Colletta has managed several retail locations of her own across the island over the last 40 years. As with most else, it all started with a dream. Only, Colletta’s dream then involved scrubs, stethoscopes and a whole lot of patience; patience that for her quickly ran short upon realizing that what she’d imagined to be the career of her dreams was anything but. A career in nursing was, after all, not for the faint of heart, and if she had any hopes of ever being able to eat at all, she needed to find a new path!
A passion for sewing and selling clothes led to her ambitions taking off in a new direction in her 20s. By the time she hit 30, she had made up her mind to invest in her first clothing store. Her plans materialised soon after, opening her first store, Colletta’s Boutique, on Micoud Street, Castries in 1977. She recalls it like it was yesterday: “I was the only boutique other than ‘Rain’ . . . ‘Rain’ had a restaurant on the opposite side of Columbus Square, and I was on the other side, near Kimlan’s.”
When it comes to the retail arena, Colletta has certainly done something right, and she’s got lots to share about just how much perseverance pays off in the end!
Tell us the history of Colletta’s Boutique.
Colletta: Colletta’s Boutique has been around for a while. I’ve had several locations including my first on Micoud Street, two at Gablewoods Mall, the Rodney Bay Marina – I was one of the first shops there. I also had a store in the JQ Mall up until 2016. I am now located at the Yard, in the Star Publishing Compound in Massade Industrial Estate. I was at JQ from the time it was built, and also at Gablewoods from the time it was built. One of my stores at Gablewoods was called ‘Cushions and Curtains’ and we sold specialty fabric. That store later turned into another one of our locations which specialized in shoes, bags and accessories. For me it was always a matter of keeping my staff employed, whatever the season.
What were your goals when you started?
Colletta: I wanted to open a factory that would produce garments to be supplied to the different stores on-island, in addition to my boutique. I tried to get other people on board who could sew; my plan was to get the Development Bank involved, buy a building and do whatever it took. I also wanted to open a children’s clothing manufacturing company. That didn’t work out for me. People were afraid of merging in those times. People didn’t want to get into partnership with other people for anything, whatever the reason. The Syrians used to be on Micoud Street and they were bigger guys than we were. They were always merging with each other, dealing with each other. There’s a difference. A lot of these other companies opened their businesses after me, but a sardine cannot compete with a shark, especially when there are these partnerships that have already been established. I’ve always done everything alone. Despite that, I’ve managed to run my own business, hire and train people, and create jobs for my children.
How has your business structure changed over the years?
Colletta: I started from many shops, downsized, had more shops and bigger shops, and now I run one shop. When times change, you are forced to adjust.
What would you say to a new business owner?
Colletta: You have to work very hard and put in a lot of hours; that’s the only way you’ll succeed. When you enjoy what you do, you can bear the patience, and do it properly. You also have to be good to your customers, and be able to interact with them. Sometimes I would joke with my clients and they would say, ‘You really have patience; I’ve given you so much trouble,’ and I would tell them, ‘But I want your money!’ I would be there with some customers one hour, two hours . . . and that’s primarily because I don’t only sell to my customers. I’m teaching them how to dress, how to put things together, how to wear their clothes. Some of them would call me at home to ask me questions. I always say it’s a calling and, if that’s the case, so be it. I enjoy doing it.
Do you use social media in your business?
Colletta: I have looked into it but I don’t necessarily think it’s suitable for my kind of business. I sell one-of-a-kind items, and often, when you’re on social media, people want to know about sizes, and that tends to get complicated. I don’t shop styles in bulk so you’re not going to find anyone wearing what you’re wearing when you buy from my store. Everyone is always saying, ‘You must go on Instagram, everything is happening on Instagram,’ but we’re all dealing with different things. If you’re providing a service and you post on IG and advertise where you’re at and what you’re doing, people will come to you. If you’re in retail . . . to sell you need to be in a prime location, where you can advertise your stuff, show your stuff, because people buy what they see. It’s true they can go online to order but there’s problems with that too. Orders get messed up online all the time and the quality isn’t always what you expect it to be.
Have people’s shopping habits changed over time?
Colletta: People before looked for quality, and special things. The younger generation . . . they don’t care much about cost or quality. Take Old Year’s Night for instance: back in the day you would have to make sure you stocked up on these nice, flowing, elegant dresses to sell because everyone had to look special on that night. Things have changed. The way people dress is different, and there are a lot of factors influencing the change.
How easy is it to do business in Saint Lucia?
Colletta: Things can be difficult. Everything has its ups and downs. The process of clearing goods at Customs, for example, should be easier and more efficient. There are times I’d be in an airport and while they’re detaining everything I have, I’m watching someone else sail by. Then they’d tell you the person doesn’t have a business, but that’s often not the case. Some people lie, but they have their connections. Some people aren’t paying the duties they’re supposed to pay while others pay all the time. There are ways of helping businesses get their goods faster so they can make their money back quicker, and that needs to be explored.
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