What does it take to make it in the Wrightsville Beach region’s retail scene? For more than 20 years, Chuck Bourgeois of Sweetwater Surf Shop and Estelle Baker of The Fisherman’s Wife have built retail mainstays by selling to the Wrightsville clientele. While neither will admit to holding the secret to sustained retail success, each business owner said it comes down to the simple things.
“I don’t think there is a secret,” Baker said. “The bottom line is you always have to listen to your customers because they are very smart, very educated and very knowledgeable about what they want. If you really listen to them they will tell you.”
For Bourgeois, part of the winning formula is making mistakes.
“It has really just been making mistake after mistake and learning from those,” Bourgeois said.
The surf industry has changed significantly during the course of the 20 years Bourgeois has owned Sweetwater. To keep up in its ever-changing nature, he finds help in the next generation, like his daughters, Danielle and Shana, who manage the store.
“I’m in my 70s now so I am beyond the trends but I rely on my daughters … and some other key people in there,” he said. “It is having that nucleus of four or five people that are younger and keep up with the trends.”
Not ready to give up her active role in the buying process yet, Baker said her diet of two merchandise shows a year helps her stay on top of the new trends. Finding the balance of quality and value is key when selling to the Wrightsville market, Baker said.
“After 22 years in business I think we understand what our customers want — they want something wonderful but they want the value to be there as well,” she said. “I am not always right and I have certainly made my share of buying decisions that did not go the way I had hoped but … if you really pay attention to your customers and make them understand you want them to tell you what they want, they will.”
Similarly, Bourgeois said hitting that fine line of quality and value is especially important for surf shop clientele, with many of Sweetwater’s customers coming from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Having UNCW so close to Wrightsville Beach is one of the things that has kept the shop going, Bourgeois added.
“What is nice about Wrightsville Beach is the proximity to the university because that is our type of clientele, the students,” he said. “Really you can’t find anything like UNCW up and down the coast; there are some schools down in Florida that are close to the beach, but not beaches like Wrightsville that are small with one road up and down the main strip.”
No matter who the clientele is, Baker said customer service is the one thing that can make or break any retail business.
“Beginning, middle and end it is about customer service and if you don’t have that you might as well not even open the door,” Baker said. “For a customer to come in, be helped, have a good experience and walk out the door happy is a challenge but it feels so good when it happens.”