Women in Retail

Jan ForresterThe past couple of years have been difficult for every industry. The retail sector was particularly affected by the economic downturn. While many businesses did not survive, others flourished in this economy. To ascertain how Houston businesses were faring Houston Woman Magazine interviewed four local women in various areas of the retail sector. We discovered surprising information about the industry, the results of the tumultuous economy and the women themselves.

The women’s reasons for entering retail were as diverse as their areas of expertise. Sandra Burnett-Walls, who opened Floors, Etc. in 1992, said, “I was a widow looking for a career change. I felt there was a need for a professional flooring company.” Jan Forrester started JD Designs, 13 years ago. 

“I ended up in retail by mistake,” she said. “I thought I was joining a fashion brand for teens, but when I got there I found out I was being hired as a sales person in fashion. Eventually, this position led me into the field of jewelry design, and now I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I think many of us get into retail because we enjoy people and enjoy helping them. Also, besides nursing and teaching, retail was the only other job option for women for many years.”

About four years ago, Beverly Poerschke opened It’s All About You, a clothing and accessory store on Memorial Drive. Previously, she was the owner of another boutique inside the loop.

She said, “Years ago, I went into retail because my mother-in-law and I wanted a creative outlet for our talents. We originally started making flower arrangements and pillows. Then we started making jewelry and wanted to have clothes to go with our jewelry. There was no conscious plan, we just evolved over time.”

In 1992, Pamela Wright and her husband, Jack, bought a pawn shop and re-named it Wright Pawn and Jewelry. Pamela became heavily involved with the buying and selling aspect of the shop because, in her own words, “I love jewelry; I love selling jewelry to people; and I love to make jewelry that’s special for people. So, it was a natural fit.”

As varied as their reasons for entering retail, so are their experiences as women. While women dominate certain retail sectors, men are more prevalent in others.

Burnett-Walls said, “There are very few women in my part of the flooring industry: installation of hardwood floors, sand/finish. There are probably many women in the actual retail portion where they are selling carpet and pre-finished flooring.”

Forrester said, “In the jewelry industry, especially, there are a greater number of women in managerial positions, and this number has been constantly increasing in the past 20 to 30 years.”

Poerschke said, “There are definitely more women on the retail side, but more men are on the wholesale side.”
Though Wright sells and designs jewelry, as well, she said, “There are more men in the pawn business. However, our pawn shop clientele is mostly women.” 

All of these enterprising women say they have had to adjust to the recent economic environment. In Houston, Hurricane Ike and the economic storm hit at virtually the same time. Since then, businesses have been trying hard to rebuild.

Burnett-Walls’s flooring business was also affected by the decline in the housing market. She said, “The economy has certainly affected sales. The housing industry has very few ‘spec’ homes; most of the sales are from remodels or custom homes.”

Forrester said, “My biggest years in business were 2007 and 2008. Then, starting with Hurricane Ike through 2009, business dropped, making it the most difficult year I’ve had in the 30-plus years I’ve been in business. But, 2010, has been a breath of fresh air. Even though I’m not back to where I was before, at least I’m sleeping at night, and business is on a steady upward slope.”

Poerschke said, “Sales have certainly been affected by the recession. I have to be very careful not to overbuy.”

Like most discount and resale stores, Wright’s business was positively affected by the recession. She said, “Our sales have increased, probably tripled. We have two sides to the business, the loan side and the buy/sell part of the business. In the latter, we’re buying used merchandise, and turning around and selling it at a discount to the public. So, the woman who wants to carry a designer handbag or wear a designer piece of jewelry, she’s buying it on a secondary market after someone else has already paid retail and worn it for a season. We’re able to stretch people’s dollars, so our sales are great.”

In order to keep doing well or get through hard times, the women look forward and change business strategies accordingly. 

Burnett-Walls revealed, “We are working on our marketing plan, considering changing our logo to update it and improving our website.”

Forrester builds her business by being involved in the community and speaking to groups about jewelry. She also meets with customers one-on-one, presenting a powerpoint of her work. 

She said, “The way I look at business is that everyone is a potential client. If they aren’t my client yet, it’s because they haven’t gotten to know me yet.”

