February 19, 2014 at 11:56 am

St. Clair Shores children's clothing shop thrives on specialty items, service

One week, it’s a uniform for St. Paul Catholic School. The next, it’s a suit for a family wedding. No matter the reason, shopper Erica Guido knows she will find the clothing, shoes and accessories she needs for her two growing boys at Connie’s Children’s Shop.

The St. Clair Shores retailer — which celebrates its 60th anniversary next month — has the kind of deals not found at big-box or mall-based stores, Guido said. Recently, she returned two outfits to a chain store when she found basically the same things at Connie’s for only $15.

“This is where I come for specialty items I can’t find anywhere else,” said Guido, including her son’s shoes and gymnastics gear.

That is exactly what second-generation owner Denise Kort wants to hear. Kort may have inherited her parents’ store, but her fashion sense, eye for unique items and attention to customer service are among the reasons so many customers consider Connie’s their go-to destination, shoppers said.

Connie’s, which opened March 4, 1954, specializes in school uniforms, winter outerwear and, in particular, special-occasion clothing such as Easter suits and dresses. Kort also makes sure she has every accessory, whether it’s a tiara for a girl’s First Communion or ties for the little boy channeling his inner David Beckham.

“We’re still a mom-and-pop kind of store, even though we’ve grown,” said Kort, who has been working at Connie’s for more than two decades. “We have a full shoe department. We clothe most of the private and parochial schools on the East side. We even have customers who travel more than an hour to shop for their First Communion outfits.”

Stores like Connie’s are in a sweet spot between warehouse stores such as Costco and specialty retailers such as Gymboree, according to IBISWorld, a market-research company that does regular reports on the children’s apparel industry.

Consumers cracked down on clothing purchases during the 2008-2009 recessions, and buying has recovered slowly since, IBISWorld reported. It said sales of women’s and children’s apparel rose about 3.6 percent to $63 billion in 2013, but that increase is “barely enough to offset the recession-driven drops over the five-year period,” the September 2013 report said.

Generations have clothed their kids at Connie’s, said customer Sue Ann Russo. Just when you think your children have outgrown its goods, someone has a baby and you get to start all over again, Russo said.

She recently shopped there to pick up baby-shower gifts for a family member who was going to reveal the baby’s gender at the party.

“We bought the dress for our flower girl here. She was four at the time; now, she’s 20,” Russo said. “I came in to do the great-aunt present. They helped me pick out such cute things, like a ‘Goodnight, Lake,’ book because they have a cottage on a lake. … I know I’ll be back after the shower to get a few more things.”

Finding the right gifts and age-appropriate clothing are among the top reasons why people say they are loyal to the store, Kort said.

“Our key to success is our customer service. We help our customers,” Kort said, whether that means fitting every shoe to a growing foot to offering gift wrapping to doing in-house alternations for suits and the like.

Maxine and Sidney Kort named the business after their 1-year-old daughter, Connie. Kort said while her sister got the name, her grandparents should get the credit for seeing the customer demand for a clothing store in the area.

“My grandparents (Joe and Yetta Weinberg) had a dime store on the corner of Mack and 8 Mile that had a small children’s clothing department. That department was doing so well that my grandparents gave my parents $7,000 to open up Connie’s,” Kort said.

“My parents were 20 years old and weren’t even old enough to sign the lease,” she said.

Eventually, the 1,200-foot store drew so many customers that the Weinbergs sold their dime store and became partners in Connie’s with Kort’s parents. Together, the family grew the business to the point where they had to expand three times and now occupy more than 7,000 square feet of selling space in a small shopping center at Nine Mile and Mack Avenue.

Kort came into the business after attending Michigan State University, where she got her degree in business administration. Her parents needed a manager, and they offered her the job. Long-time employees are fairly common at Connie’s, Kort said. Her website designer has been with her for 10 years, and her shoe-department manager has been with her for 15 years.

“I love the store. I couldn’t imagine working for anybody else,” Kort said.

“I’m very proud of it and I’m proud of what my parents started.”

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.