Small Business Success Q&A #20: Gazebo

(l-r) Gazebo's Emma, Judith, Michaela, and Glendon. Not pictured: Donna on vacation

The past few decades have been brutal for small, locally owned retailers. Specialty chains, big box stores, and the Internet have each remade the retail business landscape. Shifting demo-graphics, values, and lifestyles have driven changes in consumer tastes, needs, and habits. Recent economic disruptions have added to the pressure. With these challenges in mind, it is wonder-ful to see that Gazebo and its owner, Judith Fine, are both going strong after 35 years in business.

As a Gazebo customer, I know very well a number of reasons for that success, especially the welcoming space and thoughtful customer experience that Judith and her staff provide. As a blogger and management consultant I wanted to know more, so I was delighted when Judith agreed to be the subject of this Small Business Q&A.

Name: Judith Fine

Company name: Gazebo

Location: Northampton, Massachusetts

Year founded: 1978

No. of employees: 2 full-time, 3 part-time, plus Judith


How do you describe Gazebo? We are lingerie and post-mastectomy shop with a primary focus on professional bra fitting.

You are celebrating your 35th anniversary this year. That’s a remarkable accomplishment! Congratulations. What have been the keys to your business success? In other words, why do you think you’ve succeeded when so many small businesses fail? We provide excellent customer service, which means a positive experience for every person who comes in the door. Happy customers come back and say good things about us that make others come as well.

We welcome a diverse population in terms of body size, gender, health, age, and wallet.

We offer two services that chains or Internet retailers don’t do well: fit bras and alter them for free.

I know my numbers but am not fascinated by them. I keep in mind that numbers measure what has already happened and good numbers are the result of good customers and good employees. Knowing the numbers helped me realize a few years ago that bras were a bigger part of the business than the floor space I was giving them. So we rearranged a bit, which has helped us to grow. To encourage steady growth, we set monthly goals based on recent years’ average sales plus 10%.

Last but not least, being part of Northampton’s vibrant small business community has been very important.

As a Gazebo customer, I am aware that the vibe in your shop is unlike any other lingerie store I have experienced. As a management consultant, I can see that you have created a culture that is uniquely “Gazebo.” The history on your web site describes it well. When you first started, how did this culture develop? How do you keep it going and growing as employees, customers, and times change? Gazebo’s culture developed out of my background and my desire to share those values with my employees.

Work hard: My father was self-employed so my work ethic was ingrained early.

Treat others with respect: I believe in the golden rule and want my customers treated the way I would want to be treated. I depend on my employees and invest in them accordingly, with training to help them succeed and incentives to reward success.

Keep it fun: Before they come to Gazebo, most women have had difficult or demeaning bra shopping experiences at some point. We are always dreaming up incentives and offers to make bra shopping a fun experience rather than a necessary evil.

Learn from experience: My theater background helped me to create the store’s atmosphere. My figure model experience made me sensitive to how vulnerable a customer can feel when being fitted for a bra. My sewing skills gave me the ability to advise customers on what fits and what doesn’t.

Best business advice you’ve ever been given? Build a relationship first, do business second.

Worst business advice you’ve ever been given? Concentrate on just making money.

What was the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do as a business owner? There is a two-way tie. Firing an employee is the first thing that comes to mind and, in the last 35 years, I have had to ban three customers from the store for treating my employees inappropriately.

What advice would you give to someone just starting a business? You must be passionate about whatever it is you want to do.

Favorite all-time business book? Faith Popcorn’s The Popcorn Report is a favorite from many years ago. Two non-business movies also reflect my approach to business: don’t give up (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) and think positively about everything (Pollyanna).

Favorite business book read in the past year? I have two: Oprah Magazine and Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance. They are not your typical business books but they keep me inspired and centered.

Favorite online source(s) for business information/advice? I prefer connecting with people in person.

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