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Sonoma County twin sisters find retail success in both brick-and-mortar, digital spaces

For those who think small local retailers don’t stand a chance in a digital era dominated by behemoths such as Amazon and Walmart, meet Cristina Wilson Hudlin and Michelle Wilson Bien.

Petaluma natives, Sonoma State graduates and twin sisters as well as mothers, the two have operated their Ooh La Luxe clothing store for women since 2008, first starting out in a small Petaluma space and then branching out to Healdsburg and Santa Rosa locations.

Like other brick-and-mortar retailers, Ooh La Luxe experienced a shift in its customers’ buying habits. But the sisters were prepared. They upgraded their website about six years ago to make it easy to shop digitally and have a 5,000-square-foot warehouse that houses inventory.

The result was that Ooh La Luxe was able to grow its revenue, doubling sales over recent years, said Michelle Wilson Bien. The business generates a few million dollars in sales annually, and online sales quadrupled during the pandemic, she said.

“Without the website, we would have had a challenging time,” said Wilson Bien, who noted that digital and in-person sales are roughly equal for their business. They started their venture with about $6,000 after selling their small coffee business that they started while in college and have been able to self-fund their growth while promoting from their original 400-square-foot loft in Petaluma.

As the holiday retail season shifted into high gear this week, the sisters’ success serves as a reminder that buying habits are varied and that smaller businesses can compete with larger companies by focusing on nimbleness and personal interaction. That touch is something Ooh La Luxe values even as it has grown to employ about 20 workers.

One key break occurred in 2017 when a contestant on "The Bachelor“ TV show wore a sweater featured at Ooh La Luxe and posted to her more than 2 million Instagram followers.

“We were used to making 100 order a day on our website. And to give you an example of how much power she had … we got a thousand orders,” Wilson Bien said. The store also picked up about 50,000 Instagram followers.

They were preparing all this past week for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and felt positive about the opportunities going forward.

They conceded it helps to be able to be in both sales camps for a demographic that is mostly millennial shoppers but also has Gen X and baby boomer customers.

“The website is great because you can make a lot of money, you can ship everywhere and everyone can know about you. But there’s nothing quite the same like helping customers and being in the store. I think that’s kind of our base for success with a company,” Wilson Bien said.

Their success has attracted notice and they joined as mentors for Sonoma State’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, which helps students who want to eventually operate their own business.

“When I got the chance to meet them and hear their story and what they accomplished, I thought it was phenomenal,” said Chris Stewart, co-founder of Pocket Radar Inc. in Santa Rosa. Stewart has helped lead the university’s program for entrepreneurs.

“We have done a lot of things with them basically being mentors and bringing in interns and having people shadow them.” Stewart said. “I think they have been phenomenal in the way they have adapted to the changing environment.”

The sisters also realize that giving back to the community is also crucial. For Small Business Saturday, they hosted three local vendors in their stores to support other female-owned businesses to reach more customers: Floral Luxe, a local florist; Glowworm, which produces handmade soaps; and Hometown Collective, which manufacturers candles.

“It just started when I had kids and looked at products we had at home and there is lot of bad stuff in them,” said Samantha Costello, who founded Glowworm six years ago after her first child was born. “I have become more aware of the footprint we make on our earth, and I want that impact to be a positive one.”

Costello grew up in Mexico City and 20 years ago as a teenager moved to Sonoma County, attending Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa. She sources her ingredients locally and sells her products at local festivals and has just ramped up her website at glowwormbeauty.com.

For the sisters, the effort on Saturday was about paying it forward as they wished they had more mentors to rely upon when they first started.

“We kind of thought this year to bring in some other local businesses on Small Business Saturday as like part of our contribution to the community. It’s also to support these other businesses that are community members and maybe people will do their holiday shopping with them instead of going to like a big box (retailer),” Wilson Bien said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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