Boutiques are popping up all over Fresno and Clovis, selling everything from $249 Milanese silk dresses to cowboy hats with wedding veils attached.
Some say that's good news for everyone -- even consumers who can't tell Versace from Vuitton.
That's because boutiques -- small, specialized stores that typically sell clothing or other fashion items -- can be seen as early indicators of a reviving economy, business experts say. With low startup costs and staffing needs, boutiques are agile enough to capitalize on pent-up demand from customers who may soon be eager to spend.
"That is your first signal," said Tim Stearns, director of the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at California State University, Fresno. More people getting involved in the startup process is a sign that the economy may be about to improve.
Dozens of boutiques of varying types have opened over the past six months or so. Some are new, like the It's All About Me boutique in Old Town Clovis, which opened in December. Others are expansions or new concepts, like Weekend in Paris, a reincarnation of the former Rosa Klein Fashions in a new location at Herndon and Willow avenues.
Boutique owners and industry experts say the influx results from low rents and diminished competition. And while it's still a challenging time to open any business, some say customers are starting to spend again.
Way Out West owner Kim Bradley said the timing was perfect for her to open her western-themed shop in Old Town Clovis three weeks ago. The Pollasky Avenue space, formerly home to a comic book store, was vacant -- and the rent was affordable.
"If the economy was really good, the space wouldn't be available," she said. "The rent was real negotiable."
The stage was set by the loss of many independently owned boutiques during the recession. Mona Lisa Fashions, Apricot Lane, Retro Rag and P.J. Barrett's all closed.
"We've had a forest fire, and a lot of companies have been cleaned out," Stearns said. "When you've had a cleansing process due to a bad economy, now is a chance to jump in."
Landlords with empty shops are offering deals throughout the area, said Steve Fisher, vice president in the retail division of CB Richard Ellis, which helps broker leases between shop owners and landlords.
"Favorable leases are everywhere you look," he said, and rates are about 20% lower than they were two years ago.
That was the case with Spoiled, a women's clothing and accessories boutique that opened in March at Herndon Avenue and First Street near TGI Friday's.
Owner Caroline Gezalyan has a one-year lease. In good times, leases typically run from three to five years, Fisher said. There'd be no chance a shop owner could get a one-year lease during the economic boom a few years ago, he said.
Once a boutique does open, it's still important that owners differentiate themselves from competitors, even if there are fewer competitors.
Bradley said she tries to keep prices low and sell products no one else has. Those include cuff bracelets with pistols on them and chocolate-covered raisins grown on her parents' farm in Madera.
She's offering ways to personalize gifts, including printing images and text on T-shirts, mouse pads and mugs. She also offers customized gift baskets, embroidery, vinyl window clings and glass etching.
The owner of Eleganza, a women's clothing and shoe store that opened last Saturday in River Park, said she's bringing runway-inspired fashions to Fresno that are difficult to find elsewhere in town.
Ivana Egbuna said she believes residents shouldn't have to leave town to buy high-end imported dresses and handmade Italian snakeskin shoes.
Egbuna, born in Belgrade, is the daughter of a former Miss Yugoslavia. Her mother also owns a boutique in Belgrade, and Egbuna spent her childhood tagging along on visits to fashion shows and clothing manufacturers in cities like Paris and Milan.
"I'm trying to bring some of that to Fresno," she said. "I think Fresno needs something like that."
Stearns, the Fresno State business expert, points out that many affluent shoppers in the Fresno area have not been hurt by the economy.
And Egbuna has seen some of those consumers in her store.
"I don't think it's really that bad of an economy," she said, citing a woman who recently bought a pair of shoes costing several hundred dollars without checking the price.
Owners of new boutiques are well aware, however, that consumers remain very cost-conscious.
At retail stores across the United States, weekly sales figures have bumped along this year, increasing slightly week over week, with some scattered downward dips, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
The economic downturn is still a heavy weight on many families. Fresno County's unemployment rate still stands at 15.9%, and many people have less money to spend on basics like food or college tuition. That means less money to spend at boutiques, said Fisher of CB Richard Ellis.
He said not every new boutique will survive.
"It makes it doubly difficult for those small businesses to be successful," he said. "They're also selling into a market where many people just don't have the discretionary income for it."
While people are still careful about how much they buy, they're spending more than they were in the depths of the recession -- particularly women who have a passion for shopping, said Leslie Gee, owner of It's All About Me.
"Most women care about how they feel and how they think they look," she said. "We still try to buy something for ourselves, if not weekly, at least monthly."