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Fall 2004 Sugar and Spice

The seductive scent of rich soaps and potpourri envelops you… the sultry, soothing sound of Ella Fitzgerald greets you… and then you catch a glimpse of a beautiful array of feminine floral prints: sundresses, skirts, tops and hats draped on wooden displays or set inside unexpected, even unconventional props—a vintage car, a portion of a staircase. This is Cinnamon Girl, and these are the looks Cinnamon Girl is known for. “How clever,” you think; “How charming.” And you’re hooked.

So are most of the shoppers who visit the company’s Hawaii stores. Just ten years old, the women’s and girls’ apparel store has quite a following. In addition to a customer base that’s a perfect blend of locals and tourists, Cinnamon Girl has its celebrity devotées—actress Kelly Preston, tennis greats Steffi Graf and André Agassi, singer LeAnn Rimes—even comedian Adam Sandler has been in.

What makes Cinnamon Girl so special? “We try not to have it look like a store,” says Jonelle Fujita, Cinnamon Girl’s founder and president. “We want to take the customer away, into our world, where it’s romantic, rustic, classic and timeless.” In fact, Fujita chose the name Cinnamon Girl “because I wanted a name that was warm and sunny,” she says. “I wanted people to feel comfortable and at home in my stores.”

Cinnamon, warm, fragrant spice; girl, young and feminine. “For many of our customers, Cinnamon Girl is a lifestyle,” says her husband Reid Fujita, the company’s CEO. In fact, customers don’t buy just the clothing, they buy the displays right off the wall. And they buy accessories like hair clips, hats, jewelry, and small gifts and home décor items such as vases, frames and candles.

Do what you love

imageWhat has become a lifestyle began as Jonelle’s brainchild. After graduating from the University of Hawaii with a degree in sociology and working as a counselor for a time, she realized that wasn’t the career she wanted. “I decided that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to do what I know,” she says. And what she knew—and loved—was sewing, drawing and creating.

As a child on Oahu, she watched her mother crochet and macramé handbags and tie-dye matching mother-daughter tops to sell at local craft fairs. Jonelle took sewing and pattern-making classes at an early age, which led to her making mother-daughter doll dresses and, later, dresses for herself. So it’s no surprise that she ultimately relied on those skills and talents as the basis of a business.

For her, 1994 was pivotal. That was the year she began making sundresses from fabric she bought from shops selling overruns. And just as her mother had done years before, she started selling her handmade dresses at craft fairs. One or two fairs a month generated enough sales to keep her busy sewing dresses the rest of the time. But “I wanted a more permanent location, so that I could control the environment,” she says.

She got her chance that November, when she opened a 100-sq. ft. kiosk in the Aloha Tower Marketplace mall. She decorated the one wall she had in ways that reflected the style and personality of her company. She also started contracting out some of the sewing, in order to staff the kiosk from morning to night herself.

At first there were days she sold nothing, but within a year, she was regularly selling 15 to 20 dresses a day at $60 to $90 each. Japanese travelers in particular loved the styles, and word of Cinnamon Girl spread quickly among the tourist trade. Within six months, Jonelle had established a solid local customer base, and an article in a tourism magazine mentioning Cinnamon Girl further boosted the store’s tourist trade.

The kiosk had been a great stepping stone for the company: a permanent location where Jonelle could build a customer base and prove the concept to the mall owner before moving to larger, more costly space. Being in a building complete with at least four walls was her dream; being able to paint the walls, bring in larger merchandising units, pipe in mood-setting music, and infuse the air with sweet product scents was her goal. By mid-1995 she had achieved it: a storefront in that same mall. Cinnamon Girl blossomed.

The pleasing sights, sounds and scents, the colorful island-infused merchandise, and a friendly, helpful sales staff pushed the company to the next level of success. Then in 1996, Jonelle married Reid Fujita; in 1998, Reid sold his media company and joined Cinnamon Girl full-time, taking charge of operations and thereby enabling Jonelle to stay focused on design, buying and merchandising.

Eye for style

imageThe chief designer—the woman who garners kudos for both design and merchandising savvy—is still Jonelle Fujita. In addition to designing the company’s 35-plus dress styles, she designs some of the floral-print fabrics the dresses come in… does all of the buying for the stores… and creates the in-store displays.

The first Cinnamon Girl dresses were made of rayon crepe, and sold for around $60. Over time, she added several upscale fabrics to the line: rayon georgette dresses were introduced in 2003, and silk dresses in 2004, selling for $80-$140.

As the fabric selection increased, so too has the variety of merchandise. Rather than copy what leading retailers and trend-watchers believe will be the “hot” product of the season, Jonelle purposely tries to stay away from the pack. “She tries to buy things that other stores aren’t [buying],” says Reid, “and when they become too popular, she pulls back.” She’s a leader, not a follower, and “a really good buyer,” he says. “So our stores have quirky items that really add to the experience.”

Golden girl

imageWhat began as one store is now a chain of six, all in Hawaii: four on Oahu and two on Maui. And soon,if all goes according to plan, Cinnamon Girl will hit Southern California: the Fujitas aim to have three to five stores there within the next two or three years.

Today, Cinnamon Girl is the golden child of the retail industry. This “tiny” chain is also known for strong sales. Last year, customers spent between $6 million and $8 million at Cinnamon Girl. The $1,100 average sales per sq. ft. is well above the $400 average for non-anchor mall stores nationally, according to Fortune Small Business.

It’s “one of the few new, unique apparel concepts out there,” says Jon-Eric Greene, senior VP with Colliers, a commercial real-estate firm based in Honolulu, as quoted in Fortune Small Business (3/1/04). And mall owners everywhere want her: Cinnamon Girl regularly gets calls from malls nationwide that are trying to woo the company to their locations—to no avail so far.

The company has had steady double-digit growth every year since its start. For an up-and-coming enterprise, that’s not lightning-speed growth—but it is by choice. While retail experts say the company could quadruple its size, and franchising or licensing arrangements could boost its sales figures exponentially, the Fujitas aren’t interested. One of their concerns is that too many stores too fast could weaken the Cinnamon Girl experience and put stress on their infrastructure. In their view, fast growth carries the potential for inattentive employees, lackluster ambience, sloppy merchandising and other ills. Instead, they’ve opted for slow and steady company-owned expansion, one or two stores a year, to ensure profitability and the level of quality and style that Cinnamon Girl has become known for.

But their conservative stance applies only to brick-and-mortar expansion, not online sales. The Fujitas launched the Cinnamon Girl Web site three years ago, and online revenue climbed 1,400 percent in that time. A large portion of the company’s online sales come from tourists—from Japan, Missouri or anywhere—who fall in love with the breezy fashions they saw in Hawaii, and decide to buy more once they’re back home. The appeal of Cinnamon Girl is universal, Fujita says.

Sweet success

Staying focused on the signature Cinnamon Girl look and feel is a company hallmark. Never complacent, the company is always looking for ways to enhance every aspect of its operations—a competitive advantage few retailers match. “One of our core values is ‘lemons to lemonade,’” says Reid, referring to their emphasis on continuous improvement. A little sugar, a little spice, stirred slowly and served up island-style: Cinnamon Girl’s recipe for success.

Marcia Layton Turner -- Turner writes frequently for business publications. Her work has appeared in Business Week, Business 2.0, MyBusiness and numerous trade magazines. She is also the author of Emeril! (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

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