Mainstream Boutique Owner Turns Shopping Expertise Into Franchising Success

By Nancy Ngo
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

It has been more than two decades since Marie DeNicola launched Mainstream Boutique. Today, the Minnesota-based women’s clothing and accessories boutique has grown to 41 bricks-and-mortar franchise stores in 16 states.

And Mainstream Boutique shows no signs of slowing down.

An aggressive expansion plan is underway, and DeNicola recently launched a private clothing label available at Mainstream Boutique stores.

The retail strategy of Mainstream Boutique, which has several metro locations including White Bear Lake, Stillwater, Roseville and Mendota Heights, has been to offer a wide variety of affordable, trendy women’s apparel that spans generations so everyone — daughter, mom and grandmother — can shop there.

According to the company, Mainstream Boutique ended 2012 with more than $6.8 million in system-wide sales. In 2013, those numbers nearly doubled with $11.3 million in sales.

We caught up with DeNicola, 52, the president and CEO, who shared how she got into the business, the secret to her success and more.

Q: How did you get your start?

A: I always knew I wanted to be a buyer. Right out of college, I moved to Los Angeles and worked in the Garment District for six years. I really learned a lot. I was an assistant buyer, and then I became the assistant to the president of Windsor stores. My husband’s business moved us to Atlanta, where I became a director of purchasing at the Art Institutes in Atlanta. Through those experiences I really learned the business.

Q: How did Mainstream Boutique come about?

A: My husband’s career took us to Minnesota, and that’s when I decided to start my own company. The business initially started in 1991 as a direct-sales company. We did shows, sold clothing in women’s homes and did corporate events. In the mid-1990s, I was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as a successful entrepreneur. After that, women from all over the world called and asked, “How can I do what you’re doing?” We ended up franchising in 1998. Our first stores were in Des Moines, Iowa; Delafield, Wis.; and here in Apple Valley.

Q: How does Mainstream Boutique distinguish itself from other stores?

A: It’s our shopping experience. The stores are owner-operated. We really get involved in our communities and develop relationships with our customers. Each store carries the same lines, but we might have different items. We pay attention to our customers. We get to know what they like, and we buy with them in mind. Also, the owners are constantly sharing information, such as best practices, with each other. They’re not in competition. The culture is positive and encouraging.

Q: How has Mainstream Boutique grown over the years?

A: It has grown tremendously. We’re named on Inc. 5000 as one of the fastest-growing companies in the country.
We started with headquarters in Apple Valley, and that’s where our flagship store is. But with all of our growth, we moved in January to the International Plaza building in Minneapolis.

Right now, we have 41 stores in 16 states. We have nine stores in development — two are in new states. We’re opening just about every month now. By the end of 2015, we should have 60-plus stores. Our goal is 500 shops in five years.

Q: What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve had as a business owner?

A: Keeping up with technology. When I started the company, social media didn’t exist. It’s important to stay ahead of that and ahead of trends.

Q: What advice do you give others trying to start a retail business?

A: Make sure that you have a good foundation of experience. I started in a buying office so I learned to do forecasting and planning. You have to really run it like a business, not just as someone who like clothes and wants to open a store. You have to buy for your demographic not just what the store owner might like. That doesn’t work.

Q: When you’re not shopping for customers, where do you like to shop?

A: My apparel mainly comes from Mainstream Boutique, but I’ll shop at Nordstrom on occasion. I love their customer service, and they stay on trend.

Q: What’s next for Mainstream Boutique?

A: In addition to our expansion plans, we just launched our own private label, Mac and Me, named after my 17-year-old daughter, Mikayla. It’s really a celebration of love, fun and fashion. It includes denim, sportswear, a seamless line and jewelry. It hit the stores June 10.

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