Blackbird's Owner, Nicole Miller was recently interviewed for The Daily Front Row's 5th installment of The Retailer Files. If you were curious as to how Blackbird got started, how we select merchandise for the stores, and about our customers (which includes a Singapore Idol contestant!) check out this interview. Thanks so much to Maria and The Daily Front Row for talking with us.

Retailer Files: What were you up to before Blackbird?

Nicole Miller: I worked at a teddy bear store when I was 19. The weird Caribbean, East Indian woman that I worked for would take tango lessons in the back, but nobody was doing the buying, and we were running out of merchandise. So I asked, ‘Can I buy some things?' and they let me. I grew up in retail since I was five years old. My mother worked her way up from sales to management at our local department store, Bob Marche, which became a Federated store. I was the kid in the backseat of the car, listening to every conversation she ever had about work. I would go in during the holidays to stack hangers, wrap fragrances, or work in the dressing rooms when I got older. My family, in general, was always making things and selling things. We had great yard sales. I’ve always been a merchant and had an entrepreneurial side to me. My other siblings could care less, but it clicked for me. It wasn’t my career of choice—it just happened to me.

Retailer Files: What was your career of choice?

Nicole Miller: I didn’t have one. I floated around but if you look at my resume things add up—the years that I worked in a dry cleaner and learned about fabric and men’s shirting. I worked for Nordstrom in the corporate employee lunchroom, so I got to listen to people from the credit department. Then I started to work in the stores. I sold kid's shoes. I worked on Nordstrom.com, before it was Nordstrom.com. We were doing personal shopping for people online before anyone else. It was very experimental. When I left, I went on a trip and stumbled upon a very unusual job that probably would have been my career. I created and ran the credit card fraud department on Expedia.com. For five years, I worked heavily in e-commerce and all aspects of the company—I learned statistics and how to build data models. It’s interesting to see how that played out at Blackbird, because I’m so into the data. If we buy suits, I build a model to figure out how many brown suits we want and when we want them, how many grey suits we need...That experience is more powerful in what I do now than my retail experience.
Retailer Files: How did Blackbird start?

Nicole Miller: A friend of mine was looking for something to do. I’ve always been very good coming up with business ideas. I said to my friend, ‘You really want to work with people, all you talk about is clothing, and you are progressive but reasonable. Owning a store would be a wonderful thing for you.’ When we got started, we went to a trade show and he freaked out! I realized then how much I knew. He hadn’t worked with sales reps and I grew up going to trade shows, bazaars, and flea markets. He called them carnies. He thought they were sleazy and were out to get us so I had to explain to him that they’re just doing their job. He bowed out, and all the sudden I had a store.

Retailer Files: Tell us about the décor.

Nicole Miller: It pretty much started with me, a paint brush, and a box of nails. Everything is mobile in our interiors. People love that when they come in the store, we move things around and it looks different. We don’t do window displays at all, but the floor always changes.

Retailer Files: How did you come up with the name?

Nicole Miller: My friend came up with it when we started the project. He walked into my office at Expedia and yelled ‘Blackbird!’ That was it. After months of torture, we found it. The biggest criteria was that if we became a furniture store the name would still work. We didn’t want anything cliché or of-the-moment. Branding is so important and when we came up with the name, the only criteria it didn’t meet was that it wasn’t easy to Google. You couldn’t just put in Blackbird and find us. You’ll get the Beatles. Now, that’s different--we rank pretty high.

Retailer Files: What were your influences for Blackbird?

Nicole Miller: I’m influenced by my dad, my family, tugboats, the blue-collar lifestyle. I also grew up in one of the wealthiest towns in the state, so I understand fine china and the reason you would by $180 hand cream. The mix of high and low feels natural to me.

Retailer Files: How has your father influenced you?

Nicole Miller: I spent a lot of time with my dad growing up, so I buy clothing because I need it. We wore heavy jeans and flannel shirts—little lumberjacks. He dressed us like him. We lived on a sailboat, so I know about nautical things. We lived in a teepee so I wore buckskins and worked with leather and beads. I can shoot a black powder rifle and throw a tomahawk. My dad also loves war history. We were always in army-navy surplus stores and my dad would show me sweaters and say, ‘The reason the patches are on this sweater in this spot are because of this.” So, I know all this weird stuff about military clothing. My dad even did mountain man reenactment. This weird background sort of adds up. That’s why I’m in menswear. Women’s clothing doesn’t make sense to me. I’m very technical. Men’s clothing is technical and practical. My husband laughs at me, because I always lose my keys and my wallet and my phone because you have to carry them in a purse. Men’s clothing has so many pockets. If I can find a teeny tiny men’s sweater with deep pockets, I’ll wear it every day as my little lab coat.
Retailer Files: How much of your husband’s wardrobe is from the store?

