Entrepreneur takes shoppers on magical mystery Retail Therapy Tour
BY Shelley Fralic, Vancouver Sun
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Deanna Whissel is all about the shopping experience. About making it fun, and about sharing her finds and her knowledge with like-minded women who make no bones about the value of retail therapy, especially if it falls on a Sunday afternoon and involves a glass or three of wine.
Whissel owns the Vanilla Clothing boutiques, for starters, where she sells age-appropriate clothing for women over 35, women who want to look both confident and stylish. And she likes to shop herself, and discover interesting boutiques away from the malls and chain stores that often offer spotty service and not much variety for the discerning shopper.
The first Vanilla Clothing opened in 2009 in Prince George when Whissel and her business partner and best friend Sharon Rees decided the time was right for a different kind of women’s clothing store.
The two were fellow foodies, hence the name, and it seemed a match made in retail — Rees had previously owned flower shops and Whissel came from the business management field. When their initial venture proved a success, a White Rock store followed in 2010.
Sadly, Rees died two weeks after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, but Whissel vowed to keep her retail legacy going, opening a third Vanilla Clothing in Langley in 2012. (The Prince George shop recently closed.)
And then Whissel had an even better idea: why not take her expertise and behind-the-retail-scenes secrets and her growing concern as a businesswoman about the trend toward cross-border shopping and offer something unique to keep retail spending on this side of the divide.
“It was a shop-local initiative,” says Whissel. “We were in White Rock and recognized that we had to minimize cross-border shopping.”
And so, in March of 2012, as a way to raise awareness about the value of independent businesses on the Canadian side of the 49th parallel, Whissel offered her first Retail Therapy Boutique and Wine Tour.
The tours, which cost $45 and include brunch and transportation, are held on Sundays and are an all-day affair, starting just before noon and usually comprising four stops.
As many as two dozen (mostly) women sign up for the day, but here’s the twist: Until the moment they board the shuttle bus, the “tourists” have no idea where they’re going. It’s rather like a blind date, except the potential paramour could be a funky home decor shop, a milliner’s atelier or a goat farm that churns out gourmet gelato. The tour might include a cooking class, or a trip to a garden store and, make no mistake about it, there will be cocktails.
Last Sunday’s tour, for instance, took 21 shoppers hailing from Langley and White Rock to the Hudson Madison home decor store in Abbotsford, the Tanglebank Gardens/Bramble Bistro, also in Abbotsford, and the Township 7 Vineyards & Winery in Langley. There were swag bags, prize draws, snacks like lavender strawberry shortcake, 25-per-cent VIP discounts and, at the winery, a tasting and cheese pairing at a long, linen-covered table out in the middle of the vineyard.
Or, as Whissel, 46, says, “Everywhere we go has to serve us a cocktail.”
“Tourist” Tamara Maines, 48, is from Langley and has been on several of Whissel’s tours, including Sunday’s and one last month to Vancouver Island, and she is already signed up for future tours. Next Sunday marks the 40th tour to date, and bookings are sold out through early August.
“Who doesn’t want to shop and drink wine on a Sunday afternoon?” says Maines. “It’s always something new. It’s like celebrity shopping.”
Aside from the obvious (shopping, wine, making like-minded new friends), Whissel says the attraction for her clients is the VIP treatment, and she sees herself as broker for seasoned shoppers who want to try something different, with no fuss and no muss. She does the groundwork herself, and has found the independent retailers she approaches to become involved have heartily embraced the concept.
“We took the pub-crawl idea and adapted it. Ladies love shopping and they love wine. We just combined it, and it became Retail Therapy.”
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