Zia's in Stonington proves theory of 'evolution'

Pamela Cullis, co-owner of Zia's, an off-price apparel and accessories shop in Stonington Borough.
Pamela Cullis, co-owner of Zia's, an off-price apparel and accessories shop in Stonington Borough. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Stonington - Zia's has changed with the times.

Or, more specifically, the Stonington Borough off-price apparel and accessories shop has reinvented itself twice in the last eight years to survive difficult fiscal times.

It's not only outlasted the Great Recession, but it has thrived.

In early February, the popular shop moved across the village's main thoroughfare to a newer, brighter location at 132 Water St. that is triple its former size.

Pamela Cullis, who owns the shop with her partner, Mary Greenwald, frequently uses the word "evolution" when she's talking about the business they opened in 2006. That's because almost from the start, Zia's has had to adapt to stay alive.

Cullis had a long career in sales in the jewelry industry in Rhode Island and continued there even after she relocated to southeastern Connecticut in 1999. She commuted to Providence for another six years, until she became disillusioned when mergers of major department stores shut out small jewelry suppliers.

She decided it was time to go into business on her own.

Zia's opened in April 2006 in a miniscule storefront at 129 Water St. that had housed the Bank of Stonington in the 1800s. The space, including the old bank vault, measured 380 square feet.

Right from the start, Cullis knew she had to be creative. She set up "Zia's Vault" in the bank's old safekeeping compartment in a tiny back room to display sale items, oftentimes jewelry and accessories. And she added casual, ready-to-wear apparel, which sold well until the recession took hold in 2007.

When sales took a dive, Cullis made a decision.

"I made a sign and said everything in the store is $10; and Zia's had its first evolution," she said.

Wholesalers had plenty of quality, discounted stock and Cullis scooped it up and passed the savings along to her customers.

"I jumped on an opportunity," she said. "The bigger stores were cutting back on their buying and inventory, and I realized, I can fill this store with $10 goods."

For three years, Cullis says she ran on that concept, until the glut of excess began to dry up and prices started rising.

It was time for another Zia's evolution, and Cullis decided this time to reformulate her shop as an off-price retailer, like a mini TJ Maxx.

Rather than place her orders months in advance like the big stories do, she waits until the last minute and buys at a discount.

If a fashion house makes 50,000 jackets and gets orders for just 45,000 of them, the leftovers go to an off-price wholesaler who sells some of them to Cullis.

"I'm buying the best possible product at the best time at the best price, and I'm getting fabulous stock," she says.

Customers agree. While the winter months are slow for commerce in the borough, in the spring, summer and fall Zia's is a magnet for bargain shoppers.

"Customers know they always get a good bang for their buck here," Cullis says.

The shop's new location - directly across the street from its former space - is a couple of steps up, rather than down, and it's bigger, brighter and more inviting. In addition to clothing, the shop still offers $10 deals on costume jewelry and watches, and some great two-for-$10 bargains, including fashionable easy-reader eyeglasses, novelty socks with animal prints and pashminas.

Most clothing sells in the $35 to $40 range and oftentimes less, with the most expensive items now in stock some high-fashion "Downton Abbey," Sunday-type hats.

Cullis also has added Trinket's Cupboard, a small area offering "fun stuff for dogs," named for Trinket, her puppy rescued by a friend from Virgin Gorda last year. Trinket spends time in the shop, but Zia, Cullis' 13-year-old cat for whom the store is named, "is not a worker" and stays home.

Beginning March 27, Cullis plans to remain open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and would like to see other borough merchants do the same. The Thursday nights will include special events, including dog portraits and kitten adoptions (check the website.)

Cullis and Greenwald have always run the shop themselves, but likely will add staff with the new, expanded space.

And spring is coming, and with it, the return of foot traffic in the borough.

"This is a walking, strolling have a good time kind of place," says Cullis, who also lives in the borough. And when customers return, they likely will be impressed with her new space.

a.baldelli@theday.com

Annette LaPerche, left, of Narragansett, R.I., and Kristie Ripepi of Westerly shop at Zia's, an off-price apparel and accessories shop, in Stonington Borough on March 8.
Annette LaPerche, left, of Narragansett, R.I., and Kristie Ripepi of Westerly shop at Zia's, an off-price apparel and accessories shop, in Stonington Borough on March 8. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Just the facts

WHAT: Zia's

WHO: Owners Pamela Cullis and Mary Greenwald

WHERE: 132 Water St., Stonington

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

EMPLOYEES: With its recent move, Zia's will likely hire its first non-family help this spring.

PHONE: (860) 535-2298

WEBSITE: www.ziasofstonington and on Facebook

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