Lauren Elmore was working as a district sales manager for Jones Apparel Group, now known as Nine West Holdings, in 2009 when “everything went sideways for a lot of companies.”
The Great Recession caused retail sales to drop sharply. Plus, Elmore had a 9-year-old son, and the company she worked at wanted her to travel almost every day. So she began looking for a position that would better accommodate her family.
That’s when Elmore says she found a job listing on Craigslist for a small store in south Durham that was looking for somebody to work Thursdays. “And my schedule was wide open,” says Elmore, who grew up in Wilmington and spent her senior year of high school in Raleigh.
Elmore got the job and became friendly with the store owner, who she says didn’t live in North Carolina. The owner was planning to close the store because it wasn’t generating any revenue — unless, Elmore says, Elmore was interested in doing something with it.
“I was up for the challenge,” she says. “I took over the store, changed locations, eventually rebranded to the name MODE, and then I moved it to Downtown Durham, that was my
About a year and a half later, she says, MODE bought a second location in Cameron Village, now called Village District, near downtown Raleigh.
“And we’ve just continued to expand and grow from there,” Elmore, now 44, says.
The store has faced its fair share of challenges – like when it was forced to relocate to a temporary space as new projects arrived in the Village District last year. The move came on the heels of a major rebrand for the store, Elmore wrote, in addition to the new, permanent site for the store being upfitted.
To ensure customers and consignors continued following the store despite all the chaos, the staff had to think fast. MODE staff got to work on flyers, announcements and banners to alert customers about the shifts, Elmore wrote, and offered incentives for people to visit the temporary location, like a raffle and gift card giveaway.
With the support of loyal customers and dedicated staff, MODE’s sales skyrocketed beyond its record-breaking 2021 numbers and hit almost $2 million.
Why did you select the name, MODE?
When I was rebranding, there was a lot of pressure. I’m like, “Oh, what if I pick a name and everybody thinks it’s stupid, and I think it’s the coolest thing ever.” I have no marketing background, so I was also thinking about how this [name] would look on business cards and on a sign on the front of the store. I wanted to keep it simple. The word “mode” means fashion in French, and I just thought it was fun, easy and relatable. The word looked really cute in print when I was playing around with it. It’s really not much more than that.
What resources did you use when you reopened the store?
I didn’t qualify for the Raleigh up-fit grant because I already had permits and things when the grant became available. I had already started a few things, which automatically disqualified me.
Through COVID, I definitely got some assistance with Paycheck Protection Program loans and Small Business Administration loans, just the general stuff that I think a lot of small businesses used. That definitely helped me get back on track to be able to run my business profitably.
Really, when I did upfits or remodels with my store, luckily I had enough personal capital to fund it myself. But it’s always good to look for any grants you can get. I’m always on the prowl for stuff.
Why did you decide to focus on reused clothing?
For a long time there was a stigma against thrifting, if you will. I remember being a teenager and going to Goodwill — and I didn’t do that a whole lot with my friends, but we always thought it was fun to see what we could find. Finally, through boutiques like mine, we’ve kind of mainstreamed this reuse concept to where it’s not shameful anymore to buy used clothing.
You hear a lot of the older generation talk about their stories. If they came up in poverty, they say, “Well, we never got new clothes.” It was a sad thing, obviously. But this has definitely shifted to where it’s [buying reused clothing] healthy for the environment. It doesn’t have a stigma attached to it anymore and it can really be fun. We have a carefully curated selection of clothing in our stores to make it a really great experience.
What sets MODE apart from other thrift stores?
Logistically, just like operations, we’re different. Plato’s Closet (a Minneapolis-based chain with more than 370 used clothing stores) buys your clothes outright at a really low price, and you never have to deal with them or see them again. I think they also cater a little bit more to the younger, junior crowd.
But we have a huge demographic of people that shop in our store. We have the moms bringing in the high school girls wanting their first pair of designer shoes, all the way up to our old lady friends that need their church outfits, and everything in between.
We cater to every single female fashion out there. Anybody can come in our door and find something because we have so many amazing brands.
What challenges did you face during the pandemic?
We were closed for 56 days, in both locations. During that time, I was in panic mode, not knowing if we were going to be able to reopen or how to reopen. There are a lot of people that work for me who have families.
That really weighed heavy on my shoulders – how was I going to take care of my employees? Am I going to have to let half of the staff go just to keep the store afloat? There were a lot of unknowns that were really scary when we were closed. When we got the order from the governor that we could reopen, we opened that day. I was like, “Let’s go guys.” And we figured it out.
Financially, we had a huge hit. Obviously, there was zero money coming in. Money was still going out to pay the landlord and the electric bill and all the things that you need to just keep a building.
When we closed the store, it was March. We reopened in mid-May. So when we closed the store, we had a bunch of late winter and some early spring items, and everything just sat stagnant until we reopened in May. Then all of a sudden, it was summertime. We didn’t even have the proper inventory to sell, so that was a challenge in itself.
How have your sales trended since then?
We have, since our reopening, continuously had double-digit increases year over year, which is just more than I could have hoped for or imagined would happen.
Have people bought into the concept of MODE as a social-driven business?
Everybody that comes into the store has a different mission. Some people shop at my stores because they only buy second-hand, and we’re one of many that they shop in.
Some people come to my stores because they like really nice things and they’re on a budget – so they like the price points. And they don’t care if it’s used or new or whatever. It’s on sale, it’s the price point that works for them.
Some people like the balance where they can consign and buy, and they use their store credit. It’s almost like a swap they can trade out. That drives a lot of people to come in.
It’s not just one mission that we’re putting out there. It’s amazing that we’re a part of the circular economy – that part makes me feel like I’m doing something really great, not just going to work.
But my personal passion is retail and sales, and the customer-facing part of it. It’s my favorite thing to be on my sales floor. That fills my cup. When I’m in my flow is when I’m on my sales floor, and I’m talking to customers, and they find something that they love that fits them perfectly. ■