Shop Owner Navigates Social Media, Thrives During Prom Season

By Diane Mastrull
The Philadelphia Inquirer.

PHILADELPHIA

Long before prom queens became a focus of reality TV, Philadelphia’s Zinni family was outfitting young women for the big dance.

What Jennie and Louis Zinni did not have to contend with when they opened for business in 1946 was social media.

In the retail business, it can be both a blessing and a curse, said Carolyn Zinni, the daughter who carries on Zinni’s of Philadelphia, albeit in the suburbs.

Lousy reviews on Yelp or snarky remarks on Twitter can reach thousands in no time and ruin a business. But social media also are a customer-development tool impossible for merchants to ignore, especially if they want to reach millennials, Zinni said.

“I am exploring ways I can leverage that to scale our business while also maintaining our boutique charm,” she said as the store celebrates 70 years.

In the meantime, defensive moves protect against online-assisted competition. Picture-taking is banned in the shop, and style numbers on dress tags are recoded to make it harder for customers to use the store for browsing and then purchasing elsewhere.

The beginning of the month marked the new season’s debut of prom fashions at Zinni’s of Philadelphia. Some dresses even sold during Christmas week, Carolyn Zinni said.

Proms make up 70 percent of the shop’s sales. An in-house registry helps staff members, typically three or four, up to seven in peak seasons, execute a store policy that tries to ensure that the same dress is never sold to more than one student at a school.

“There’s a lot of joy, but you also see girls here stomping their feet because they didn’t get the dress they wanted,” Zinni said of life in her boutique, from which 780 prom dresses were sold last season at an average $450 each. Dresses run as high as $2,000; 25 a year are donated to the needy.

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