Stayin’ alive: Scarpa models small business ‘thrive-ival’

Stayin’ alive: Scarpa models small business ‘thrive-ival’

In retail, 25 years is more than a lifetime–and Amy Gardner, owner and founder of Scarpa, knows this as well as anyone. The women’s shoe shop she opened in North Barracks Road in 1994 has evolved into one of the area’s premier women’s apparel stores.

Gardner’s adventure in retail was spurred by her passion for shoes (“I spent my first babysitting dollars on a pair of gray Esprit driving loafers”), and–oddly enough–the problem-solving skills she honed as an architecture major at UVA in the early ‘90s. “Architecture is basically three-dimensional problem-solving,” she says. “You have to learn to collaborate, to present your thinking, to keep the end-user in mind–a lot like business thinking.”

Gardner saw a problem–Charlottesville had no shop dedicated to fine women’s shoes–and the solution was clear: open her own. “I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I could fail at age 24–but wasn’t that better than getting to my 40s knowing that I had never tried?” She added accessories in 1997, and clothing in 2004. Then the 2009 recession almost forced Scarpa under. “I had been doing a fine job at watching the top line, but not so well at keeping an eye on the basics–profit margin, expenses,” Gardner says. “I learned a lot about being a better business person.” In 2012, as the market was recovering, she hired a consultant who became a mentor and “reignited that spark I needed to keep going.”

Customer service and loyalty are the heart of Gardner’s business approach. Scarpa’s offerings reflect both the expertise of Gardner and her staff, and their intimate knowledge of their clientele. And this isn’t third-hand market research–it’s personal. Gardner has customers who have been shopping at Scarpa since it opened.

Scarpa’s customers are still largely local, but now include out-of-towners as well. As Charlottesville has become a destination, shoppers often make the store their first stop on a weekend visit. And UVA has brought students’ parents and a large and loyal alumni community who return for reunions and events–and revisit their favorite shoe store.

What spurs this kind of loyalty? Beautifully crafted shoes, jewelry, apparel, and accessories–but above all, Gardner’s commitment to customer service. Need a pair of shoes adjusted? They’ll send them out to their expert cobbler. Need accessories to update your favorite outfit? Bring it in, and they’ll help you figure out a new look. Need a dress for a special event, but can’t get in during business hours? They’ll open early or stay late.

These days, Gardner’s role is managing the business overall, and ensuring that her customers always know Scarpa is their store. “I’m self-made,” she says, “but no one is truly self-made.”

Small biz staying power

What has Amy Gardner learned about small business longevity? Here, she offers her top tips:

1. Figure out what you don’t know, and learn it. Ask for feedback and advice from everyone whose opinion you value, she says–whether for their expertise in business, finance, products, people management, or life balance.

2. Show the customer you are investing in your business. Gardner got this advice early on from Donna Doll, whose restaurant Brasa was part of Charlottesville’s dining boom in the 1990s. Fresh decor and comfortable spaces tells customers you are willing to spend money on their experience. For Gardner, this is one aspect of “playing the long game”–thinking beyond this month’s inventory or this year’s profit.

3. Keep personal relationships in the forefront. Every type of business is about people, Gardner believes: “The trick in business is to read your customer.” Likewise, when hiring staff, she looks for empathy as well as expertise. Asked to name one of her biggest accomplishments, she cites developing and inspiring her employees.

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