With two sons, three brothers, and a bunch of male cousins, Ruthanna Willey knows a thing or two about men’s fashion.
She’s the owner of Monroe, a menswear boutique in Pullman. The store at 107 South Grand Avenue carries clothing, grooming items, and masculine-themed home decor with a focus on regional brands.
Monroe opened in fall 2019 when Washington State University’s Cougar football season brought a surge of foot traffic and sales to the new boutique. But the fledgling business took a hit during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 shut us down for three months. That was a gut punch,” Willey says. “We haven’t had what I’d call a normal retail operating season yet.”
Enter Carson Business Solutions. Developed in concert with The Next Carson Coug curriculum, the program launched two years ahead of schedule to help local businesses during the pandemic. It’s modeled after the Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program at WSU Vancouver and supported by the Dean’s Catalyst Fund. Under Assistant Professor Garth Mader’s leadership, teams of WSU Pullman business students provide small companies across Washington with free, confidential consulting.
At Monroe, five students worked with Willey on strategies to increase sales and strengthen the store’s balance sheet during the pandemic and beyond. Under the direction of a volunteer coach, the students are reviewing the store’s financial data, website, and marketing outreach.
Willey, a self-taught entrepreneur who’s run several small businesses, says she’s excited to see what the student team recommends.
“I spend so much time involved in every aspect of the business, and this is a chance to get an outside perspective,” she says. “What are people’s first impressions of Monroe? What do they notice about our website, our products, and other aspects of the business?”
“Ruthanna has an eye for fashion, an instinct for what appeals to her customers, and great customer service,” says Mader, Carson Business Solutions director. “As consultants, the students will build on that strong foundation with targeted strategies for growth.”
Getting the Word Out About Monroe
Monroe’s website was one of the students’ first focuses. Willey wants to increase online sales, but says “I feel like a tiny sardine in a sea of big fish. Amazon has conditioned people so that if you can’t buy it in a couple of clicks, you go elsewhere.”
Although Monroe’s site has a clean look and beautiful photography, students noticed that some navigation features—including the search function—aren’t intuitive.
“Websites typically have search bars at the top of the page for easy access,” says Arnulfo “A.j.” Cruz-Chapman, a finance major. “Monroe’s was at the very bottom, and you had to hit a small tab.”
Monroe offers free, same-day delivery service and custom tailoring—perks the website should feature more prominently, the students say. They also noticed that product descriptions and customer reviews were limited.
“If you can’t try the shirt on, you’ll want to know what the fabric is like. Does it feel soft? Is the material stretchy?” says Elise Gordon, a marketing major.
Customer reviews are also important for clothing sales, adds Omar Zafra, an international business major. “I read them to check out the fit,” he says. “It helps you decide whether to buy a large or drop down to a medium.”
Team members also see opportunities to ramp up publicity. Willey opened Monroe to address a gap in men’s apparel retailers in Pullman, but students—one of the city’s largest demographics—might not realize a store selling everything from swim trunks to dress shirts is within walking distance of campus.
Social media could help spread the word, says Emma Weglin, a finance and marketing major. Rather than taking on that task herself, Willey could contract with a social media manager to advertise specials and promote new products, she says. Monroe also has an extensive customer email list that could be used for promotions.
By the end of the 13 weeks, students will have assessed the business, made recommendations, and started implementing suggestions that meet Willey’s approval.
“It’s challenging, but it’s definitely boosting my confidence,” says Nicholas Blasko, a finance and accounting major who worked on Monroe’s financial statements and forecasts. “In class, you get all the information you need to find the answer. Working with a small business, there are a lot more unknowns and ambiguity.”
“This is someone’s real business and livelihood,” Gordon adds. “They’re trusting us to help them succeed, so it’s really worthwhile.”
Working with Carson Business Solutions has been valuable for Willey as well.
“Monroe is here to provide a service to Pullman, and I want to do my best as a small business owner,” she says.
“It’s great to hear their ideas, including where I can improve and what I can build on.”
I spend so much time involved in every aspect of the business, and this is a chance to get an outside perspective.