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.

Zinni, 58, never attended a prom, so hers might seem an unlikely career choice _ until you learn how dresses were the fabric of her upbringing.

"We grew up there," she said, the we also referring to her two sisters and a brother. There meant the shop her parents operated until the 1970s.

It started as a men's store. Zinni's was robbed of everything but the racks its first year, Carolyn said. Her mother took it as a sign, so they reopened as a dress shop, with Jennie doing the buying and selling, and Louis the books and alterations.

In the 1970s, the Zinnis moved the shop to bigger quarters.

Jennie Zinni, now 92 and trying to get discovered as a songwriter, "I do want to get famous", said she always had a knack for stylish dressing, so the dress business "came natural."

Even in retirement, she offers critiques of Carolyn's inventory and displays. And she's been known to demand mystical actions, such as salt at the store's doorstep, to ward off any bad vibes.

By the time Carolyn was a teenager, she wanted no part of her parents' store. In 1983, she moved away, her marriage to a doctor-in-training taking her to Mexico, Ohio, New York, and Florida. She returned to the Philadelphia area in 1993 and went to work at a shop specializing in sportswear and evening wear that is owned by her sister Angela Abruzzese. Sister Maria Bennett owns Mia's of Philadelphia, a women's clothing store, at their parents' former location.

In 2004, Louis Zinni's health was fading as Carolyn, a divorced mother of three boys, was harboring "a fantasy of my dresses hanging in the window" of a storefront near her home.

With a $100,000 loan from her father, she opened Zinni's of Philadelphia there as her parents closed the city store. With it came something in short supply in the area: parking, "25 spots in front, 75 in back," Zinni boasted.

More than doubling the number of schools her parents sold to, 306 today, from a 20-mile radius, Zinni paid off the loan in 24 months. While not disclosing financials, she said she has increased sales each year since opening.

"Despite the proliferation of online shopping, we believe there will continue to be a vibrant brick-and-mortar need as customers are still interested in the experience of shopping," said William J. Park, a partner and retail expert at Deloitte & Touche. "That experience includes store visualization, product display and personal service."

At Zinni's of Philadelphia, it includes mimosas for the adults and fashion shows on flat-screen TVs.

Carolyn Zinni quit high school in 10th grade, "I could not conform to a formal education; I was so distracted,", and found beauty school a better fit. She worked in the hair salon for five years, returning to school at 35 to get her general education diploma.

Her focus now is on business and personal growth, the latter a project since her engagement to former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo ended over the summer.

"I've learned to be so vulnerable, and I feel it's my greatest asset," Zinni said at her shop, where she sees plenty of vulnerability. She tries to boost confidence by getting girls in the right dress.

"Prom girls know what they like," she said, "but not what they look good in."

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