Expanding horizons – Sari Turner and Michele Percy balance the challenges of a successful local retail store with a global online boutique

See some of the designer looks from NK Boutique and evesapple.com.

Sari Turner loves a challenge. On her time away from NK Boutique and evesapple.com—a global e-commerce site she built from the ground up with business partner Michele Percy—she’s not content fishing in a placid lake. She’s in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, angling for a 1,000-pound marlin. Turner’s “other love”—pursuing the powerful and elusive marlin—isn’t so unlike her journey with evesapple.com.

“It exhibits her tenacity,” says Nanette Kadair Culotta, original owner of what is now NK Boutique and current employee of the company. Culotta was aboard when Turner spent hours reeling in her record-breaking 650-pound marlin. The experience was both breathtaking and exhausting to watch, she says.

Culotta first established Nanette Kadair Ltd. in 1986 as a shoe store. She soon began to carry apparel. Business took off, and Culotta found her niche. Percy, a teenager at the time, worked for Culotta for several years. After building a highly successful trunk show business at Nanette Kadair Ltd., Culotta decided it was time to sell. “I’d been in retail my whole life, and it was just time.” Turner, who was previously well-known for her philanthropic and volunteer work throughout Baton Rouge, bought the business, rebranded it as NK Boutique, and moved the placard to Corporate Boulevard.

Culotta says Turner quickly took the successful business to another level by expanding product lines and pursuing exclusive brands. Several years went by before Percy, by then a college graduate with several years of experience in the workforce, approached Turner about a partnership. Very soon after Percy came on board as a part-owner in 2009, Turner and Percy decided to launch an e-commerce site to sell higher-end designer clothes and accessories to a global market. Turner took the helm on the virtual side while Percy managed the bricks-and-mortar store on Corporate.

Not knowing any better, Turner chose to go big right off the bat by including every item in the store and in the warehouse on the website, in detail, and aiming to capture a global audience rather than a local one. She figured it would be just as much work to do a big, wonderful site than a small site. “And I was completely and totally wrong.”

Turner had very high expectations of how she wanted the site to look and function. “I really wanted the photography to be different. I felt like when I shopped online, I couldn’t see the clothes,” she says.

Her research led her to a new company called ImproTech in the Czech Republic that had photographic equipment that allows a full 360-degree look at the product with no blur factor. “There was only one other site in the world that I knew of that used this, and it was in Germany,” she says. She and Percy were originally going to work with the people who built that site, but a company in the U.S., Snap 36, obtained the distribution rights for the photography software right in time for them to buy it.

Coincidentally, Percy’s husband worked for Scene7, a division of Adobe that specializes in dynamic online graphics, so he was able to help create the rich visual environment Turner was after. Customers can spin each product to see it from every angle and zoom in to get clear images of finer details.

It wasn’t planned this way, but evesapple.com got its launch in 2009 during one of the worst economic depressions on record. At the same time, Culotta, who had been enjoying a profitable business as a Realtor and builder, returned to her roots as an employee of Turner and Percy.

Turner was undaunted by the state of the economy. “I believe the time to innovate and take risks is during the bad times,” she says. “We were able to realize opportunities and get noticed when things weren’t happening.”

Development of the evesapple.com site entailed a steep learning curve for Turner, who had to acquire the language of website developers to articulate her vision for the site. When all else failed, which it often did, Turner and her staff of “little fighters” taught themselves to be amateur programmers. “We were always coming up with code to get what we wanted,” she says.

“I feel like I’ve sort of lived in a computer for three years. There were times when I worked 20 hours a day and slept four hours,” she says. About six months into the building of evesapple.com, Turner says, it became very obvious that it was a lot more work to do a big site than a small one.

“During those tough times, everyone who works here was amazingly dedicated. They went the extra mile, worked the extra hours, stuck through it and worked so hard,” Turner says. “The people who work here came together against all odds and never gave up.” And as for herself, she reveals, “I’d never been that kind of risk-taker before,” adding, “For the first time in my life, I allowed myself the freedom to say, ‘We have no choice but to try this program.’ ”

Now, evesapple.com is up and running beautifully, and you’d never know by looking at it how much blood, sweat and tears went into getting that Rebecca Taylor sequin dress to twirl and zoom.

