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With its extensive array of costume jewelry, women’s attire, designer gowns and even dog apparel, Emmie’s Boutique is a small, thriving business in the heart of Richmond Hill’s shopping district along Liberty Avenue.
Its founder and manager, Samantha Koobeer, 31, was inspired to open a retail business after several years of hosting “jewelry parties” in her home. At these small, invitation-only gatherings, which featured finger foods, a live DJ and a wide assortment of crafted earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings, Koobeer encouraged women to get in touch with their “inner diva.”
With the praise and profit she received as the planner and host of these evenings, but little additional experience or training, Koobeer opened the shop in 2011, naming it after her 8-year-old chihuahua. Running a boutique in Richmond Hills has proven to be a roller coaster ride.
“Location was a key aspect in deciding where to launch the business, but the cost of renting a space for the store was definitely a more important factor and Liberty Avenue offered the perfect combination,” said Koobeer. “During the first year of operation, profits soared consistently.” Weekly sales, she said, often topped $1,000.
Lilly Singh, a college student and accounting intern, is a regular customer at Emmie’s. “Whenever I have a special occasion to attend and I need to find a fancy evening dress, Emmie’s will usually be my first stop,” said Singh. “With the help of one of the salesgirls at Emmie’s I am able to find an entire outfit within 30 minutes. The only downside is that the prices here don’t go easy on my bank account and it isn’t often that items go on sale.”
At the beginning, the brightly decorated boutique drew the attention of the fashion-savvy women of Richmond Hill’s West Indian and South Asian community. Emmie’s bubble-gum pink color scheme, its white Victorian-style furniture and ornamental chandeliers with Swarovski crystals stand out amid the rows of Caribbean and South Asian restaurants, bars, salons and retail stores that make up the majority of businesses in the neighborhood.
Emmie’s also differed from the other clothing stores on Liberty Avenue, which mostly feature saris and other ethnic wear from Guyana, Trinidad, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. By contrast, Emmie’s sells jumpsuits, trendy dresses, patterned crop tops and elegant body jewelry. Koobeer, who is of Indo-Guyanese descent, said it helps that she shares similar tastes of the women who live in the neighborhood.
Koobeer also advertises her business aggressively. “I played the role of a vendor at street fairs, sponsored local beauty pageants, participated in community events and continued to host private parties at the store during after hours,” Koobeer said. “However, I depended mostly on social media for exposure, using Facebook and Instagram to reach out to larger pools of potential customers at a faster rate.”
Koobeer said the boutique’s income skyrocketed during its first two years, but then began to taper off in 2013. She blames the drop on the proliferation of online boutiques on the web.
The location on Liberty Avenue didn’t help. From the beginning, Koobeer had noticed that foot traffic on Liberty Avenue began to dwindle near 124th Street, which is where the line of fruit and fish markets, pharmacies, and grocery stores comes to an end. Emmie’s Boutique is two blocks farther along the avenue, at 126th Street, an area that has far fewer pedestrians.
When Emmie’s first opened, the store’s location didn’t seem to be an issue, as locals were eager to see what it had to offer. However, as the excitement surrounding the new boutique began to fade, so did the foot traffic.
The local competition, including Knockout and Da Zone, “are both found in the center of Liberty Avenue, along the more densely populated streets,” said Sasha Rampersaud, a Baruch student and sales associate who has worked at Emmie’s since it opened. “These stores have existed for much longer than Emmie’s and sell a similar selection of products, but they are also less proactive in seeking out the latest styles and fashion trends on the market.”
While Emmie’s prices are marginally higher than its neighborhood rivals, she has managed to make up for the drop in foot traffic by selling via her website and on eBay, where she sells more expensive designer clothes such as Terani Couture, Tony Bowls, Dave & Johnny and Bari Jay. These designer dresses have proven to be more difficult to sell off the racks at the store because they cost $200 to $500 each, much more than the $30-to-$60 cost of most of the store’s dresses. Many of Emmie’s regular customers are working-class locals who purchase small accessories, tops, skirts or leggings at discounted prices.
Despite the sometimes unpredictable highs and lows of retailing, Koobeer hopes to open a branch of Emmie’s Boutique at a separate location in Manhattan. Recently, sales have soared again as Koobeer poured her savings into a new storefront and revamped the store’s floor space, adding more mannequins and a new jewelry layout that stretches across an entire wall.
“Whenever I happen to be on the avenue I’ll pop in for a quick look,” said Maria Garcia, a customer who lives a five-minute walk from the boutique. “The stores along Liberty Avenue are not always refurbished and kept in perfect condition, so it is a pleasant change to walk into Emmie’s and see all of the merchandise displayed in such neat order and with an aesthetic flair.”
Article and photos by Lisa Olson