By Lisa Pett
A background in biology and chemistry may not sound like the best basis for a career in retail, but Margaret O’Connor-Govett has applied her scientific knowledge and research skill into building a bustling downtown boutique.
When she came to Stevens Point in 1991, she was 32 and on the cusp of a divorce with three small children to care for. She had a background in science but needed to go back to school to get a degree, so she chose biology. She got a degree in biology and was one credit short of a chemistry degree.
“I’d always worked in the science industry,” said O’Connor-Govett. “I was a licensed horticulturalist in North Carolina and ran my own interior plants-cape business.”
She was offered the job as manager of the UWSP chemistry lab and did that for several years, buying a house and raising her girls on her own.
Lab coats don’t usually equate with high fashion but O’Connor-Govett has always enjoyed clothes.
“I’ve always been a girly girl. I’ve always loved clothing,” she said. “I just didn’t get a lot of chance to wear them. It was lab coats, chemicals and dirt.”
Her own style epitomizes her shop’s specialty: Chic yet comfortable, with an elegant twist.
She remarried six years ago. With her daughters grown, and prospects at the university growing dim, she felt it was time to do something else.
So she rolled the proceeds from the sale of her house into creating Girls in Pearls.
But she didn’t jump in unprepared.
She approached Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point Extension. There, Mary Wescott assisted her with preparing a business plan and research.
O’Connor-Govett did her own research as well, sitting downtown for hours, watching the foot traffic and taking notes, trying to figure out her customers were and what they were looking for.
“It was scary,” she said. “This was all the money I had in the world and I was taking a big chance on its success.”
Her research skills are still in use. She has to understand and interpret fashion trends and meet the demands of local clients, making twice-annual buys in specialty retail markets. Once there, she has to find the best quality products for the money.
“I read every style and fashion book I can find,” she said. “I have to know where trends are headed when I go to market.”
“You can have expensive clothes without high quality. And you can have affordable clothes that are fashionable and high quality,” said O’Connor-Govett. “You just have to pay close attention to materials and construction.”
She keeps her inventory low and concentrates on products and clothing lines that appeal to her customers. She recently added Vera Bradley bags and accessories to the store.
“I researched those things for a long time before buying them,” she said. of the brightly patterned, quilted bags. “They are really popular in the Midwest.”
Girls in Pearls has been in business for three years, which is a huge milestone. Her original plan was for a business that would last three to five years.
The shop is starting to turn a (very small) profit. That may be due to the fact that the buy local movement extends past food and farmer’s market and into other retail.
“The Stevens Point Community does a good job supporting local businesses,” said O’Connor-Govett. “The downtown is amazing.”
But the store’s success is not just a result of O’Connor-Govett’s research and planning, the quality and price of items for sale, or the growth of her customer base. It’s a connection she has made in the community.
“I had a customer in the shop that was in her 90s. Her husband was dying and she came in with her daughters to find something to wear to the funeral,” said O’Connor-Govett. “She found something. And she looked beautiful.”
“I get new moms in and I can help them find something that fits and looks great,” she said.
The shop’s focus is on a personal shopping experience and good customer service keeps women (and men) coming back.
“I love that I can help women find something that makes them look good. And feel good,” she said.
That, to her, is more important than profit.