Poerschke takes a similar approach. She said, “In my buying I try to bring unique items that are different from everyone else. I also donate parties in the store to nonprofit organizations. I set up booths at country clubs in the area to show off merchandise from the store.”

Wright is expanding her store into the space next door. She said, “The larger our storage area and vault size, the more items we can bring in on loan, and the more money we can lend to the people of Houston. Coupled with that, our showroom will be larger, so it will allow us to put more items out for sale to increase our sales.”

Regardless of the recession or the economic climate, trends and business change over time. In recent times, each of the women’s business and clients tastes have changed. 

In her industry, Burnett-Walls said, “More people are getting rid of carpet and installing hardwoods or laminate flooring.”

While Forrester is expanding her online presence, her main focus is still her customers’ needs.She said, “My niche is not only custom design but also the re-designing of existing pieces not worn (or liked) into wonderful pieces my clients love!”

Poerschke expressed a sentiment felt by many business owners when she said, “The biggest change I’ve seen in recent years is the total lack of credit for small business. Suppliers want to be paid up front. Credit card companies want to charge enormous interest rates and tons of fees. To make it these days you need your own personal money tree growing in your backyard.”

According to Wright, you may have the money in your jewelry box. She said, “With the rise in gold and silver markets, more people are selling their unwanted jewelry, coin collections, sterling silver they inherited or got as wedding gifts and no longer use. They are turning those into cash so they can do things like pay for healthcare, rent, children’s tuition or a mortgage.” 

For Wright, not being able to loan as much as a customer needs is one of the most difficult aspects of her job. However, the other women had other insights into the most demanding parts of retail.

Burnett-Walls said, “Follow through after the sale, making sure installation and service are 100 percent up to standard.”

In addition to the credit crunch, Poerschke said, “The sale mentality that has been created by bigger stores that constantly have everything on sale! No wants to buy anything unless it is on sale, plus they want an additional 20 percent off and free gift wrapping, and me to carry it to their car and drive them home!”

On the retail side of her business, Wright said, “It’s probably knowing what to stock, keeping up with the trends and knowing what women are interested in.”The one area where all the women agree and have the same opinion is the advice they have for others looking to go into retail.

Burnett-Walls said, “Know your product; enjoy people and remember the customer is always right.”

Forrester responded, “Find a product or industry you’re very excited about. You won’t want to go to work everyday if you’re not excited about it. You have to go out there; get involved, and get to know people.”

Poerschke advised, “Anyone going into retail: You have to love people; love what you are selling, and have lots of money!!!”

Wright said, “You need to know your products and focus on what you love, so your love comes through the things you carry. Whatever you do, be friendly to your customers and treat them fairly, because it’s all about long-term relationships.”

Wright continued, “The smartest thing we ever did was to buy the building. One of the reasons our business is doing so well is that we own our property, so we’re not paying rent to someone else. We own both buildings, and we made that investment early on. That’s good advice for anybody: if you can, purchase the property where your store is because that rent can go back in your business and reduce your overhead.”

In a difficult time for the economy and retail, each of these women’s businesses survived because they were willing to adapt. Though their experiences were unique, each used her business acumen and personal touch to continue to grow and thrive.

Lauren's Garden

Laurens GardenLauren’s Garden, a tribute garden in Market Square Park, was dedicated recently in memory of Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas and all those who were lost on September 11, 2001. Named after the only Houstonian aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the tranquil garden offers a serene setting for contemplation and reflection.

The garden is a gift to the city from the Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas Foundation, established by Barbara and Lawrence Catuzzi in honor of their daughter. The design exemplifies Lauren's love of the outdoors. Falling water accentuates the garden and plants will bloom sequentially year-round with colors that complement the Malou Flato benches, including the yellow Forty Heroes Roses that were bred in memory of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93. Those lost at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 are further remembered through stones of various sizes – nearly 2,900 – set in the fountain designed for the garden by Lauren Griffith.

"We are honored to have Lauren's Garden be a part of Market Square Park," said Bob Eury, executive director of the Downtown District. "It is not only rich in beauty and art, but is a peaceful reminder of the many fine Americans lost on that tragic day."

