In the window of UAL (518 Chartres St. 504-301-4437; 2033 N. Hwy. 190, Covington, 985-871-0749; www.shopual.com) in the French Quarter, a Jimmy Choo cage stiletto sits before a display of mannequins dressed in red-and-black graphic prints. This shoe, dresses and other items are part of the collection of fashion-pieces-cum-art objects available via the apparel liquidator.
"We can help find something in everybody's budget," says store manager Ashlee Davis. "It doesn't have to be that $500 dress, we can find a $50 dress for you, and it might be a couture brand that's been marked down. [We offer] couture and those art pieces for everyone."
Since 1981, UAL has grown from a single Hattiesburg, Mississippi, boutique to a Southern mini-chain, with five stores in locations ranging from Nashville, Tennessee, to Austin, Texas. The store offers deep discounts on clothes, shoes and accessories from high-end labels such as Chanel and Alexander McQueen. A team of buyers curates the collection by selecting on-trend pieces from boutiques and upscale department stores.
UAL's racks and walls showcase the latest fashions. The crop tops, boho chic pieces and distressed denim of the last few seasons currently appear in the store, as do pastels and exaggerated prints.
"Every [incoming shipment] is like Christmas morning, or a surprise, because you don't know what's going to be in that box," Davis says. "That's really fun."
Davis comes from a background at corporate retailers like J. Crew and Gap Inc. She joined UAL in February this year as part of her ongoing quest not to sit behind a desk all day. In the store, she's a hands-on manager, unpacking boxes of new inventory that arrive daily, taking markdowns and organizing the store's constantly changing collection.
The boutique's Chartres Street location is a unique, advantageous spot for a discount retailer. Though some French Quarter shops cater to tourists, with prices that reflect that free-spending market, UAL has a regular clientele of locals who stop by every week to see new merchandise. During the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, many festival attendees visited the boutique.
"[These customers] have learned about us from their friends, and when they ask 'What all do we need to do in New Orleans?,' [their friends say] 'Come to UAL,'" Davis says. "They make it a point to come in."
Davis supervises a growing staff which includes several new associates. She's teaching them to listen to customers and to help them build on their style. With a strong customer-to-associate ratio, service at UAL is personalized.
As store manager, Davis aspires to convert everyone who walks in the door into a regular.
"We truly love fashion here; [the difference between us and other retailers] is the person that's helping [the customer]," she says. 'There's a million places to shop or work, and we educate [the customers] on why they should choose us."