Storeowner Katherine Herring reflects on how embracing change and building a strong management team have been key to her success.
When Katherine Herring opened Relevé Dancewear 15 years ago, her goal was to focus on quality, selection and customer service. She has stayed true to her mission, and it’s helped her Cary, NC, business both grow and weather the economic implications of the pandemic. Herring shared her insights with Dance Business Weekly on how she developed a business model that now allows her to be semiretired—she’s involved daily but can participate remotely if she wants to, since she trusts her three full-time managers to run the day-to-day operations in her stead.
Herring’s launch into entrepreneurship started when she was a dance mom. She was frustrated with trying to find apparel and shoes for her daughters at either inadequately stocked or unfriendly stores. So she spent months researching vendors and the retail market, and polled local dance studios to see if they would support her endeavor. Garnering an overwhelming positive response, Herring and her husband, John, opened Relevé Dancewear in a 1,200-square-foot space in the summer of 2006.
It turns out other entrepreneurs had the exact same idea: Three other local dance retailers also opened that summer. “I didn’t find out until I had already signed the store lease,” Herring says. “I got worried for a minute and honestly thought I would find myself bored in the back, scrapbooking, but I was just blown away by how we grew so quickly.”
A Booming Marketplace
Friendly competition didn’t end up hurting Relevé’s business. There are plenty of potential dance-store customers within a two-hour radius, including hundreds of dance studios and three major universities. Cary is part of the Research Triangle in the heart of North Carolina—originally named for the top research universities in nearby Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. With a population of about 2 million, the Triangle is ranked among the top in the country in which to live and do business. The median household income is $73,654, about 10 percent higher than the U.S. average. “Because we are in the Triangle, it means we get customers from all over. We are very fortunate for where we are,” Herring says. “It’s a thriving area right off the highway.”
Within the first six months of business, Herring knew she had already outgrown her space. By 2009, she moved to her current location and leased a 2,500-square-foot space. In 2015, she expanded to 5,000 square feet by knocking down the wall to the former tanning salon next door. She started remodeling in 2020, just before the pandemic hit, and the resulting closure from March 22 to May 4, 2020, gave Herring time to finish the renovations just the way she wanted: It provided more floor space, new dressing rooms, additional shoe-fitting areas—including one just for pointe shoes—and fresh paint throughout. “Once we reopened, there was much more space for people to really spread out and remain six feet apart,” she says. “We have one entry and [a separate] exit, so you don’t have to pass another person unless you want to.”
During Relevé Dancewear’s early years, Herring had three part-time employees, and the store was closed on Sundays. Now, the store is open seven days a week, and she has three full-time managers, eight part-time employees and is currently hiring. One of her managers has been with her from the beginning, one for eight years, and the third is one of her daughters. All three of them—and Herring, too—have degrees in business administration and either danced or had children who danced. “You have to be able to trust your staff, and I am lucky to have a very strong management team,” Herring says.
A Focused Inventory Strategy
When it comes to stocking the store, Relevé Dancewear has always focused on dancewear and pointe shoes. But over the years, Herring has learned how to streamline for maximum revenue. “We rely heavily on sales reports, and if something isn’t moving, we get rid of it,” she says.
For example, the store has reduced its stock of ballroom dancewear and no longer carries Irish and liturgical dancewear; it’s likely to phase out its gymnastics products, as well, due to declining sales. “We would rather put the money into the new skin-tone options for dancers’ tights and shoes,” Herring says. “We didn’t want to bring in just one color or just have samples and then have to place an order for something. We would rather our customers just pick which color they want and be able to walk out with it.”
Herring’s team regularly introduces new products and lines. Herring lets her managers do most of the ordering because they hear firsthand what customers are asking for, and they see what’s being tried on and the accompanying reactions.
The store carries items for cheer teams, provides a service where customers can have products personalized or monogrammed by embroidery or in vinyl, and sells custom jewelry and a variety of gifts—from travel and beach bags to home decor, candles, party supplies and drink ware. The idea is a one-stop shop for special gifts for all ages and budgets, whether they’re for birthdays, recitals, competitions or teachers.
Innovating With Online Sales and Social Media
Herring introduced Shopify as the store’s point-of-sale software in 2015, and with it came a major website revamp. The new system provided a popular in-store pickup option (long before the pandemic), and it provided Relevé Dancewear with an entry into e-commerce. “We had customers come in and if we didn’t have a size, they would order it from Amazon on their phone right in front of us, so we wanted to compete with that as best as we could,” Herring says.
The online storefront proved especially helpful during the store’s pandemic closure, but it generally only accounts for about 10 percent of overall sales.
Social media marketing, which is done in-house, has captured the attention of 3,200 Facebook followers and 4,500 Instagram followers. New posts appear at least once daily and showcase product launches, events, sales and photos of new pointe shoe purchasers. The store also launched a VIP Facebook Group in 2020. It features new products, sales and special coupons; however, it has had slow growth since the launch, and its audience tends to be older overall.
Bouncing Back From the Pandemic
At the height of the pandemic, when the store was closed, Herring watched sales go down about 85 percent. She let go all of her part-time employees. “We were closed to customers, but we did not close,” Herring says. “My employees are the reason we’re still in business. We held virtual meetings, and they took turns going in and doing things that needed to get done, from taking pictures of new inventory or making a video in the store to helping with online sales and curbside pickup.”
To boost cash flow during that period, Herring sold homemade PVC ballet barres and dance floors for home studios, and various promotions, like free shipping weekends, buy-one-get-one tights sales, 30 percent off all leotards and 20 percent off the entire store—including gift cards and pointe shoes.
Business is returning strong: Herring saw her second-best April since she started her business, and the store has made more in May, June and July combined than it did in all of 2019. Additionally, Herring states the business had its best July in 15 years. “Our customers are standing by us,” Herring says. “The in-store experience is not going away. If you can build a good store with good people, products and services, you can be successful.”
Hannah Maria Hayes has an MA in dance education from New York University and has been writing for Dance Media publications since 2008.