When viewed from Congress Avenue, the garden is shadowed by the Chase tower rising in the background, reminding visitors of their vulnerability and strength. The three granite walls in the fountain represent each of the September 11 crash sites – New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.

Lauren's Garden is also home to Ketria Bastian Scott's cast bronze statue. Comprised of two vine-like tendrils growing from the fountain and reaching toward each other as a young tendril emerges, the sculpture was modeled after Bristlecone Pines, trees which are thought to live up to 5,000 years – longer than any other single organism. While two elements reach out toward each other in a gesture of endurance, strength and hope, the third vine growing in the granite medallion symbolizes resilience.

Key West

Key West Before I visited Key West I had the mistaken notion that the city was a part of the United States. After a day shopping Duval Street and an evening watching the sunset from Mallory Pier, I realized the degree of my mistake. I was 150 miles from Miami, and 90 miles from Havana. I was 45 miles south of the Tropic of Cancer. I was in the Conch Republic.

Normality assumes a different definition the farther one travels south of the mainland. Normal for Key West has been hard to define since before John Simonton, an Alabama businessman, paid Spain $2,000 for the island in 1822. Only mosquitoes and pirates inhabited the forsaken speck of land and, of the two, malaria was the lesser health threat. The West India Anti-Pirate Squadron chased out the pirates by 1830, leaving the island in the domain of rum-runners and wreckers, people who lived off the ships that regularly crashed on the shallow reefs. Tourists had to wait until 1912 when Henry Flagler’s railroad reached the southernmost point of the continent.

Tonight at Mallory Pier, as though it’s an unexpected occurrence, people cheer as the sun slips into the crimson sea. Technicolor clouds frame the horizon, discordant drum and guitar cords drift above the hubbub like gulls sailing overhead, and people elbow their way past jugglers, Tarot card readers, portrait artists, and self-proclaimed gurus. Mallory Pier, more famous for its sunsets than the Grand Canyon, is not the place for a tourist to blend in with the locals. But, I don’t particularly want to blend in with a drop-out stock broker with tie-died hair.

After my first day in Margaritaville, I’m not sure who owns the island, the crazies with cameras or the crazies with the Florida license plates. But twice, I was given the opportunity to own a piece of paradise myself. Time-share condo salesmen stalk tourists like barracudas after a school of sardines.

Just as seeing the sunset on Mallory Pier is obligatory, shopping Duval Street is the required introduction to the Key West scene. After strolling the first block, I realized that there is no way to walk down the crowded street and maintain a shred of dignity. But if I wanted dignity, I would have bought a ticket to Williamsburg, not the Conch Republic.

Key West has never been known for attracting, encouraging, or even condoning, a dignified image. Pirates and smugglers aren’t dignified; neither are tee-shirts with lewd messages, street vendors blowing conch horns, corner musicians emulating Jimmy Buffet, or bars that start filling shortly after breakfast. Where else could the mayor protest the military by water skiing to Cuba (a six-hour trip), and no one thinking it a particularly odd thing to do?

But for what Key West lacks in dignity, it compensates with style. It is the only town I know that can absorb a million tourists a year and maintain its identity. Duval Street is a study of Key West kitsch. Unlike most coastal tourist towns or the mega-theme parks in Orlando, Key West has turned tacky into authenticity. This town isn’t about to take anything seriously, much less itself. And it imparts the same carefree, accepting attitude to its visitors. If you can’t be laid back on a subtropical island, stay home and read the Wall Street Journal.

What endears Key West to conchs (locals) and tourists alike is the sense of place that permeates every street in the town. Key West has roots that reach back in history and give permanence to what would otherwise be a one-night-stand tourist town. The elegant architecture of 100-year-old homes, some converted into intimate hotels, towering kapok trees and luxuriant tropical gardens, and the salubrious days and balmy nights transport visitors into a separate reality, which is what vacationing is all about.