Nicole Miller: Probably the whole thing, but I make him pay for what he gets. He gets a discount, though. I see women all the time get orders in and just pull everything she wants. It’s bad business. He loves it. He’s so fiscally conservative, he understands. Just me having the store frightens him to death.

Retailer Files: What is the reaction of your male customers when they find out the owner is female?

Nicole Miller: We have more of a problem in the industry. I’ll be in the store and the sales reps will come in and won’t even look at me. They’ll talk to whoever the salesperson is, as if they’re the owner. I got a comment recently by someone pretty highly-regarded in fashion. They said, ‘It must be challenging for you’ and ‘I bet you don’t understand that.’ The women’s industry is full of men. It’s not like I’m a men’s underwear model. It’s funny. I’m pretty good at turning it around in a way that makes them feel very uncomfortable without saying, ‘Excuse me, that’s very insulting.’
Retailer Files: Tell us about the neighborhood.

Nicole Miller: Ballard a huge neighborhood in Seattle with a nice mix of blue collar and white collar. You have the women with the little dog in their purse, you know the ones who have that 'I don’t have a job, I just go shopping' look. We also have the old grumpy ladies that go down to Olsen’s to get their ointment. It’s a historic district that’s up-and-coming with cute boutiques. The store idea originated from me standing in the neighborhood. There was a new space available with 8000 square feet in a beautiful location. I was wondering what the neighborhood needed. What I saw were all these women walking around and all the shops were for women but they had guys with them. Where did they shop? Whenever I took my guy friends shopping in Seattle, we’d have to go to six or seven places just to find black shoes.

Retailer Files: What changes have you implemented during the economic crisis?

Nicole Miller: We opened the Blackbird Candy Shoppe and a women’s store to market to the other 50% of the population. The Candy Shoppe was moved to the Field House and we have an apothecary store called Blackbird Apothecary where we have our fragrance, candles, grooming, dishes, and ceramics.

Retailer Files: How is The Field House different than Blackbird?

Nicole Miller: Blackbird is contemporary. It’s a men’s clothing store. At The Field House, we sell egg beaters and sewing kits and food. It’s more lifestyle and old-timey.

Retailer Files: What happened to your women’s store?

Nicole Miller: It was only open for about nine months. We bought from the brands we were already buying from, and we’d thought it would be great! We hated it. We still carry one rack of women’s clothes in Blackbird. That one rack sells more than the entire women’s shop. I think we’re getting rid of it in the fall, though. It’s a distraction and it’s not fun for us. Men come to shop because they need pants. We sell pants to guys who need pants. Women come in and they don’t need anything. Personality-wise, it was so different. We give a very high level of service but women didn’t really want that. They wanted different things.

Retailer Files: What did the women want?

Nicole Miller: Their idea of customer service is different. They want to be flattered like, ‘Hi, you’re so cute! I love your shoes!’ You can say to men, ‘I like your pants,’ but then you’re flirting with them. When we give customer service to a guy, we ask them how often they shop, we ask them where they work, do they dress up, what’s their suit situation like, do they have a significant other, how do they spend their weekends.

Retailer Files: Who’s the Blackbird client?

Nicole Miller: He's generally in some sort of creative job—architect, graphic designer, gallery owner, artist or students with really rich parents. Then there’s this other demographic. Our customers aren’t brand snobs. They mix genres and price points like a $250 t-shirt and $75 pair of jeans.

Retailer Files: What’s the typical Seattle man like?

Nicole Miller: He works at a tech job. He wears a lot of North Face clothing—he looks like he’s about to climb a mountain. His wife dresses the same. They’re like salt and pepper shakers in their matching Patagonia jackets and velcro Teva sandals. It’s getting better, but if you go to a restaurant, people will come in wearing parkas and mountaineer jackets with a lot of zippers. When I started the store you couldn’t find a fitted shirt. Everything was baggy—baggy shirts, baggy jeans.
Retailer Files: What’s your buying strategy?

Nicole Miller: We specialize in small sizing. Anytime something is available in an extra small we buy it. We have a lot of Japanese brands because they’re so innovative but they also come in size zero. We have five price points and everything is value-based, which means the price is lower than what you get. So if you’re spending $50 for a shirt, you’re really getting a $70 shirt. I have a dark aesthetic. I like dark because you can wear it with anything. You can spill spaghetti on it, and it’ll hold up and be easy to care for. Even with a dark aesthetic, we try to be whimsical and funny. We’re not trying to push our point of view on anyone. We’re trying to offer options to men so that they have a place to shop. We find that people don’t even understand themselves, so for us to tell other people what they should where is odd to me. We just try to help the consumer put together something that works for them.

Retailer Files: What do you do to accommodate the VIPs and regulars?

Nicole Miller: We have a huge database of personal customers and we give a discount to people who contribute to public radio or public television. We give them 10% off in the shop which keeps them coming back. We also give student and senior discounts. We really try to get to know our customers and recognize them by face and name. We have customers that come in to just say hi or see what bands are playing. Our customers will call the store for general information from what restaurants they should eat at to what hotel is great. We give a high level of customer service to everybody.

