Sonya Gasparian-Janigian has been in the clothing business for “35 years of busy,” as she said Thursday during the kickoff to her open house celebration.
Those 35 years include 27 in Cranston, where she has built up a client base ranging from high school students to 90 year-old wedding-goers.
She said she’s been so successful because the store has had unique products and great customer service, which is why she thinks people keep coming back. She also battled through the tough early years to come out on top.
Now, Gasparian-Janigian has built up a profitable clothing store selling formal/cocktail wear and sportswear, and she’s also opened up Sonya’s Deli on Park Avenue, which is run by her son and daughter and has 18 employees.
Gasparian-Janigian’s story starts with a musical theatre education in college. It wasn’t her passion for theatre that got her into the clothing business, but rather that she began working in a clothing store to pay her bills, and eventually became a manager for a store in Providence. The manager of the Arcade then approached her and suggested she open up her own store there, and so she did.
In 1983 she opened a store selling leather goods, shoes, and accessories, which she said were “very unique” to the Arcade and downtown Providence.
She expanded twice while there, but the city went through a banking crisis and she decided to move to Cranston in 1992, when Garden City was “taking off.” She said this was an important transition for the store, going from an urban to a suburban-type store.
She then moved over to Oaklawn Avenue where she rented a building prior to moving into her current location in 2005, a building that she built and owns on the corner of Garden Hills Drive and Oaklawn Avenue. Gasparian-Janigian said Oaklawn has been good to them because it is so well-traveled, and she thinks it’s the most accessible location for people living in Western Cranston, who she said are some of her best customers.
Her customers hail from across Rhode Island and are “cross-generation,” she said, with high schoolers getting their prom and formal dresses there, then older women getting their sportswear, everyday outfits, or formal wear as well.
With the sportswear, Sonya’s prices range from $18 to $500, she said, while the formal wear can be anywhere from $100 to $1,000.
“We’re connected to the community, people around here know us, we’re definitely a staple,” she said. “People travel from all over to come see us. We have a very good reputation.”
She said that the golden rule is to treat the customers well and listen to them so she can make the right decisions about merchandise. Part of her job is to buy the merchandise online, since Sonya’s doesn’t design any of it. She said she tries to purchase clothing made in the United States, in markets including California and New York, because her customers want to see a tag that says made in America, she believes.
Though she has solely run the business side of the store for the past 35 years, she likes to spend most of her time out on the sales floor, interacting with the women she’s built up strong relationships with. This helps her business prosper, but also has helped her form friendships that has built up a strong network for her.
A challenge she’s faced in recent years has been adapting to the online shopping explosion. She said that her older customers still like to come into the store most of time, but she’s had to build and maintain an e-commerce website to expand her sales. She said her younger staff keep her up to date with social media fashion trends so she can buy the right merchandise for high school and college aged customers.
She’s also had to be flexible with the economy, she said, adjusting her prices and negotiating with her vendors to “give her customers the best deal possible.”
She advises anyone looking to start a business to not “get scared of entrepreneurship.”
“I worked like a crazy person for 5 years,” she said. “70 to 80 hours a week, and there’s no guarantee you’re going to make money after you pay your expenses. Being a business owner doesn’t mean the money’s rolling in. You have to pay your dues and put money back into the business to sustain it through the lean times.”
She also said that for a business like hers, you have to love the customers because “you’re nothing without your customers or your staff.”
Mayor Allan Fung, who visited the store during the open house celebration on Friday, commended Gasparian-Janigian for the business she’s brought to the city.
“Sonya’s is an example of one of the locally-owned family businesses that make up the backbone of Rhode Island’s economy,” he said. “I’m honored to recognize their 35 years of excellent service in the community. I congratulate them and wish them continued success for many years to come.”
Gasparian-Janigian said that the store has taken on a personality of its own, and that’s part of why she’s been successful.
“Loyalty factor is big with our customer base,” she said. “They’d be very sad if the store wasn’t here. It’s not me, it’s bigger than me. The store is its own entity, it has its own personality.”
She’s now 58 years old and has no plans for retirement anytime soon. Rather, she hopes to open a satellite store somewhere in Rhode Island to expand her operations.
For now, she’s gearing up for a new school year, which brings with it homecoming and winter ball. Some of her older customers, however, might be taking off to Florida for the winter, and she’ll be able to provide clothes for that as well.