Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Primp owners Wesley Uthus and Michele Henry Gudmundson.
Primp owners Michele Henry Gudmundson (left) and Wesley Uthus.
While malls clamor to bring new stores to town and designer shops keep cropping up in the endlessly hot North Loop, I’m keeping an eye on Primp Cheap Chic Boutique. Here’s why: In the past year, Primp has doubled in size, jumping from three to six stores across the Twin Cities. And the most impressive part: owners Michele Henry Gudmundson and Wesley Uthus paid for each new location with earnings from the last. No investor. Not even a loan.
That one-step-at-a-time approach to building what I call a “mini chain” has worked for Gudmundson and Uthus since opening their first (and still busiest) store at St. Paul’s Selby and Dale in 2010. They shored up $16,000 to pay the rent, furnish the space, and fill it with trendy apparel—all priced under $100. Their modest investment paid off in just five days. Five years later, they have stores in Excelsior, St. Louis Park, south Minneapolis, St. Paul, Woodbury, and White Bear Lake, plus a warehouse in Northeast, and a staff of 50.
“We always wanted to grow,” Gudmundson said when we sat down to talk about Primp’s next move.
Expansion seems to be the goal for many local retailers today—blame the Internet for the infinite possibilities . . . and competition. Parc Boutique, Grethen House, CorAzoN, Brightwater Clothing & Gear, MINQ, and Hammer Made all opened second or third stores last year—the same year that saw Creative Kidstuff and Patina hit seven Twin Cities locations apiece, and Hot Mama rebranded as Evereve, surpassing 50 stores nationwide.
I’ve been pondering what it is that distinguishes a really good solo boutique from one that’s bigger than its founders. One that can expand to more places than its owner could possibly visit in an afternoon, without losing its personality.
Primp benefitted from being the first in the Twin Cities to do fast fashion on a local level—boutique atmosphere, accessible prices. Having a clear concept is essential, but it’s the execution that separates Primp from the growing pack of price-conscious, trend-driven local stores. Gudmundson and Uthus built community, in store and online. They have more than 40,000 Facebook fans—engaged fans, who will call the store or come in the minute a new dress is posted online. Their staff is as excited about affordable fashion as they are, so you get that personal connection, even when the owners aren’t in the store.
And they listen—to themselves, and their customers. Gudmundson and Uthus started Primp because they were ready to graduate from Forever 21, but not ready for higher prices. They started designing their own private label line, Henry + Martin, because the affordable labels they stock at Primp tend to be designed for a young, micro-mini sort of customer, and the Primp shopper—typically 25 to 36—wanted longer skirts.
While they are firm about not going above $98, the store is growing up with them. Having worn their share of bad, overpriced bridesmaid dresses, designing tasteful special occasion gowns at reasonable prices is on the to-do list.
The next location for Primp isn’t as obvious as the ones opened last year, but Gudmundson and Uthus are always looking. They’re also contemplating moves outside the Twin Cities—perhaps to smaller markets with fewer boutiques. And, they’re considering growth opportunities beyond bricks and mortar, like selling their Henry + Martin line to other stores or creating an online Primp store (tricky, because they move through merchandise quickly and carry each piece in limited quantity).
Whatever it is, you can be sure the next move will be carefully calculated. “We’re entrepreneurs,” Uthus says. “We take a lot of pride in how we’ve grown, and we want to maintain it as long as we can.”