The home page for rafaelhawaii.com has a directory one can peruse to find desired brand names and styles.
Fashion at your Fingertips
A longtime clothing retailer converts to the 'Net and brings the world closer
WISE AND not-so-wise men go through life in different ways, but both would probably agree with the adage, "Look before you leap."
After 24 years in traditional retailing, an 18-month look-see was enough to convince Mari Stewart to take the plunge and trade her bricks-and-mortar shops for the brave new world of the virtual storefront.
Where stylish women once flocked to Stewart's Kahala Mall and Ala Moana stores, they can now keep up with the latest designs from Juicy Couture, Frankie B, Grail, Morphine Generation, Vince, Yaya and Fighting Eel at rafaelhawaii.com.
"I do believe the Web is going to have a huge impact on retailing in the future," Stewart said. "It does open up the world to you. We get orders, not only from the rest of America and Japan -- the boutique's main customers -- but from Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Truly, the world is becoming a smaller place, as you can see when you turn on CNN in the morning."
Da-Nang silk woven shorts are $128.
She'd already noticed, before making the leap to her online store, that some of her local clients preferred to shop online anyway, even though the physical boutique was minutes away from home.
"Face it, we all work such long hours that going to the mall and trying things on isn't always easy," she said. "It can be easier to come home from work, turn on the computer and say 'I want this, this and this.'"
Where Rafael-Ala Moana had to remain open during center hours, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Stewart now works from home, limiting her hours to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but she says she and her customer service representatives do their best to return calls, get packages shipped by two-day air domestically and four-day delivery internationally, and deal with returns. Perhaps even more so than with bricks-and-mortar stores, she believes customer service will be the key to success online, where pricing can be extremely competitive.
"Like anywhere, if you find a shop you like, where you're well taken care of, you'll probably come back. You have to have a combination of product, service and a Web site that's easy to use."
After customers complained that details on the clothing were hard to see, Stewart had them reshot by professional photographer Naru, who's done work for Coca-Cola, Bride's magazine and several catalogs.
The Juicy Couture product page on the rafaelhawaii.com Web site, top, shows accessories such as a mini iPod case for $58.
NONE OF THIS was imaginable when Stewart opened her first Rafael boutique at Ward Centre in 1982, when the pace of life was slower and shopping was thoroughly old school. People plodded from shop to shop to search for brands and compare prices, tasks made easy with a quick Google search today.
Stewart, who grew up in England and worked her way through Spain and France in fulfilling her language-degree requirements, admits that she was slow to catch on to the Web possibilities. She had shopped online for home furnishings and electronics for her two sons, but always with their help in navigating the sites.
"To be honest, I wasn't completely computer savvy," Stewart said. "I'm more of a creative person. I'm not that good at technology; it's like a different language, but I am learning by leaps and bounds."
The violet Tarte babydoll dress is $162.
Stewart does miss the face time with clients and because of that is toying with the idea of opening another small retail shop in the future, but for now is happy to be meeting her sales goals and being the Hawaii connection for clothes lovers around the globe.
"I'm always surprised when we get an order from Norway, or someplace like that, just because we're so far away. To think there's someone who's on their computer late at night buying things from us. ...
"There are people who ask us, because of our name, 'Are you really in Hawaii?' And they ask us what's the weather like, they talk to us about the islands, saying, 'I always wanted to go there. If I ever go, can I call you and ask about hotels?'
"When I was young I didn't think I could just get on the phone and ask someone, 'How's the beach?'
"The world is truly taking a whole different direction. Shopping in malls is not going to go away, but there are so many more options today and the opportunities are tremendous."