The first Lou Lou accessory boutique in the Washington area, Ben Wegdam says, “was about as big as a shoe box.”
The accessories store in Bethesda, which opened five years ago, had a 250-square-foot sales floor. (A bathroom in the back took up another 150 square feet.)
“It was tiny,” said Ben, who opened the shop with his wife, Tara. “But people seemed to love our stuff.”
Two years later, following the store’s success, Ben quit his job in the finance department of Ahold Foods, the parent company of Giant Food, to concentrate on the company full time.
“We just said, ‘Okay, let’s just see where this takes us,’ and began looking for prime locations where we could open new stores,” Ben said.
Today, the Middleburg-based company has 14 stores, including locations in Georgetown and Annapolis, as well as 120 employees and roughly $15 million in annual sales. The tiny Bethesda store has since moved to Bethesda Row, where it occupies nearly 10 times the space.
Later this year, the company plans to open two more shops in the District: One in the U Street corridor and another at a former Ritz Camera location at 18th and L streets NW. (A Lou Lou clothing store — the first in the area — opened in Dupont Circle earlier this year.)
“The idea is that customers will recognize the store and say, ‘Oh let’s go in there. Let’s see if there’s something new,’” Ben said.
Shipments arrive twice a week. The company has relied on the fast-fashion model popularized by companies such as H&M and Zara. New inventory arrives frequently and in small shipments, and the store tries to capitalize on ever-changing trends: “The Great Gatsby,” neon and fedoras. Once a particular item is sold out, it’s on to the next newer product.
“Things are going in and out of style all the time,” Ben said. “That’s just the nature of the business.”
During the economic downturn, the amount of money a customer spent during each visit went down. But the number of total customers increased, offsetting potential losses.
“We have customers who want to buy branded items like Kenneth Jay Lane,” Ben said. “And then there are people who really don’t want to spend more than $10 or $15 on earrings, which is good, too.”
Today, the typical customer buys two items and spends $40 during a visit, Ben said. That amount is slowly beginning to increase.
“It’s just this year that we’re seeing sales-per-customer become slightly higher,” he said. “People are starting to buy more expensive products.”
The Wegdams moved to Virginia from the Netherlands 13 years ago with a shopping container full of French provencal tableware, linens and pottery in tow. Within two months, they’d set up Creme de la Creme in Middleburg, a spinoff of a home wares store Tara had owned in Holland.
The opportunity to branch into apparel arrived a few years later, Tara said, when one of the few clothiers in Middleburg closed its doors. The couple opened its first Lou Lou clothing store in 2004.
Although the shop carried clothing, Tara says it quickly became clear that accessories might be an easier sell.
“Accessories are less complicated,” she said. “If you’re out with your family, you’re certainly not going into a dressing room to try on clothes for hours. But you might stop by and pick up a pair of earrings or a necklace.”
Even so, the company is slowly inching back to its apparel roots. In March the Wegdams opened a clothing shop in Dupont Circle that carries brands such as Ella Moss and Free People.
“We’re known for having a range of accessories — affordable to higher-end,” Ben said, “so we thought we would do the same with clothing.”