by Emily J. Weitz
As someone who started a small business on Shelter Island a few years back, Marie Eiffel has infused her work environment with an overall joie de vivre. In spite of her lack of focus on the bottom line, or perhaps because of it, she has now grown to open a second shop here in Sag Harbor, to hire more year round employees, and to start her own line.
With all this growth, Eiffel insists that the most important part of her business is that she is a contributor. Whether it’s to the customer’s experience and confidence, or to the organizations she supports, that’s what being a business owner is about.
“When I hire staff,” she says, “I tell them if I ever see them selling something to someone, they are fired. I don’t want them to sell, but to contribute to the person.”
Eiffel believes that her shop can contribute to a person’s life, not simply in the acquisition of more things but because of the experience they have there.
“Most of the time, people have no idea what looks good,” she said. “They reach for the same thing over and over again. They don’t experiment or experience that kid inside, wanting to try something new. I want my employees to contribute to the person by taking them out of their comfort zone.”
This is not a task that can be taken on inattentively. If Eiffel and her employees were just pushing every out-of-the-box idea on their customers, she observed, they wouldn’t have the loyal clientele they do. Personal attention is integral to Marie Eiffel’s philosophy, she said.
“I want my employees to act as if this woman is their mother coming in. Moreso even than their best friend. Your best friend, you may just say she looks good. But your mother? You always want your mother to look good.”
This means that Eiffel and her team are not afraid to say if something doesn’t look good.
“It’s difficult to shop — to make decisions,” she said. “We have so many decisions about more important things. It’s nice to hear, ‘That doesn’t look good on you’. You don’t have to say it looks horrible, but you want it to look great. You want to say ‘Wow’.”
Much of the personal attention they give comes from just observing. Eiffel will welcome someone into her store, then watch what she gravitates to. She will pick up hints of her style from the clothes she’s wearing and the items she’s perusing.
“I’m not going to get someone to wear a business-type outfit if she’s a groovy girl,” says Eiffel. “I train my people to wait, to look at them. It’s dancing with the customer. It’s creating a relationship. I want people to come and be at ease and feel that they’ve been taken care of. We’re not selling: we’re showing the value of something.”
That value might be evident in the origin of an article of clothing or in the way it accentuates a collar bone. Or it may be in the simple wearability of a piece of clothing.
“I have a customer with a bank account that could buy all the Guccis,” says Eiffel. “She says she comes to me because everything she buys at my store, she wears. Once I pushed her to buy a dress she wouldn’t have noticed, and she came back and told me how much she loved it – that it’s the dress she wears the most. It wasn’t about making a sale, it was about how I saw she would look excellent.”
As Marie Eiffel’s business continues to grow, the goal that’s really on her mind is in relationship to building her team.
“I am creating a team, but also a family,” says Eiffel. “I want my employees to grow in their environment and in their lives. I am looking to create a real unity with my team. I want work to be fun, and also to be a growing experience.”
Eiffel didn’t go to business school, and it’s not because of the profit she hopes to turn that she wants her employees to be happy. But, as her business grows, it seems to be working that way as well. Last year, she had one year-round employee and one part-time employee. Now she has six employees altogether, including four year-round. She gathers them for weekly meetings where they talk about how they’re doing and what they need.
“The happier they are, the happier I am,” says Eiffel, “the happier the customer is.”