When Rock Hill small business owner Liz Carlson opened her Rock Hill boutique with a cutesy Southern name, she never expected more than 1 million people to visit her store.
Three years after hatching her clothing line Southern Fried Chics, the 38-year-old single mother has 1.3 million people viewing her products online and receives orders from all over the world every day.
“I still wake up every morning saying ‘wow,’” the Rock Hill native said from her 6,000-square foot distribution center on Ebenezer Road.
The former Rock Hill High School student, who dropped out in ninth grade and began working at age 15, said she started to make her daughter’s clothing because she felt children’s fashions were too “grown-up.”
She bought a sewing machine and taught herself how to sew, sitting on the floor, cutting and ripping apart seams when it wasn’t perfect.
Soon, mothers started asking her to stitch a few outfits for their own tots.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” she said.
She launched a children’s clothing line “Chatti Patti” and sold her designs to boutiques.
Ten years later, Carlson took a handful of her designs for adult women to the Southern Women’s Show, and they sold like hotcakes.
That’s when Southern Fried Chics was born.
“I knew I could make it happen,” she said.
Carlson opened a small boutique in a tiny strip of shops on India Hook Road next to a gas station in 2013, and began selling products from other designers and manufacturers with her own designs in the mix.
Just like many businesses budding in the age of social media, she created a Facebook page.
One day, she posted a picture of a set of bracelets and asked followers to like her page. As an incentive, she would give away the jewelry to a lucky winner.
When she woke up in the morning, she had more than 500 orders for the bracelets and tens of thousands of likes on her page, she said. Within a week, that number swelled to more than 100,000.
“It went viral in one night...It was like a heartbeat, growing bigger and bigger and bigger,” she said, admitting she did not have that many bracelets in stock and had to quickly order more. “I thought it had been a fluke.”
Six months later, she had floods of customers “beating down the door” to get into the store. Her online sales skyrocketed, she said, which meant she had to open a distribution center to house the extra inventory. Often, within hours of posting her inventory online, she would sell out of particular styles, she said.
Last year, she closed the brick-and-mortar shop because it wasn't the focus of the business anymore, since most of her sales were from her online store southernfriedchics.com.
People would drive from other cities, hoping to shop for outfits they saw online, but the boutique on India Hook didn’t have the full inventory and her customers were getting upset, she said.
“Literally everyday, people would show up,” she said.
Carlson has 11 employees – all women – who unpack the tractor trailers full of merchandise, ship orders and manage the website and social media.
Last November, she had about 1,500 orders on Cyber Monday, which they managed to squeeze out with “all hands on deck,” she said.
In 2014, she opened a 3,000 square-foot warehouse, but quickly ran out of space. In 2015, she opened the warehouse on Ebenezer Road.
Customers can still visit the business, which Carlson described as a “trendy, affordable boutique,” to flip through the racks and try on clothes
“It’s not an expensive brand,” said Carlson, who recognizes many women change their wardrobes as the styles change, and they don’t want to spend much money for trendy items they won’t wear for years. “They want to look good for now.”
Carlson sells thousands of brands, including her own designs, which she marketon a larger scale. Nearly a quarter of the inventory is her designs and she opes to expand to include more of her items.
“We have been focusing this year on our own brand,” she said.
Carlson designs many of the products and sends mock-ups to factories in China, that she readily admits could hit a nerve with customers who want to buy products made in America. She said she has used American factories, but says they have all closed.
“Companies like myself don’t have a choice,” she said.
Since starting the business three years ago, Carlson said she has sold roughly $10 million in products and expects to continue growing. She has considered selling to large-scale retailers and has started selling wholesale to smaller boutiques.
Much of the success of the business is because of the range of styles that “offer something for everyone,” Carlson said.
“Putting on a cute outfit can change your mindset,” she said. “I’m about empowering women and making them look good and feel good about themselves.”