Dec 12, 2014

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A retail tale of survival: Asiatica

by Leslie Collins, Reporter Kansas City Business Journal


Retail can be a fickle beast, but Elizabeth Wilson has kept her Kansas City-area shop, Asiatica, going strong for 37 years.

As an Asian art history graduate, she didn't plan to venture into retail. For years, she taught at universities, including the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But Wilson decided that it was time for a career change and knew that the beauty of art could be applied to anything, whether it's dishes or antique furniture.

Elizabeth Wilson, owner of Asiatica

Elizabeth Wilson, owner of Asiatica

When Wilson opened her business in 1977, she found a niche selling Asian antiques and products. But four years into her business, she decided to expand her offerings and sell custom clothing.

"That was a fundamental change, and it has led to our longevity," Wilson said. "Without that, we would not have survived in Kansas City."

Wilson's ongoing success comes from more than just clothing, however. Here are her keys to retail success:

Be flexible

When Asiatica first opened, its main focus was offering unique Asian antiques and products. But the antique market is highly competitive, and Wilson found it cost prohibitive to travel with her antiques for trunk shows. Through the years, the demand for antiques also has waned, especially with the younger generation.

"I don't seek out antiques the way I used to," she said. "I think the world is changing. Younger people don't want old things. They don't want their parents' silverware or glassware; they don't want the old brown furniture. ... And the old people aren't going to buy antiques because they're trying to divest themselves of stuff. ... You can't keep investing your dollars in something that doesn't sell because then you have $5,000 on the floor, so to speak, doing nothing. If you put the same money into fabric and clothes, and the clothes sell, it's clear what the better investment is."

Now, Asiatica's main focus is offering one-of-a-kind clothing and accessories.

Do something original

Asiatica doesn't just design custom clothing — its staple is refashioning vintage kimonos into jackets, shirts and vests. Asiatica's designers mix and match patterned kimonos with solid textiles to create unique styles in sizes extra small to extra large. To improve the customer experience, Asiatica keeps files on every customer. Those files detail body measurements, alterations and past purchases. They also include cloth swatches in case the customer wants another outfit to match a previous purchase.

"If we have to wait three years (before a particular piece of clothing) sells, it's OK. Sometimes that happens," Wilson said. "Because no one's going to say, 'I saw that last year.'"

No one will be able to approach her customers at a party and say, "I remember when Calvin Klein made that jacket" or "Oh, I remember when Armani made that."

"You get to have something that no one else has," Wilson said.

Because Asiatica's styles are unique, they also stay in fashion longer, meaning the store doesn't have to mark down product just to get it off the shelves.

Value your employees

Asiatica's employees have worked together for an average of 25 years. They're highly skilled, they collaborate well, and they know the customer base.

As an employer, you can't be greedy: You have to reward your employees and spread the profits to them, she said. A downfall for employers can be not realizing where the value of the company lies, which is in the employees.

Have no fear

"A certain amount of fearlessness really helps. You can't just count your sales every single minute because that's pretty scary," she said. "You have to have the big picture in mind and be in it for the long haul."

Leslie covers entrepreneurs and technology, retail, and marketing.