Em’z on Fifth is a Mount Dora shopping staple. With offerings as varied as clothing, jewelry and candles it’s easy to see why.
Even after nine years at the same location – on the corner of Fifth and Alexander – Clara Schneider greets every customer warmly and enthusiastically. Her infectious smile and ready laugh make it clear – she enjoys what she does.
Schneider’s entire career has been about clothing and retail. Coming from the more “corporate” environment of upper-end chain outlets, (St. John’s Knits and Cache) she welcomed the opportunity to spread her wings and start her own operation after an unwelcome corporate shuffling occurred with her former employer. It was the final encouragement she needed to bring her own retail vision to life.
“Actually, Mount Dora wasn’t on the top of my list, at first. I happened to see the store (Em’z on Fifth) for sale in the paper. I was really looking at both Winter Park and Mount Dora. I thought both could fit for what I was trying to do. In Winter Park there is a lot of competition and the prices are very high. So, I came to Mount Dora to look around. I just thought it was such a cute little town. Everybody knows everybody – and I like that. The mailman comes in and knows my customers.”
“But,” she says and chuckles, “my husband says, ‘you better behave yourself up there, it’s a small town.’ It’s what I liked most about it, though.”
Asked about her target market, Schneider replies, “Any woman, 30-80 years old, and I didn’t choose that, it chose me. People in Mount Dora want to dress fashionably and cute – but casual. We do have a lot of customers of a certain age – but no matter their age they want to be current in their look and they want to be comfortable. We carry looks and styles that look great on age.”
“When I started to buy for the store,” Schneider explains, “people told me what they wanted. What I sell here aren’t really things from my own retail background. I sold St. John’s Knits, which wouldn’t really work here, in Mount Dora. It’s very dressy and very expensive. And, Cache – that was very sexy, very fitted stuff. I evolved based on what customers told me they liked and wanted – a more casual and relaxed look, fit and feel.”
Clara says she recently picked up a couple of very popular lines that are working well for her. “We recently added Brighton and Jams World. They’re my new biggies. I didn’t necessarily want to add to the store, we’re packed – as you can see,” she says smiling and gesturing about the shop. “But they came and talked to me about their lines and I think it really has been a nice expansion. We will start carrying Brighton’s purses, as well, this fall. I already have the display area picked out.”
She says her current offerings from Brighton work well for customers who want to give a nice gift, along with a pretty presentation. “All of their jewelry items come in a little tin or a pouch, so they make wonderful presents. Brighton fills a niche for those people who want to give a thoughtful gift.”
Schneider’s perfect day as a shop owner, she says, is when people are already gathered to follow her into the shop as she is unlocking the door in the morning – and the traffic continues, until she looks at her watch and suddenly realizes it’s already 5:00 – “…and I haven’t even had time for lunch.” On the other hand, the hot, rainy days of summer can be slower and seem longer. “But,” she brightens, “there’s always something to keep you busy when you’re in retail. That’s when I clean and do stock work and tag new items.”
She says winter is much busier downtown in Mount Dora than summer. “There are snowbirds, there are visitors, my regulars bring in their company, too. I do a lot of events in the summer to encourage people to come out in the heat. It’s that little extra, fun event that’s often enough to get our locals to come in.”
“My marketing is event-driven,” says Clara. “I am not price-driven. I am against pushing ‘special’ sale, sale, sale, sale. A lot of people think that’s how you grow a business, but I disagree with that philosophy. I have customers who shop with me regularly, so why would I give strangers a discount? I would rather reward my local shoppers for their loyalty and show them I appreciate them.”
Although holding sales is not a backbone of her business philosophy, rewarding the loyalty of regular customers is something she says is important. “Once a year I hold a ‘Margaritas and Mark Downs’ sale. We provide frozen margaritas; it’s so hot out in summer and people just love to cool off with those. I invite my regular customers – it’s a thank-you to them.”
Events such as fashion shows are one of the best ways Schneider says she has found to engage her customers and interest them in her newest merchandise. “I do wine tastings twice a month with Maggie’s Attic. We get 200 people through the store on those evenings. I do fashion shows like the Dora Drawdy events and some others. I do have 5 employees – I couldn’t do all of that and run the shop without them.”
