“If it isn’t fun, we’re not doing it anymore,” says Dawn Pasacreta of the fashion retail business she owns with close friend Denise Elias. The two opened LOLA New York on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains three years ago, recently added a second store, on Columbus Avenue in Tuckahoe, and have plans to start selling online. It seems that fun and revenue are in no short supply.
Pasacreta and Elias freely admit that their decision to launch the original shop, which looks decidedly upscale though boasts moderate prices, was based more on instinct than market research. While Pasacreta attended the Fashion Institute of New York and worked for both Nordstrom and J.Crew, it was Elias who set the LOLA New York wheels in motion when she began selling jewelry and clothes out of her home in White Plains. Born in Cuba, Elias grew up in Miami, where some of her friends opened boutiques. Tagging along on buying trips to Manhattan piqued Elias’ interest in retailing. Later, after marrying, relocating to Westchester and raising two children, she was ready to jump in. Elias simply “went to the wholesalers and bought beautiful things to sell,” she explains, “and that spiraled into all this.”
Her eye for what Westchester women would want to buy proved keen. The business “started out as girlfriends coming over by appointment but turned into lots of people knocking on the door,” explains Pasacreta, who met Elias when their sons, now teenagers, attended kindergarten together. Elias wanted to go “the brick-and-mortar route,” but not until Pasacreta signed on as an official partner. “I wouldn’t do it by myself,” Elias says, “and I didn’t want to do it with anyone but Dawn.”
So, armed with the profits from Elias’ extremely successful but low-overhead enterprise and a bit of seed money from each partner, the two women tackled their first (daunting) task: to find an address where the rent wasn’t overly costly. “We had to keep rent payments low,” say Elias. “People were excited about the store,” she explains, “but afraid we would become more expensive [with a physical location]; we didn’t.” After months of searching for a place that wouldn’t throw their business plan out of whack, they finally spied their current White Plains location, a long-vacant bakery.
The store, and the block it sits on, look lovely now, but not so at first. When Pasacreta and Elias moved in, overgrown trees obscured their signage and gnarled the sidewalk. “We really took a chance on this place,” says Elias. Luckily, the building soon changed hands, and the new owners made much necessary upgrades. The improvements lured a new coffee place, a Plushblow salon, and Meg-a-Lashes (an eyelash lounge) to the somewhat quiet stretch of Mamaroneck Avenue, just outside the main business district of White Plains. This small but demographically apt resurgence has afforded LOLA New York a significant increase in foot traffic, Elias says.
Fate may have intervened in with their shop’s exterior, but what’s inside truly demonstrates the partners’ knack for retail. Their biggest outlay of capital went to converting the old bakery into a charming and feminine boutique. The two note that their plan was to open, and to expand, without taking out any loans, and they’ve stuck to that. “We also agreed that we wouldn’t take huge draws for the first five years,” adds Elias, “so we just rolled the profits into growing the business.”
As for operating costs, the largest expense is managing inventory, a task “we’ve become really good at,” says Pasacreta. “We turn our inventory over about four times a year,” adds Elias, who estimates that some 40 to 50 percent of sales are reinvested into new merchandise. “We buy only in New York, so no real travel costs,” Pasacreta explains, heading into Manhattan once every two weeks, limiting their visits to the “big” trade shows at the Jacob Javits Center, to avoid overbuying. (“Don’t overbuy — you can always reorder” is an Elias-and-Pasacreta mantra.)
A full-service boutique, LOLA offers an ever-changing selection of clothes, gifts and accessories at a variety of relatively reasonable price points. “We’d rather have lower prices and a lot more turnaround,” explains Elias. “Our customers know they will see different things every week.” Offering the right balance of merchandise, however, took some fine-tuning.
“We used to carry more accessories and fewer clothes, as the profit margin for clothes is considerably less,” Pasacreta explains, with markups generally limited by the vendor to an average rate of 2.5 (or 150 percent). However, customers were constantly stopping by the store to see what new clothes were on the racks. This convinced Elias and Pasacreta to display more garments, boosting overall customer activity, and increasing sales of accessories that supply a larger profit margin. “We generate a lot of our profit from our costume jewelry,” says Elias. “We sell so much of it, and the markup rate is considerably higher.”
As for sales, LOLA New York does consistently well: Q1 numbers were up 37 percent this year, no small feat considering the post-holiday months are known for retail sluggishness. But it’s holiday business that has really fueled the shop. Sales doubled from the first Christmas season to the second and rose by 47 percent last Christmas. Revenue generated by these banner seasons enabled Elias and Pasacreta to finance the Tuckahoe store, they say, which opened in June of 2017.
And while prices may vary, customer service does not, Elias insists. “If someone can’t afford a $100 earring, they can buy a $10 earring; they still get the same style and shopping experience. The gift bag is just as beautiful. That’s important to us.” Shoppers seem pleased — Elias estimates that their customer base has nearly tripled since 2014.
Boutiques, Pasacreta and Elias have come to understand well what their customers want to wear, even noticing a subtle difference between their two locations. “The White Plains customer is willing to move a little more fashion-forward — they trust us now. They will go for some funky prints and ruffles, as long as nothing’s too over the top,” says Pasacreta. “In Tuckahoe, we’re still figuring it out, playing it safer with lots of denim, and black and white.” While the hits far outnumber the misses, Pasacreta will own up to the occasional miscalculation, such as her attempts to sell the hippie trend. “The bohemian look is just not happening here,” she laughs. On the other hand, she and Elias gambled and won on a line of slogan T-shirts by Unsweetened New York. “They were $95 each, a little high for us, plus extremely edgy,” Pasacreta says. The shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Psycho Mom” was the most popular (a fact that probably warrants some exploration).
That shirt, as well as most everything at LOLA New York, is not an item easily found nearby, and that’s no accident. Flanked by The Westchester and Bloomingdale’s, with Nordstrom Rack around the corner, Pasacreta and Elias avoid carrying overlapping brands. Further, she and Elias recently decided to drop a line after spotting it on a prominent Internet shopping site. “We refuse to offer what our customers can buy somewhere else at a discount,” they explain. End-of-season sales are a must, but markdowns are minimized by displaying transitional pieces, such as summer tees, at full-price with fall sweaters and jackets, Pasacreta explains. “Merchandising — it’s what we do best,” Elias adds. Surprisingly, LOLA New York does offer a department-store-like return policy: full refunds within 15 days. “I learned at Nordstrom,” says Pasacreta, “that if you give people their money back, they will spend it in your store.”
Payroll is another major expense, but cost is managed by maintaining a small but dedicated staff of about seven part-time employees, who cover both stores. Most are students who fill in when needed, adding extra hours during the busy holidays.
Hopes are high for LOLA New York, with plans to possibly add a Rivertowns store. Plus, the women are putting the IT in place to sell a capsule collection of LOLA New York merchandise online. Despite the adage that warns against going into business with friends, Elias and Pasacreta are proving that such a partnership can be lots of fun — as well as profitable.
Gale Ritterhoff is a freelance writer based in Katonah who is a frequent contributor to 914INC. and Westchester Magazine.