Lorraine McGowan enjoys putting smiles on people’s faces — whether family, friends or the countless customers she’s encountered over her past three decades in retail.
And as the calendar shifts to 2018, McGowan will soon be celebrating her 31st anniversary in business, best known for her women’s apparel and accessory store — Lorraine K. (with the K for her middle name, Kathryne) — a staple in Clock Tower Square since the early 1990s.
“It’s all about the people,” said McGowan. “You can’t do retail if you don’t like having relationships with people. I like being around people and making people feel good and special.”
Those personal relationships are what have driven McGowan, from the moment she opened her first store, Country Hearts, a traditional country-style gift store in the Bradford Green Shopping Center off Route 25, to the present, where she is in a constant battle for customers against the “big box” stores.
“I started this business with no expectations,” said McGowan, adding that she had not only no retail but also no business experience. “It was really done on a whim. I am a busy person. I like creating things and pulling people together. The business really began to have a life of its own. As long as I’m willing to accept what’s going on and all the changes going on, I just keep going.
It’s always a challenge. It’s not an easy thing to do by any means.”
And McGowan, who is now semi-retired, credits her staff with her store’s continued success in a more difficult economic climate.
“People keep coming back because of how they are treated, and that’s because of my staff,” said McGowan, whose clientele comes from as far as lower Fairfield County and even New York.
“That is our No. 1 thing,” added McGowan. “It’s just my way of doing business. I want to treat everyone as if they are walking into my home. When they come to the front door, we welcome them. We treat them like they’re our next-door neighbor. We want to make them feel special, that we’re happy they are here, and they’re important to us.”
McGowan began her career simply enough, combining her love of craft creation with a country theme for projects she would sell at fairs throughout the area. That led to her being asked to display her wares at Edith Wheeler Memorial Library.
“A lot of people saw that display and contacted me,” recalled McGowan, “so I held a party at my home, and I embellished it with all country-themed items. Then people just started coming by to see what I had left over. They were coming into my basement to look at stuff.”
The intense interest led McGowan to open Country Hearts, which she called a traditional country gift store, offering everything from small novelties to home furnishings, back in 1987.
“I would actually deliver furniture to people’s homes,” said McGowan. “I can still remember carrying furniture up flights of stairs for customers.”
McGowan said the small store quickly outgrew its space and she moved it to her current location at Clock Tower Square.
“Over the years, as trends and styles changed, so did our concept and the items we sold,” said McGowan. “We eventually started to add women’s apparel and accessories to our mix, and a few years ago, I decided to change the name of the store from Country Hearts to Lorraine K.”
And what was two storefronts has become three as Lorraine K. has become one of the largest gift and boutique shops in Fairfield County, even being voted Best Accessory Store by Connecticut Magazine. Over time, McGowan has brought in extensive lines of jewelry, fashion handbags, apparel, gifts, home décor, baby and children’s items, and greeting cards. And names like Brighton and Vera Bradley can be seen throughout the store.
“We want to be everything for people, one-stop shopping,” said McGowan.
But the store is more than just popular name brands. It also offers unique gift ideas, which brings McGowan back to her roots — attending area gift shows with her staff to identify the items they know their clientele will fall in love with.
McGowan said it is this type of personal service that has allowed Lorraine K. to remain vibrant even when faced with a difficult economic climate and the daunting task of facing off against larger chain stores that focus on keeping prices at a bargain-basement level.
That has forced McGowan to branch out, with gift packaging, clothing club cards, loyalty cards, personal stylists, and the popular fashion shows she holds twice a year, one in the spring, another in the fall. To hold the show, McGowan said, she and her staff transform the boutique, creating a mini-runway with raffles and plenty of food for those in attendance.
She also holds an annual early-bird breakfast in December, with customers able to come get a special coupon — available only to those in before the official store opening — and enjoy a special sausage and egg casserole McGowan makes herself the night before.
“It’s just a fun shopping time,” said McGowan, adding that she finally printed the recipe this year to hand out, since she is always asked what makes the casserole so tasty.
With all the success she has enjoyed in business, McGowan said her greatest memories are those times she has spent with her staff, some with her as many as 20 years.
“We just have a lot of fun together,” said McGowan. “We celebrate each other’s birthdays. There are so many times we’ve gotten together, celebrating the things we go through in life, the funny customers, the odd things that go on in retail. My best memories are watching this all grow into what it is today.”