Don and Erlene Clifton’s business, Celestial Selections, is cruising through its busy time of year. The Spokane Valley couple has operated the wedding and prom-fashion retail store the past 13 years at 306 S. Pines Road.
They sell wedding and prom dresses and men’s formal wear for special occasions, such as homecoming events and holiday galas.
They also donate the outfits worn each year by the seven members of the Spokane Lilac Festival Association court.
S-R: What are your primary items?
Don: About 20 percent of our revenue comes from prom dresses. Between 5 and 10 percent comes from renting or selling tuxes. The rest is bridal or special-occasion dresses.
S-R: How did you get into this?
Don: I was operating a dry cleaning store in Browne’s Addition, and I realized it wasn’t growing the way it should. So we began looking for something else. We visited a bridal business in Utah, where the owner wanted to have us franchise her idea, which was renting bridal wear. We decided to not do that, and we ended up opening our own bridal business.
S-R: When was the prom line added?
Don: About six years ago. Then four years ago we moved prom into the corner space and made that section devoted entirely to prom wear.
S-R: How do you divide the work?
Don: I do the marketing and advertising and online website management and some ordering. Erlene is the fashionista. She goes to Los Angeles and buys direct from several small manufacturers there. And that allows us to sell dresses that can’t be found anywhere else locally. We both go to the Chicago market (show) but Erlene is the one who keeps track of the styles we carry. She also orders the shoes and accessories.
S-R: What’s the business’s expected revenue this year?
Don: I’d say about $700,000 for 2013.
S-R: What are the prices your items sell for?
Erlene: The prices range. Our average bridal dress is around $1,000. At the high end it would be $1,700 or $1,800. We have an outlet store where you can buy a bridal dress for under $300. There’s even a $99 rack if someone wants (a lower-priced item).
S-R: And for prom dresses?
Erlene: We sell a lot of $400 dresses or ball gowns. This year none of our gowns was over $500. We had dresses that were sold for $169 and $179.
S-R: What is the total value of the entire inventory you carry?
Don: It’s about $250,000.
Erlene: The companies we buy from require us to buy from them twice a year, after the fall and spring shows. And the prices keep going up. They’ve doubled since we started.
S-R: Why is that?
Erlene: Nearly all our wedding and bridal dresses are made in China. So the companies who sell us those dresses say it’s costing them more. We hear in China the workers who make them are moving to the middle class and getting paid more. And there are fewer workers than before doing that work.
S-R: What makes your store successful?
Don: We realized, because we’re LDS, that a portion of the clientele are looking for ‘modest’ dresses. That means not strapless. You have the Mormon girls, then a few other conservative Christian churches.
Plus you have a group of Russian families who are Baptist. So we fill that overall modest niche that no one else caters to. But modest (outfits) amounts to just 15 percent of our sales.
We also have unique dress designs no other store carries. Plus, we register every prom dress a girl buys. That way we don’t sell the same style or color to anyone else.
S-R: Because you jumped into this business without any experience in bridal fashions, how did you get yourself up-to-speed?
Don: We did online research. We talked to a couple bridal owners out of this area. We flew down to Salt Lake to look at bridal store down there. The bridal business community has been very good as far as sharing information. Just not locally. Locally, it’s more cut-throat than helpful.
S-R: Meaning, what kind of response did you get in Spokane?
Don: Even in our dry cleaning business we could take a problem and some other owner would help and, say, do a batch of cleaning while we fixed one of our pieces of equipment.
Here, when we went into bridal, it was almost a brutal awakening in not being treated that way. Other local stores said things about us that weren’t kind. “They won’t last two years.” And, “They don’t know what they’re doing.” I thought it would be more community-based than that.
That’s not true of Mossuto’s Bridal. They’re willing to help by sending us people if they can’t provide something. And we reciprocate.
S-R: How long do you expect to stay in the business?
Don: I’m 66. My wife and I are both at retirement age. We’d love to be out of here anytime soon. We’re not aggressively trying to sell. But we’d love to transition this business to someone else who’s interested in the bridal business.
S-R: How many children do you have, and none of them want to take it over?
Don: We have three sons and three daughters. I’d say it’s almost impossible that any of them will want to take the business over.
S-R: Is this a good time to get into bridal?
Don: Over the past three years the business has been better. We’ve had three straight years of growth as the economy comes out of the recession.
Nationally, the dollars spent on wedding have increased two years in a row. Plus the number of bridal stores in this area has decreased, so the slices of the pie can be bigger.