About 35 years ago, Debbie Danielson sold the Capitol Hill house she owned with her husband for $65,000.
And then she went shopping.
Danielson took the train to New York City and bought as many handbags and shoes as she could. By the time she returned to Washington, she was ready to open her own boutique.
“We started very small — 500 square-feet, off the street, which you’re not supposed to do,” said Danielson, 67. “‘Location, location, location’ is what they say, but of course I didn’t know any of that.”
This month, Forecast, Danielson’s Capitol Hill store, celebrates its 35th anniversary. In that time, the shop has expanded into a two-story, 3,500-square-foot boutique that sells clothing, accessories and home decor.
For high-powered women in Capitol Hill, Forecast has become a fashion staple — a place where shoppers receive personalized service and honest feedback, along with $95 Klok T-shirts and $398 Stuart Weitzman peep-toe pumps.
Like the time Susan Bachurski rushed in frantically before a two-week trip to Vietnam. She had no idea what to pack.
“I came in here just kind of overwhelmed,” she said. “These ladies just took out a piece of paper and a pen and thought it through. They wrote down every single outfit I should wear.”
It’s a routine Danielson and her staff of five have perfected through the years. They often check the weather forecast for far-flung locations and create customized packing lists for customers. Sometimes they assemble photo books, showing women how to put together outfits with their new purchases.
“We are such a store for non-shoppers — people who are busy but need to look good,” Danielson said. “A lot of times, they buy clothes but don’t know how to work them once they’re in their closet.”
Danielson started Forecast after a stint at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I got kind of tired of rewriting the same memo over and over again,” she said. “So with little knowledge but youth on my side, I opened up a shop.”
After four years, Danielson bought a building on 7th St. SE, across from Eastern Market. Over the years, she’s expanded from one floor to two. A couple of years ago, she and her staff began filming cheeky videos to keep customers up to date on the store’s latest offerings. It’s a way, she said, to stay connected with shoppers.
“Word-of-mouth, that’s all we are,” Danielson said. “I’d rather pay my staff more and advertise less.”
The shop fell on hard times during the recession. Danielson suspended bonuses and cut corners where she could.
The fourth quarter of 2008 was devastating, she said. It was the first time the company hadn’t grown since it was founded in 1978.
“Most people think, ‘Washington? It’s recession-proof,’ but we were affected,” Danielson said. “The recession hurt us very badly.”
These days, sales are up, as are profits. Danielson declined to provide exact numbers, but said annual sales are in the millions.
“We survived because we got smart in our buying,” Danielson said. “We just got better at running our business, because before that, we were sloppy. We really were.”
Last week, women flowed in and out of the shop in a steady stream. Many had upcoming trips — to Venezuela or to Machu Picchu, for example. Others were searching for new spring wardrobes. The average shopper spends two hours at the boutique during each visit, Danielson said. Others linger for six or eight hours, trying on each outfit and getting feedback from employees.
“We think it through every step of the way for [our customers],” Danielson said. “When we do it right, it’s such a home run for everybody.”