Usually, Chelby Smith counts on making a high percentage of the holiday sales for her business, Sonora Roads Boutique, at a function she hosts just after Thanksgiving at Lindsay Creek Vineyards in Lewiston.

Her customers mingle as they shop, nibbling snacks and sipping wine while browsing her inventory of women’s, children’s and men’s attire that she sells online and at community events.

That approach seemed as if it would work this year, even in the coronavirus pandemic, especially when she hosted a similar event in August that attracted 300 people.

Then came the recent spike in coronavirus cases that prompted Idaho Gov. Brad Little to limit public gatherings to 10 or fewer people, forcing Smith to pivot.

She’s converted her basement into a showroom, scheduling appointments with customers if they want to try on clothing.

“If there’s anything this year has taught me it’s rolling with the punches and being flexible, because we have no other choice,” she said.

Making changes to meet the needs of her customers and herself is familiar territory for Smith, who founded what is now Sonora Roads Boutique half a decade ago. It recently won the Idaho online boutique of the year award from The Boutique Hub, a professional group for the retail industry.

Smith started as a LuLaRoe clothing representative when she was living in New Plymouth, Idaho. Similar to Avon and Tupperware, LuLaRoe representatives sell from their homes, not from brick and mortar stores.

At the time, she was doing Medicaid billing for the St. Alphonsus health system and ending a relationship with the father of her twins, who are now 5 years old.

“I liked (the St. Alphonsus job), but it wasn’t feeding my soul,” said Smith, who participated in DECA, a student organization aimed at developing marketing, finance, hospitality and management skills, in high school.

“When I got the chance to start my own business with clothing, (I thought) this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said.

LuLaRoe supplemented her income and provided a way to meet new people without taking her away from her children. It grew so quickly that within a year she was able to quit the St. Alphonsus job and return to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.

One reason she has been so successful, Smith said, is because she provides lots of information about the garments she sells to help her online customers figure out how they’re going to fit.

“My business works because I have built a lot of trust,” she said.

She seeks out affordable pieces made with sturdy fabrics constructed with enough quality to withstand heavy everyday wear and accepts returns when merchandise doesn’t meet her customers’ expectations.

“I think people really work hard for their money, so I think they deserve to have something they truly love for their purchase,” she said.

It was the tastes of her customers that prompted her to shift her business model two years ago by dropping LuLaRoe.

“There was a definite shift (in LuLaRoe) … that didn’t meet the needs of the clientele I had,” she said.

The replacement she chose was a mix of more than 50 brands she found by combing the internet and following leads from her dad, a horse trainer who attends many rodeos.

Her inventory includes basics such as T-shirts, tank tops, solid colored leggings and bralettes, as well as dresses and other clothing for special occasions.

Many of the items reflect her Western roots and come from brands like Kimes Ranch, Rowdy Crowd Clothing and First American Traders.

“I did have a lot of people who trusted and followed me with the vision I had for my brand,” Smith said.

The departure of big box stores from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic prompted her to refine her approach even more.

At the request of her customers, she expanded her selection of children’s clothing and added home decor and men’s clothing.

“I’ve seen increases in people looking for those types of items,” she said.

The pandemic has shaped the business climate too. Sales dropped dramatically at the end of March when many businesses temporarily shut down and then rallied when Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act stimulus checks began arriving. Smith hesitates to predict how strong Christmas sales will be.

“I’m really proud of what I have accomplished, and I hope it continues to be successful,” she said.

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

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