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I couldn’t worry about the smoking, although I believed his doctor’s advice that it was ruining his cardiovascular system. As a courtesy to me, he only smoked outside or down in his hobby room. Frequently, however, it drifted up to the living level of our house, and became more and more of a problem for my allergic nose. I began to resent his paying two dollars and up for a pack, when I couldn’t afford a new bra! To ease my exasperation, I began making token purchases for myself, like a pack of cute stickers to put on my personal letters and cards. While I didn’t buy new stickers for every pack of cigarettes Mike bought, it soothed my angst when I did.

With a new year at hand, my worry-time filled with store priorities, like how to survive for fifteen more months. Luckily, the mall’s previous promotion manager stopped in one day and, in the course of our long conversation, mentioned two things that would stick in my brain. One was, "I think you’re selling yourself short, Helen," and the other, "there are two times you can make money when you’re in business—at your grand opening, and when you close-out!"

My Grand Opening opportunity was history. But now, with spring close at hand, I could use a promotional event—something the current promotions lady for the mall didn’t strike me as being capable of doing. I’d noticed, over the past year and before, when Mike and I would visit the mall, that her habit was to schedule rummage sales, or squeeze craft tables into the common areas, or let an amateur music group perform for an hour, and she’d place a couple of ads in the local papers. By now, I had learned that the year-round rent-paying merchants did not care for competition from rummage and craft sales. The live music brought folks into the mall, folks who didn’t buy anything from the merchants except maybe a cookie and a soft drink. They took what was free and left for home.

I challenged myself to do my own. One that would bring my target-audience into the mall and into my store. Who should I target? Grandmothers. Who would they go out of their way to please? Grandchildren. Granddaughters. I devised a Little Girls’ Dress Up Contest to hold in April. Girls ages three to seven were eligible, but only when registered by their grandmothers within my store—meaning the grandmothers filled out the forms, including a hold-harmless agreement. The winner would be decided by write-in votes on official ballots—ones I designed, photo copied, and cut apart.

I booked a Saturday with the mall promotions manager, secured the loan of a modest runway/ramp from the modeling agency on one side of my store and got the music store on the other side to provide a phonograph and public address system. The owner of the collectibles shop on the upper level seemed agreeable to a price-break on a pretty, sixteen-inch doll for the winner. Later she changed her mind and charged me full retail price.

I placed a display ad in the next two issues of the local weekly paper, including a cartoon I’d drawn of a little girl dressed in grandma’s clothes from the attic trunk—hat, dress, shoes and pearls all way too big. A few days after that paper came out, local grandmothers started visiting my shop to sign up their girls! That was my first benefit, exposure for my store.

When the event day came, the mall was a-buzz with activity. People poured into the main entrance, filling both lower and upper levels around the escalators. Inside my store, I positioned the entrants into a line for showing, gave them some tips and assigned contestant numbers.

With the four inch high runway in place, along with a few merchants who had volunteered to help, the little darlings followed me into the mall entranceway while two young men from the music store did a final test on the public address system.

I took the microphone, welcomed the families and friends of the contestants and reviewed the voting procedure, then gave the nod to a fellow merchant to start the music.

To the upbeat tunes of Mickey Mouse Disco, I improvised a running commentary as each little girl took the ramp in grandma’s oversized high heels and trailing dress. "This is Miss Jessica, wearing a multi-colored flowered ensemble with a pretty, pink pearl necklace. Jessica is four years of age, and her contestant number is one!"

The music blared. The cameras flashed and, one by one, each girl smiled and curtsied as coached ahead of time before exiting with assistance from a volunteer merchant. The crowed cheered for every contestant and, ultimately, stuffed the ballot box with votes for their favorite.

They also hung around the mall for the next hour, waiting for the votes to be tallied and the winner announced. I did that from the runway ramp as planned, and when I presented the collectible doll to the winner, the crowd roared and applauded.

I later heard that my event had the largest turnout of any promotion held in that mall in recent years. While it may have been successful, it was not without flaw. A couple of girls cried when they didn’t win the prize doll. I had not anticipated that, and it hurt. I should have had token prizes ready for the runners-up as well as for every entrant. I also missed an opportunity to give each grandma, at the time she registered her granddaughter, a discount coupon or some other reason to return to my store in the future. Lessons learned. I did add them to my newsletter mailing list.

Spring passed. I was stumped for summer inventory. I recalled that several ladies had come into the store looking for swimsuit cover-ups for their next cruise. Having years of sewing experience behind me, I decided to make some myself. I applied with the FTC to become a registered U.S. Apparel Manufacturer and ordered custom labels, then designed a one-size-fits-all beach wrap with a waist tie, large pockets and a small zipper bag. As soon as my registration approval and labels came, I purchased 100% cotton seersucker yardage in three pastel shades from the fabric store at the end of the hall. Production started that evening—a good distraction from watching and waiting for Mike to come home from the local bar. My shears and serger worked overtime evenings and during the weekend. By the following Tuesday my swimsuit covers were displayed in-store and ready to sell.

They were also at risk to be critiqued. The owner of the athletic apparel store upstairs stopped by one evening to chat and ended up complaining about the ever-increasing prices of wholesale goods. She pulled one of my swimsuit covers from the rack and remarked, "Well, take this little thing … I could zip one of these up in twenty minutes!"

I said nothing, but thought how it took me twenty minutes just to cut it out. I never told her who made them. I was pleased she thought they came from a regular garment manufacturer.

In any case, my swimsuit covers did sell. Now, what could I do for the holiday market soon at hand?


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