Retailer Files: What events do you have in your store?

Nicole Miller: I’m always coming up with crazy events like right now we’re hatching baby chicks in the window at The Field House. There’s always something going on here. I’m not a huge fan of trunk shows but we’ll have those from time to time. It won’t ever just be a trunk show though. Last time we had a tarot card reader at the event. It was great! I’d never had my tarot cards read and it scared me to death.

Retailer Files: When you do have a designer in house, where do you wine and dine them?

Nicole Miller: I’m a break-the-rules person so we usually take them to where we would go—the down and dirty part of the city or the super chic bar no one can get into or the weird food stand down the street where we can eat pizza and sit in the dirt. Still Liquor is great. There's this secret illegal venue called The Josephine where you can bring in your own booze and smoke. Really good bands play there. I like to go to bars in old hotels too. There’s one called The Sorento with big couches and a huge fireplace. Unfortunately it’s become popular in the last year.

Retailer Files: How often are you in Blackbird?

Nicole Miller: I’m not in either of the stores a lot. I try not to be. I’m too picky about things. It’s better if I can send someone over and ask them if it’s clean and to take a picture for me. I probably go in twice a week. Actually the first day, my mom opened the store. I was still working at Expedia.

Retailer Files: What’s trending in your store?

Nicole Miller: All the Japanese brands. These Japanese designers are such innovators. If you go into All Saints, they’re just copying the stuff that these guys have been making.

Retailer Files: What are the top sellers?

Nicole Miller: The Blackbird Hazelwood jean and the collaboration we do with Alden always sell out. There’s a brand called Creep that sells out faster than everyone else. It’s the one weirdo, the Opening Ceremony product, we sell like the fun rose corduroy shorts. The price is good and it’s made in Japan. It’s American workwear with a pop. Our biggest seller ever is a jewelry line called Vimbeget, which is actually designed by a former Blackbird employee who was influenced by working here. He handmakes this complicated chainmail—it’s unisex men’s jewelry. We’ve sold jewelry for years and his stuff flew off the shelves.

Retailer Files: What excites you about your boutique now?

Nicole Miller: Our own line. We’re aren't selling it to anyone else, just in our stores. We started tinkering with our own jean and our own sweatshirt. It’s not seasonal fashion, it’s basics. It sells faster than anything else because people want anything with the Blackbird label. It’s frustrating to sell someone else’s jeans if I can’t get refills or get them in stock. We deal with companies that are our size, small companies. It’s difficult to get more and it’s easier to make it myself. We’re about to release a lot of new stuff from Blackbird! I'm also excited about this vintage stuff I just got from an antique store in Portland: a jar of Mount St. Helen's ash, a liquor bottle that’s Mount St. Helen blowing up, and a key chain from the Spirit Lake lodge where this guy Harry Truman refused to leave when the mountain was blowing up and he died. We’re going to sell it as a set.

Retailer Files: Any celebs wander in?

Nicole Miller: We just sold stuff to a Singapore celebrity. We thought it was fraud, but we looked him up. He was on the American Idol of Singapore. Darren Somebody. There’s all these videos of him singing online. That we like because it was so funny. We don’t get Jude Law.
Retailer Files: What's the hardest part of the retail industry?

Nicole Miller: The biggest issue I'm seeing right now in the industry is pricing. There's a really screwed up thing happening with the vendors setting the retail prices. They're keeping the suggested retail the same, like a reasonable price, but they're increasing their cost so the margins are decreasing. Since they're setting a suggested retail, if I go in and set my normal margin, I look like the biggest jerk out there. It's really tough. I'm curious about what other retailers are doing about it. We don't really talk to each other. Japan has a great retail model. Everyone shares ideas and resources. In America, everyone is so afraid that someone in Cincinnati is going to find out where they make their scarves and that will put them out of business.

Retailer Files: What’s a cardinal virtue of a boutique owner?

Nicole Miller: Agility. You can’t treat everyone the same or use the same rules across the vendors. That would be the closest answer I could give.

Retailer Files: Why did you decide to expand in Portland later this year?

Nicole Miller: The city chose us. The real estate developers and some other people going into this new space contacted us and told us they wanted us there. The rent is cheap, it’s close, it’s the perfect size (600 square feet), and a perfect location. It’s on Burnside, the most famous Portland street. It’s a block and a half from the Ace Hotel. It’s right next to Tanner Belts, which we sell. We like Portland. We have a lot of customers down there. Mainly, we love that we’re going to do 50% Blackbird product there.

Retailer Files: What's next for Blackbird?

Nicole Miller: For me it's more in house and less apparel. Not so much of this multi-brand model. There's just not enough margin there to stay in business. We're excited about expanding the Blackbird brand.