I make my first pilgrimage into Key West’s rich historical heritage when I step into Ernest Hemingway’s home. I previously visited Sloppy Joe’s bar, where Papa was apt to spent his afternoons after a heavy morning of writing. Now, I’m seeing where he wrote 70 percent of his life’s works, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, filled the 19th century, Spanish Colonial house with furnishings and memorabilia from his travels in Spain, Africa and Cuba and with his famous polydactyl cats. He kept 50 of them, all with more than five toes, and all named after famous movie stars and celebrities Hemingway knew. Forty- two of the descendants still loll around the grounds and on the catwalk, which connects the house to Hemingway’s study. Feline lovers can buy a kitten, but the waiting list is five years long. Literary lovers can sit in the Nobel Prize winner’s airy upstairs room and imagine the clatter of his manual typewriter, then go downstairs and see the urinal he brought home from his favorite downtown bar to use as a cat watering trough. Tacky? No, pure Key West.

The Conch Train is the best way to see the historic sights of the town. Once again I swallow my dignity and board one of the decorated cars. A jeep disguised as a miniature train engine pulls the tram, while a narrator fills the trip with a blend of interesting history and senseless trivia. Somehow even the corny jokes seem appropriate here.
We drive down streets lined with palm trees and bougainvilleas, past the Audubon House Museum (in which Audubon never stayed), past Truman’s Little White House (which the President loved to visit), and old Fort Zachary Taylor, which captured 1,500   Confederate ships. This is like a Disneyworld ride, except the people passing on bikes with dogs in their baskets are real, not robotic figures.

The tram rolls slowly through the streets, but nobody appears to notice something as mundane as a tiny locomotive cruising their neighborhood. I feel as if I’m in the Twilight Zone between Oz and Wonderland where Alice and Dorothy are discussing who’s more interesting, the tourists or the locals. But the conchs are too busy enjoying each other to pay much attention to the tourists. Maybe Key West’s best kept secret is that the tiny island is big enough for everybody.

Going Topless

GoingTopless2Recently, we asked readers of Houston Woman Magazine to tell us “why they drive convertibles.” It came as no surprise that there are a lot women out there going topless! Below are just a few of the responses we received.

I own a black 500 SL Mercedes convertible. It is fun to drive, and I drive it with “attitude.”  Going to the beach with the top down makes me feel like I have left my “challenges in life” at  home for the day. It makes me appreciate how God has blessed me with not only my good health but...the finer things in life, and I realize hard work does pay off. I bought this for myself. -- Carolyn Faulk

My ‘06 Solara convertible is totally cool on all levels. When I’m driving with the roof down I feel exhilarated, free and on top of the world – sorta, kinda like wonder woman sans cape. There’s also a feeling of luxury, wealth and empowerment as weird as that may sound (Gimme a break; I’m a Leo hear me roar!). People who drive convertibles smile at others driving convertibles. It’s that birds of a feather thing working like a private club. I’m a tall red- headed single gal looking for my Mr. Right without the benefits of starring in “Sex in the City. This car is a dude magnet. I’m SO driving it to the altar! -- Theresa Behenna

I drive an Audi A4 Cabriolet. It’s silver with black leather. I bought it as a last hurrah before I got engaged and married. It even has a personalized LSU plate 'KT.' I love how I feel when I drive my car. It’s sporty and honestly gets me all sorts of positive attention and is very helpful when I need to gain a lane. I just smile, and no one has an issue letting me in — unless the top is up and its another female. Men are pretty accommodating! But convertibles can be trouble:  mine has a blind spot and a soft top. Not kid-friendly. I will be parting with mine soon. -- Katie Mehnert

I drive a red PT Cruiser convertible, and I love it! I like driving with the sun shining down on me and feeling the wind in my hair and on my face. Somehow, that feels like real driving! I also love that my car is a little unique. When I first got it, I got a lot of looks, double-takes, horns honking and people waving at me (my car). People want to know more about it. I have discovered it is fun to be noticed. --Evalyn Shea

My first convertible came to me in a dream as a young girl – a yellow Cadillac convertible. So, when my Dad drove one into our driveway, I fell in love! As a divorced woman, I bought my first non-carpool car – A Toyota Celica convertible that I loved and drove for 17 years. With a push of a button, I feel freedom, and all the pressures of the day fly out of my head. To this day, at age 64, that is still possible in my new Ruby Merlot Mitsubishi. The dream is still alive. -- Beth Ann Scher

