearly two years ago to start a new venture. Still, despite its smaller footprint, Primp is closer to its 2020 sales projections than Uthus could have imagined back in the spring—thanks to a spike in online traffic and to cost cutting. “Covid forced me to make hard decisions I wouldn’t have made otherwise,” says Uthus. “We’re so much better off.”
When stores closed March 18 because of Covid-19 (reopening two months later), Uthus furloughed her entire team of more than 50 employees. “I was the only person fulfilling orders in April,” the solo owner says. “It was such a gift: It forced me to learn my business in a whole new way. I realized the process of fulfillment was broken. Our website was really frustrating. It lit a fire to drive changes we need [so we can] grow.”
“One of the most amazing things about the pandemic is the realization of the power we have to support our local businesses. If that corner store matters to you, you have to shop there.”
A wide-open field
Primp isn’t the only retailer to downsize this year. Uthus says she fields offers to lease space from commercial real estate brokers every day. “There’s so much opportunity right now. I will never say never—my heart is always with brick and mortar. [But] right now, we’re focused on how we grow digitally.”
Betting on holiday
Unlike many retailers that are scaling back their offerings to get by, Primp bought to its usual volume for winter. “It’s a little risky, but we have longer to sell winter merchandise, and we expect holiday sales to be strong. We’re all looking for something to look forward to.”
“Excelsior had a really strong summer—it’s been booming since the day we reopened,” Uthus says. Primp’s other suburban locations, in Woodbury and White Bear Lake, have been quicker to rebound than its original city shop at Selby and Dale in St. Paul.
“My heart hasn’t been in e-commerce. Stores have always been the foundation of the business,” Uthus says. But when stores shut down in March, Primp’s online traffic spiked 200 percent overnight, which prompted Uthus to finally begin building out a full-service website. Seeing loyal customers order online showed Uthus that there’s more than one way to deliver service. As store traffic rebounds, online sales remain strong: Heading into 2020, Uthus says online accounted for 10 percent of total sales; now it’s 25 percent, and the fastest-growing part of the business.
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Forced to downsize
In fall 2019, Uthus finally closed Primp’s long-struggling store at Shops at West End. “We tried everything—even converted it to an outlet store—but the foot traffic just wasn’t there.” Mankato closed for similar reasons. Uthus thought that would be it, until 2020 pushed her to acknowledge that “potential” wasn’t reason enough to stay open in Rochester and at 48th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. In downtown Rochester, a construction project made the store difficult to access. “That store was very slow to rebound [from the temporary Covid closure] and we just couldn’t wait,” Uthus says. The south Minneapolis store had long been “a little challenging,” but neighborhood charm propelled it until an uptick in violence over the summer caused Uthus to reconsider. “We had several instances of people causing problems in the store and stealing merchandise. It’s such an amazing location, but I didn’t want employees to feel like they couldn’t be alone there.”