Avis Rollison: Fashionable Fixture

Longtime Porcupine owner has prospered, even in tough times

Avis Rollison: Fashionable FixtureWhen the economy was slumping in 1976, just as now, Avis Rollison and her thenhusband bought the Porcupine Craft Shop, a gift store in Coligny Plaza. Rollison, who had moved from her native New England, worked days at the gift shop and nights at a restaurant. Those early entrepreneurial days were lean ones, even for a resilient 20-something.

“It was so bad,” Rollison recalled. “We sold both our cars and rode bikes to work.”

Back then, the island had relatively little development compared to now, which had created an area of pioneers. “In the ‘70s, you had to make a job,” she said.

However, Rollison’s original shop, at a mere 1,300 square feet, quickly grew as product lines were added. Native American jewelry was a big hit, drawing such prominent European customers as the Cousteau family of undersea exploration fame.

Shop sales skyrocketed to $225,000 the first year, which was four times the previous owner’s receipts (the store first opened in 1972).

“(The previous owner) was only open 11 to 4. I was open seven days,” Rollison said.

Soon, the Porcupine — whose motto is “A Passion for Fashion” — developed an identity as a women’s fashion store, outgrew its Coligny Plaza space and moved to the Gallery of Shops in 1983. However, a fire destroyed the store’s inventory in 1995, forcing it to a temporary location on New Orleans Road. A year later, the store moved to its current space of 5,200 feet in The Village at Wexford.

“There’s a real learning curve in the beginning,” Rollison said. “A lot of people don’t make it through the third year… I came from an entrepreneurial background.”

Rollison’s family members have owned beauty shops, restaurants and car and antique dealerships. Business was “dinner-table talk” when she was growing up.

Today, Porcupine carries a full line of highend apparel and employs more than a dozen full- and part-time employees. The store has become a fixture in the community. Many long-time customers have followed the store to its different locations over the years.

Few retailers have proven immune from the present economic downturn — which has been widely referred to as the worst since the 1930s — and from the depressed consumer spending that has resulted.

“In the fall, the bottom fell out of the economy, and the luxury business took a hit,” Rollison said. “The age of opulence is over.”

The National Retail Federation, an industry group, reported that sales of clothing and clothing accessories rose 2.8 percent nationwide in February over the previous month. Rollison’s sales followed that trend. After slowing last fall and into January, sales “picked up quite a bit” starting in late February.

Like other retailers, Rollison has lowered prices, and she’s found creative ways to bring more traffic to her store. In May, for instance, she promoted monogramming and personalizing of jewelry and handbags.

“This, I thought, was perfect for between Mother’s Day and graduation,” she said. “It’s all about coming up with a strategy and a plan.

“We’ve been confronted with the outlets for years,” she said. “[But] the Internet has probably been my biggest competition.”

Web merchandising has chewed into the business of traditional stores. According to the Retail Federation, clothing first overtook computers at the top of the online sales charts in 2007. Online sales of apparel, accessories and footwear were expected to hit $22.1 billion that year, representing 10 percent of all clothing sales.

"The thing that ‘bricks and mortar’ stores still offer is service,” Rollison said. “You can touch and feel the product and try it on. Stores have personalities and auras that you can’t find on the Internet. There’s a fashion culture.”

She has built her customer base around three groups: year-round islanders, “snowbirds” and other part-time residents and tourists.

“Everybody’s a tourist first,” she noted.

Carol Eisenman, a year-rounder, said selection and the people are why she and her three daughters always visit the store when her daughters visit from Chicago.

Jenny Greer of Knoxville, Tenn., said she and family members shop at The Porcupine during each of their three or four island visits per year. Greer has shopped at the store for almost 20 years. She said the current economy has really taught her the virtues of quality goods.

“You try to buy things that last longer. You try to shop smart,” she said as she examined colorful spring dresses (“yellow is in”).

Despite the recession, a few new clothing stores recently have opened on Hilton Head.

Rollison has this advice for their owners: “If you can make it through tough times, your business will explode as the economy picks up. The way you did business in the last century is not the way you do business in this century.”

For more information, call The Porcupine at (843) 785-2779 or visit the Web site porcupinestyle.com.