By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
After 19 years, Kathy Keller had worked long enough in the hospitality industry. In 2007, she chucked her job and bought a struggling consignment shop in sleepy Honokaa town.
Keller found a knack there for turning women’s castoffs into new sales, using an intuitive style of helping women achieve their best look, and managing to keep the struggling consignment shop’s doors open when others around her were sinking into the depths of the recession.
Keller gradually replaced the consignment items with new women’s clothing and accessories, and though growth was slow-paced in Honokaa, business was steady and a loyal client base was being established as the result of Keller’s appealing approach to customers.
Two years ago, Keller and her husband Craig opened a second Hula Moon Boutique in Parker Square, Waimea, which looks like New York’s Times Square compared with the foot traffic in Honokaa. Although the new store is one-third the size of the original Hula Moon Boutique in Honokaa, it gets two to three times more business.
Before anyone could say boom, Hula Moon Boutique took off. Alan Pak, the Kellers’ banker at First Hawaiian, noted Hula Moon’s revenue had grown from $133,138 in 2009 to $757,869 in 2011, an eye-popping 469 percent increase that earned Hula Moon the No. 4 spot on Pacific Business News’ annual list of the “Fastest 50” growing companies in Hawaii, published last month.
Fashion has been a lifelong passion for Keller, an art history and drawing major in college who remembers making clothes for her Barbie as a kid. “I never thought I could make a living at it.” But like many women, Keller struggled at times with weight and whether her clothing fit well and looked right, so she developed the personal approach to helping others dress “purely from my own desire to dress my own body type.”
The Hula Moon staff will immediately know what a woman needs, Keller said. Relationships get built and customers become like family, coming back to say hello and just hang out. Six happy customers recently celebrated one of their birthdays at Hula Moon Boutique.
“Lunch, a boutique and a personal stylist,” Keller said. “They dressed the birthday girl and stayed for hours.”
Key to Keller’s approach is noting a woman’s “silhouette,” or body type, lifestyle and “colorings,” which she carefully matches to clothing styles. As women mature in the 21st century, they are healthier and more active and want a look that enhances their lifestyle, she said.
“We can transform a woman, make her look 10, 15 years younger. It’s so rewarding. It’s not work. It’s a lifestyle. We really get to know our customers, assisting them and dressing them to bring their beauty out.”
Keller believes that most women desire the help. “Women want to be dressed,” she said. It’s not enough just to be attentive. She becomes a personal adviser, matching clothing and accessories with confidence that make the customer look great and feel good about themselves.
Keller’s staff at the new store was carefully selected and well-schooled in the approach. Each of her six “girls” spent at least two months learning by her side. “They aren’t just salespeople,” Keller said. “They’re committed, energetic, creative and motivated. They have artistic, photographic, and social media skills, which they are encouraged to develop and use to contribute. They have a stake in what’s going on and we work collaboratively.
“Customers learn to trust us. We have so many loyal clientele (because) they know we wouldn’t let them leave the store not looking their best.” Customers return from as far as Australia, Japan, Canada, California, Oregon, Utah and Georgia, and Keller even accounts for their home climate when recommending clothing styles and accessories.
Advertising is mostly word of mouth. “I wanted (Hula Moon) to be a hidden gem,” she said, though she’s looking for alternative advertising. “We do a lot of donations to schools,” she said, which draws attention to the business and develops good will.”
The Kellers are not resting on their laurels as the fourth fastest-growing company in Hawaii, either. With their success so far, they now are looking for a third location on the Big Island and possible expansion to a Neighbor Island as well.
Email Hunter Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org.