Blackbird: Great heights

One merchant’s unique vision makes Blackbird soar.

2011 Uptown Downtown AwardsNicole Miller’s passion for retailing—not only for the four stores and e-commerce site she currently operates, but for her ideas yet to be turned into realities—is evident from the start.

“The worst part of my job is that I want to do so much! I get impatient. I would love to spend two hours a day with every employee and spend more time talking to vendors. If I had more time I could do things perfectly, but sometimes instead of waiting I just give it a shot. Luckily I don’t have a fear of making mistakes. It makes me vulnerable, but at the same time it helps me get great results quickly.”

Nicole Miller BlackbirdAfter growing up around the business (mom worked in the local department store and got her daughter a job in the dressing room), Miller worked in e-commerce when e-commerce was just getting started, answering e-mails from Nordstrom customers with shopping dilemmas. “My boss would literally print the e-mails and hand them out to us. We didn’t even have digital pictures, so I had to sell by describing the items! With menswear, everything was very technical; I liked explaining the lapels, the collars. And the guys were serious about buying. When they contacted us, they really did need help.”

Becoming a store owner herself was a happy accident. After she helped a friend start his retail business in 2004, he soon realized it wasn’t his thing and turned the reigns over to Miller. Blackbird quickly won fans among locals and international fashionistas alike with its unique five pricepoint strategy and clear merchandising: least expensive to most expensive, from left to right. Wovens range from $55 to $950 (for Japanese imports), and leather jackets go up to $4,000.

But, insists Miller, “Our best customer, the one we think about most, is the average neighborhood guy. He might only spend $600 a year, but we’re more interested in him than those big fashion customers. Big customers take care of themselves. It’s interesting to look at the receipts because a guy will buy a $250 T-shirt and a $75 pair of jeans. What that really means is he comes in, he finds things that work in his life, and that’s what he picks up, versus a specific agenda we’re trying to push. We’re progressive in how we buy, but we are approachable and real in our retailing and how we interact.”

In addition to Blackbird and the just-opened 600 sq. ft. Ballard in Portland, Oregon (a tightly refined collection Miller calls “the blackest of Blackbird”), she also owns a 500 sq. ft. unisex apothecary store upstairs from Blackbird, currently her fastest growing business. And at The Field House, opened in late 2009, you can find heritage-inspired and vintage clothing, along with “our own pocket knife, sewing kits in Mason jars, books, movies, furniture, old tools, locally made coffee and honey…but it’s not an Americana type store; it’s more ‘I’ve traveled the world,'” Miller explains. “For all of the stores, I look for the smallest brands possible and niche, handcrafted items. If a company gets too big, it’s just not fun to buy that anymore. I’m a small business, and I want to support small businesses.”

Amazingly, she still finds time to operate an e-commerce site, blackbirdballard.com, which accounts for 45 percent of Blackbird’s sales. “The thing about e-commerce or any kind of online presence is that you need a whole staff. People who are thinking of getting into e-commerce have another thing coming. Are you going to pay a full-time photographer? Is all your equipment up to date? Even with all that I understand coming from an e-commerce background, I don’t get how people do it. It’s a separate and completely different business, but I’ve been committed to it from the beginning. It gives the store stability: if the store is having a bad day, the website is having a good one. We usually end up with a nice little hum of business.”

In addition to the sale site, in early 2005 Miller started one of the first retail fashion blogs in the U.S., helloblackbird.blogspot.com. Though she hasn’t changed much about either site since, the designs are slated to be overhauled in the near future. “We have some new ideas no one else is doing, so we just have to implement them without putting a strain on our company.”

Despite being a cult favorite with throngs of international fans, Miller insists that Blackbird isn’t trying to take over the world. “We don’t want to be in New York or San Francisco or L.A. Opening Portland was special because they need us and they want us there. We’re just trying to sell some shirts and meet some nice people and have a good time.”

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