With more than 120 designers available online, evesapple.com offers a selection comparable to major online retailers like Saks and Neiman Marcus. “There are very few online boutique stores that are visually as beautiful as we are with the number of designers we have on our site,” Turner says.

Although it is sort of like they’re competing with the majors, she says, that’s not what evesapple.com is really trying to be. “We edited product lines in a way that we think is unique and special, and we wanted to be able to share that with people all over the world. We want to be more personal and look different and for our fashion viewpoint to come through,” she says. “We don’t think from a Southern point of view, but a worldly point of view.” Cultivating an international shopping base daily, the site’s largest online market is New York, followed by California, Canada and Australia.

While Turner has been honing her skills as an Internet mogul, Percy has been holding down the fort, adding a new store or two along the way. Turner says NK Boutique has flourished beyond their expectations, citing Percy as fundamental to that success. Sales were skyrocketing on Corporate Boulevard and the website too, but, says Percy, “Every time we get a good steady flow, we decide to amp it up and add something new into the mix.”

In August 2012, NK Boutique opened a second store, on Magazine Street in New Orleans. It didn’t take long for that store to be named by Elle magazine as the “Top Shop” in the Crescent City. Sales were going fabulously. Then the building was sold this past spring and the new owner wanted the boutique space for offices. Turner and a pregnant Percy decided to close the New Orleans location rather than relocate.

In the meantime, the duo determined to utilize the extra space they already had on Perkins Road, allowing customers the chance to “shop the warehouse,” Percy says. The newly opened location, adjacent to the Southdowns Shopping Center, has a black curtain separating the storefront from the warehouse, from where evesapple.com operates. There, Photoshop wizard Madeline Taylor works her magic editing 500 images a day. Flashbulbs frequently illuminate the space, and thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise is shipped across the world each day.

Turner believes that the more places your goods are available, the better your chances of success—hence the great growth in sales of evesapple.com. She’s got a perfect partner in Percy, who knows that retail is her strong suit. “I love getting to dress a lot of women in Baton Rouge, which is something you miss out on with the Web experience,” says Percy. “You just don’t get to see their excitement about finding the great outfit.”

NK Boutique offers exclusive lines in Baton Rouge, like Kate Spade and Tory Burch ready-to-wear shoes and handbags, 3.1 Phillip Lim, 10 Crosby Derek Lam, B Brian Atwood shoes, Nanette Lepore, Milly and Rebecca Taylor. Culotta attributes the lines they carry to NK’s longevity in the marketplace.

“I think NK is a different shopping experience than any other store,” Percy says. “We’re one of the oldest contemporary retail businesses in the city, and we’ve maintained the same customer base since Nanette owned it, which is pretty amazing.”

As for Culotta, who started the store more than 25 years ago, she says things have come full circle. She would have never dreamed she’d be back working for the company she started, with her former employee as her boss. Culotta is now the buyer for the stores, traveling eight weeks a year, often to New York. It’s a big responsibility, and she says she doesn’t know how to respond to business any way other than throwing herself in as though she were an owner. But, while ownership does have its tremendous perks, Culotta says she can go home and sleep at night. At this juncture, she says it’s right where she wants to be.

Turner describes their success in the online business world, and her overall achievement with evesapple.com as “absolutely and totally different than I thought it would be.” She adds, “You can follow your dreams and take chances and risks and do something you want to do at any age.” She cites her two daughters as a huge motivation for her to keep going, even when she felt like giving up. “It’s important to empower women and give them an opportunity to work in a field that’s male- dominated,” she says.

Not surprisingly, after spending seven weekends of summer 2013 at various marlin tournaments, breaking her own records and placing high in the rankings, Turner keeps returning to the Gulf for the next big thing. And just like her relentless pursuit of the marlin, her focus on NK Boutique and evesapple.com never wavers.

“One thing I never do is give up. It is my strength and can be my weakness. I have learned that from fishing and business,” says Turner. “Make adjustments, breathe a little more, listen to the mates telling me what to do and learning from it—when the fish is at the boat and then takes half the reel of line out again, not giving up, but start reeling it in again.”