Clara says she also held a “Bellinis and Brighton” event to introduce her new Brighton line. “Oh, I don’t want you to think everything we do has alcohol involved…but it does help,” she laughs. Have you tried those? Peach and champagne? They go so well together. We had a drawing and gave away a Brighton necklace that evening.”
Besides being stylish and comfortable, Schneider believes one of the distinguishing factors about her clothing is where it comes from. “Probably 90% of the clothing I carry is made in America – look,” she says, gesturing to a ‘Made in the USA’ tag. “I think that’s important, and I really look for clothes made in the US when I am buying.”
From Tyler Candles (also made in America), to hats, to cosmetic bags, jewelry, purses, watches, scarves and feminine greeting cards, Schneider feels she carries the items that work best for Mount Dora shoppers. “I do a little glitz,” she says, “but usually it’s just a subtle embellishment, something with a little extra pop.”
She says she also focuses on lightweight jewelry and purses for the ladies who prefer those. “So many times, I hear women say how tired they are of lugging around heavy purses, or wearing heavy, heavy earrings or necklaces. I listened to my customers and brought in some lightweight choices for them. Those items really do well.”
As examples, Clara shows the clasp-free ‘Twisty Necklace’. “We’ve sold thousands of these,” she says. “They are so lightweight, but they still look expensive and they can be different, every time you put one on,” she demonstrates. “This year we are carrying a really fun, lightweight mesh necklace in so many beautiful colors. You can mix and match them, depending on your outfit. They are only $3.oo each. They are gorgeous; we’ll see if they are the next really ‘big thing.’”
When asked if she has any fashion tips for fall, Clara smiles and says, “Of course! This fall look for blue – blue is so flattering and it’s still a big color this year,” she says. “There will be a lot of faux leather coming up, as well. And pants, pants of every cut and style are being shown now. Narrow and long with short tops; shorter pants with longer tops; palazzo pants are in, every style you can imagine with pants. Of course, we always carry red for the holidays, too – that’s a tradition for people.”
Schneider will soon be expanding her retail operation to include a new store in Sarasota. “We will be opening there October 1st. My partner is Darci Jacob, who I hired as a store manager at Cache 18 years ago. We’ve known each other long enough that I know Darci runs a very tight ship. We’ve been to market a couple of times to select things for the new store and we’re working on the buildout. It won’t be like Em’z, because Sarasota is a dressier place. It’s little more upscale, they want dresses; it’s a very big dress area. We’ll carry things like beaded gowns there.” The name of the new store is ‘Panache’, in keeping with the upscale theme.
But Clara won’t be leaving Mount Dora anytime soon. “Darci will be running the store,” she says. “She has hired her own staff; I will just be the silent partner – who is never silent,” she laughs. “I will be the back of the house, Darci will be the front.” Clara grins, “We’ve known each other a long time, I think she can handle me.”
Being involved in the community is one the reasons Clara says she likes being a part of Mount Dora. “We always participate. I will always be part of any activity that supports the town. I am involved in the Highwayman Art Show every year. I am happy to do it, to be a shop that has a painting. It’s good for the town.” Em’z on Fifth also supports breast cancer awareness through their involvement in local fashion shows. “I try to do those shows any time I can,” she says. “It’s a cause that’s very dear to me and a lot of people I know. My best friend’s mother just passed away from breast cancer last year.”
But even if you’re not a fan of fashion shows or a shopper of clothing for women 30-80, you may remember Em’z on Fifth as the store that sponsors the snow angel in the courtyard at Fifth and Alexander every Christmas season in Mount Dora. “She’s phenomenal,” says Clara, “we watch out the window as children approach her – they are just so amazed, it’s wonderful to see.”
Clara says she loves what she is doing and plans to stick around Mount Dora for quite awhile. “We are always bringing in new things, looking for something our customers would love. I want them to see something new every time they come in. I want them to have fun, to enjoy coming in to see me and shop with me. That’s one of the great things about being in a place like Mount Dora.”
Melissa DeMarco, Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)