Boutique assistant Brittany Ellison stands by display cases that hold sunglasses, hats and jewelry at the Lexus dealership in Orland Park. (Melinda Moore / Daily Southtown)
When Loree Kowalis wanted to add something special to the Lexus dealership her husband’s family owned, she had to be a bit stealthy.
As the parts guy was doing other things, “I was creeping in with the female touch,” she said. “I didn’t like seeing the parts boxes there. I was sneaking things in” the cabinets.
Those “things” would eventually lead to boutiques at each of the Kowalis Auto Group’s three dealerships: Lexus in Orland Park and in Merrillville and Toyota in Orland Park. Besides typical auto parts, customers can find merchandise with Lexus and Toyota logos, such as water bottles, mugs, hats and keychains to designer purses, jewelry, resort wear, sunglasses, sandals, spa items and greeting cards.
Kowalis, who’s married to Jeff Kowalis, son of the auto group’s late founder, said when the Lexus dealership in Orland Park moved down the street in 2006, they decided to include space for a boutique. “Lexus was promoting ideas about how to provide the best product experience and service to our guests. I suggested it.”
Her father-in-law agreed she could give it a try. “We started out small, and it’s grown ever since,” she said. “We started with a few little items and people loved it.”
When the Toyota location was redone in 2013, they added a boutique to the plans.
“We had one at Lexus and our customers liked it so much,” Kowalis said, adding that many of their Lexus customers also own a Toyota. “They like to walk around and browse while they’re waiting. It’s not a moneymaking department, but a customer service.”
A range of fashion items are in display at the boutique at Toyota in Orland Park, including some Toyota-branded clothing. (Melinda Moore / Daily Southtown)
Although Kowalis didn’t have a retail background — she was a nurse educator — she did have a background in design, which has been helpful when it comes to choosing merchandise and organizing the displays. But she was pretty much on her own when it came to getting the boutiques up and running.
“It’s mostly a male-dominated parts and service department so I took the ball myself,” she said. “I hired a couple of part-time ladies who were helping me, and we made it more of a customer service role. They are actually helping the guests while they’re waiting, so they kind of work in the cafe and the boutique together and make sure people are being cared for.”
One of the employees who keeps the boutiques running is Brittany Ellison, who also works in the parts department.
“It’s a fun little spot for (customers) to shop around,” she said. “It adds a little bit more character to the dealership — something that you don’t see every day.”
She said the boutique’s customers include men, women and couples. “Yesterday I had a son and his mom. It’s not just geared toward women. The men sit there and they end up shopping.”
Ellis said the boutique gives customers something to do while they are waiting — or if they just need to pick up a gift or greeting card — and adds “a little character” to the business.
“It’s nice because it’s not like a typical dealership, so when you are waiting for your service … it’s a fun little spot for you to shop around and take a look at the things you wouldn’t normally see,” she said.
Tricia Ferratti of Frankfort looks through some of the clothing at the boutique in Lexus in Orland Park. “They have cute stuff,” she said. (Melinda Moore / Daily Southtown)
Kowalis said prices at the boutique are “half of what local boutiques” charge for similar items. “People would say ‘I’m at the boutique in Frankfort and it was three times as much.’ I tell them we’re doing it because they’re a customer and we’re providing a service,” she said.
“We have Toyota and Lexus merchandise, but we’ve added in some trendy fashion accessories, jewelry and some fashion pieces — nothing too big. We added handbags because people have asked if we could have those.”
The merchandise varies, depending on the season. “In the fall and winter, we have ponchos and jackets,” she said. “If someone is going on vacation, we have the beach wraps and sunglasses. We’ve actually gotten some flip-flops and sandals because people were asking if we could.”
The jewelry at the boutiques is considered fashion jewelry. “We don’t sell real diamonds or anything,” Kowalis joked. “Swarovski crystals is as expensive as we get.”
Customer requests carry some weight when it comes to the selections. “If one person asks, I won’t do it,” she said. “But if five or six people ask, I might test it out (to see) if it’s something that people really want to look at and buy.”
In Kowalis’ experience, handbags and seasonal jewelry are top sellers in addition to caps, fedoras and sun hats at Lexus. “It’s a favorite of the customers,” Kowalis shard. “Sometimes, like the girl just told me, she put six hats out and sold every single one of them the next day. … I went to see them, and she told me they were gone.”
She said customers tell her they feel like “they’re in a hotel lobby. That’s what they compare it too. … I feel like I’m in a hotel and can buy something in the gift shop.”
Although she estimated 90% of the boutique’s customers are women, more and more men are buying items, and it’s not just people waiting for their car to be serviced who shop. “We have visitors come in — (representatives from) the parts shops and wholesale body shops. They’ll pick up something for their wife like a card. Sometimes they’ll buy sunglasses.”
Others know that the boutique will have clothing appropriate for a winter getaway in a warm place that they can’t find in traditional stores.
“It’s all geared toward our population,” she said. “For Lexus, they’re going to be going on getaways all year ‘round, so we have that for them. … If they’re traveling to a warm climate, we’ll have the sandals, tote, hat, sunglasses, even the jewelry so they can pack and take their trip.”
When it comes to stocking the boutiques, Kowalis has to think one season ahead because she typically buys a dozen items, not a thousand. In addition, she tries to find goods from woman owned companies, such as the candles she stocks, and from small businesses, such as the Immaculate Waters all-natural bar soap, hand lotion and liquid soap made with “pure Lourdes Grotto water.”
As another way to give back to customers, the boutiques offer breast cancer awareness programs and products in May and in October. “I figure if I’m doing a boutique, I serve that community,” Kowalis explained. “We do pink ribbon awareness and have merchandise. … It got so popular that people asked if we could have it year-round.”
She hopes to do more in-person charity events and woman sponsored events soon given that restrictions have eased around the pandemic.
“We used to have an education (program) in May and October — speakers and evening events. But we haven’t done that in a few years with COVID. We offer it at the Lexus Orland Park location because it’s a larger space.”
Melinda Moore is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.