While Tuvalu enjoys an unbeatable location in downtown Laguna Beach, California, owner Laurie Alter’s passionate commitment to customers and intense focus on business strategy are essential to her store’s well being.

Local residents and vacationers alike appreciate Tuvalu’s beach-themed casual elegance. Furniture regularly commands 65 percent of the 2,800 square feet of retail space, with accessories and gifts increasing during the fall and holiday seasons. An additional 700 square feet accommodates Tuvalu’s rapidly growing high-end home design division.

Alter opened Tuvalu in 2003; a year later, she opened a second location in Ladera Ranch, 30 minutes inland from Laguna Beach. The second store boosted Tuvalu’s following, but Alter closed it after five years, feeling like she was always traveling from store to store. However, Alter’s renewed focus paid off: Numbers and dollars increased for the Laguna Beach store.

Always Say ‘Yes’
Today, creating a welcoming and unique shopping experience is Alter’s primary objective. “We strive to say ‘yes’ to everything,” she says. “We ship everywhere (the shipment to Dubai the other day was a tough test for us), and we say ‘yes’ to every special order, even if it’s just one more stemless wine glass.”

Originally, Alter thought the store would be a showroom space, but that quickly changed when she realized that most people prefer instant gratification. “Many of our customers want the sofa, club chairs, and coffee table delivered tomorrow,” reveals Alter. “So, we have a warehouse in San Juan Capistrano that holds complete new collections. We’ll sell an entire collection off the floor, go to the client’s home for the installation, and bring in a whole new collection for the store. It makes the customer happy, it keeps new merchandise in the store, and I don’t lose a sale.”

Treasures Found
Tuvalu works with 700 vendors, providing the store with a huge variety of products. Judicious merchandising keeps the abundance of choices from overwhelming customers. “A particular glass only needs to be in one space in the store, not in multiple spaces,” says Alter. “We keep the collection tight so our customers see the product and so it merchandises well with other items.”

Alter frequents flea markets, auctions, antiques stores and trade shows to find Tuvalu’s distinctive offerings. “Each new product has to be something we love enough that we trust in, and also must be part of the story we’ve created, so my merchandisers can take it and just run with it,” she says.

Alter relies heavily on her three talented merchandisers, at least one of whom is always on duty when big shipments arrive. Attention-grabbing displays demand strong merchandisers and strong math skills, states Alter. “My co-buyer, Jaymi, and I look at the numbers every week. We micro-analyze every department to make sure we have the dollars on the floor to meet the numbers we had last year and to increase by 15 percent. If a category is down, we re-merchandise the entire division to make it look fresh and different.”

To ensure Tuvalu’s unique experience, Alter has employees shop competitors, checking for ambience, music levels, how customers are greeted, how products are displayed, and to confirm that Tuvalu isn’t offering similar merchandise.

Surfing to Success
Technology also plays a key role at Tuvalu. Alter says the biggest gains are forecast in the Internet and design divisions, so she’s invested money and time in restyling the store’s website and honing Tuvalu’s social profile. Besides the website, Tuvalu’s online presence is bolstered by regular e-mail newsletters and e-mail blasts, blog posts, and accounts on Pinterest, Houzz, Facebook and Twitter.

Monday Must Haves are a popular blog feature, offering a closer look at staff picks and a generous discount code for online purchases. “We take a lesser margin on that item, but what usually happens is our customers buy deeper on the site,” says Alter.

An iPad at the counter simplifies e-mail newsletter sign-ups at check out, while new products get a picture posted to Tuvalu’s Facebook page upon arrival. “I’m still shocked when someone comes in looking for a product hours after we’ve posted the picture on Facebook,” remarks Alter.

Social media might overwhelm some, but Alter’s social media specialist simplifies the task. “I inundate him with e-mails of things at all hours, and I give him carte blanche because I love what he does.”

On the Horizon
Just as Alter always says “yes” to customers, she also says “yes” to her community and beyond. Tuvalu supports the local public school and a local shelter, but the generosity doesn’t stop there. Tuvalu is named after a chain of islands off Fiji’s coast, and Alter has organized fund-raising events to benefit Tuvalu’s population, who must eventually abandon their islands due to rising sea levels.

To ensure a bright future for the business, Alter says it will take continued focus and commitment. “I can gain bigger success by keeping a clear direction, and by looking at what is successful today. I’m focusing on a really strong brick-and-mortar store and a really strong Internet site.”


5 Fun Questions

What is the first thing you do when you enter your store in the morning?
“I check the sales numbers for the day before, and then I check where we are in the month for sales.”

What is your most unusual display piece or prop?
“I love the set of three vintage bike seats that I found at an antique store outside of Atlanta.”

What’s the most unique sale or promotion you’ve ever had?
“We do a Twelve Days of Christmas event. One year, we drew a lucky winner who got a one-day shopping spree at 50 percent off. They spent seven hours in the store. They had a fairly new house, which they furnished in a day with Tuvalu.”

What item were you unsure of when you ordered, but it sold better than expected?
“Black-and-white generic-looking signs with various sayings. I tend to buy things that are more handcrafted, yet we’ve sold 1,000 of them.”

Have you ever had a celebrity in the store?
“We have them all the time! Diane Keaton, Heather Locklear, Simon Cowell, Martha Stewart. Queen Latifah came in and she started singing in the store! We usually wait a decent amount of time and then blast or blog about some of the things they purchased.”

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