I drive a silver BMW 330cic convertible. It was one of those someday things that I always wanted but never thought I would actually own. One day I got on the internet and started looking. About two months later, I found the car of my dreams. I put down a deposit, called my insurance company, flew to Dallas and drove my car home. I love the way it makes me feel.Smart, Sassy and Sexy.  They say you are what you eat.. I say you are what you drive. -- Pam Ortiz

I drive a 2007 Audi A4 Cabriolet, and I love it...When my boy-friend began thinking about buying a new car, I got him to look at convertibles. Thought I could keep my Explorer and drive his convertible when I wanted to. It was a good fantasy. I get a free convertible without giving up my SUV. Unfortunately, my boyfriend did not want to spend the money for a new car. In the process of trying to convince him, I fell in love with the Audi.  After finding a one-year-old model with only 3500 miles on it, I bought it. But, there’s a happy ending. My boyfriend bought my Explorer, so I still have it when I need it. -- Teri Walter

Nutcracker Market

Nutcracker MarketThe Houston Ballet will usher in the holiday season in grand style November 11-14 when it presents the 30th Annual Nutcracker Market, "Under the Big Top," at Reliant Center. Over 300 merchants will be on hand with unique offerings for the entire family — home and garden décor, gourmet foods, clothing and accessories, toys and novelties and more. All proceeds from the market benefit the Houston Ballet Foundation, Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy and its scholarships.

All Nutcracker Market special event tickets include repeat admission for all four days.

The Wells Fargo Preview Party will be held held on Wednesday, Nov. 10 from 7 to 10:30 p.m. Tickets start at $150 each; and the chairs are Lara Bell, Roseann Rogers and Kristi Schiller.

The Saks Fifth Avenue Fashion Show and Luncheon is slated for Thursday, Nov. 11 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tickets start at $135 each, and the chairs are Leticia Loya and Randa Duncan Williams.

Macy's Fashion Show and Holiday Brunch will be held on Friday, Nov. 12 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tickets start at $85, and the chairs are Philamena Baird and Hattie Parker-Ball.

Priority Shopping, with tickets priced at $35 each, is set for Thursday and Friday, Nov. 11-12 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 13-14 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

In 2009, the Nutcracker Market welcomed over 85,000 shoppers and raised more than $2.5 million for the Houston Ballet. Merchant sales totaled $13.7 million. More than 500 volunteers staffed key positions throughout the market.

"The Nutcracker Market is the largest source of contributed and special event income for Houston Ballet's $18 million budget," said Houston Ballet Managing Director Cecil C. Conner. "Over the last few years, the market has contributed between 11 and 12 percent of Houston Ballet's annual budget. The growth of the Nutcracker Market has been vitally important to Houston Ballet's overall success. We are very fortunate that Houston Ballet Guild and our corporate volunteers are so passionately committed to this event, and contribute so freely of their time and talents."

To celebrate the Nutcracker Market's rich history, this year's chairman, Shawn Stephens, found inspiration in the exciting and fun-filled world of the circus.

"An anniversary of this magnitude calls for a great concept," she said. "I wanted a huge, fun, colorful theme for our 30th anniversary."

Stephens, a past Houston Ballet Guild president, seasoned market volunteer and trustee of the Houston Ballet Foundation, continued, "The market has so many moving parts and comes at such a busy, festive time of year, that a circus theme instantly came to mind. The circus concept is completely fresh and happy, and it suits a venue as large as Reliant Center. Both the designs from our professional decorator and the playful displays that our merchants create in their booths should make the market a sensory treat for our shoppers."

The Nutcracker Market has indeed earned its rightful place "Under the Big Top." It has evolved from the simple European-style holiday fair conceived in 1981 by ballet patron Preston Frazier as a fund-raising project for the Houston Ballet Guild into a holiday shopping extravaganza. Beginning in churches and hotels, the market quickly outgrew these venues, and made its debut at the George R. Brown Convention Center in 1988. Due to its continuous growth, the Nutcracker Market moved to Reliant Center in 2002.

This year's attendees will find a check-in near the ticket windows for strollers, carts, rolling bags and wagons, as they are not permitted inside the market. (Pets are not allowed either.) Free shuttles run throughout the parking areas, and pedi-cabs will transport shoppers to their cars.

For more information, call 713-535-3271 or visit This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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