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Piece de resistance

The tale of three retailers whose stores brim with great gifts—and optimism

By Rod Lee, d.b.a. Magazine

Lest anyone think that the local holiday retailing season—a la the national one—will amount to a complete bust (if the projections of economic experts are correct), consider the optimism voiced over the past few weeks by Donna Cina of Dizzi Donna’s in West Boylston, Gary Vaillancourt of Vaillancourt Folk Art in Sutton and Rocco Froio of Rocco’s Gentlemen’s Clothing in Worcester.

Cina launched Dizzi Donna’s, a gift shop that is chock full of “my favorite things,” in late September. A little over two months into her first such commercial venture here in Central Massachusetts, Cina is seeing people beat a fairly steady path to her door. The reason? Merchandise of the most scintillating kind, winsomely arrayed in premises initially made famous by “Basket Case” (an institution on West Boylston Street that was operated by her niece, Lisa Tee): Godiva chocolates, Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries, Peggy Karr glass, Illume and Kobo candles, vintage and antique buttons, Pilgrim jewelry, Baggalini bags, Wallaroo hats, Not Your Daughter’s Jeans (which are flying out of the shop), all-organic yarn sweaters, Troll beads (“every bead has a story”) and a line of baby items that is “phenomenal—to name a few examples.

Cina has even managed to incorporate a men’s section featuring “cool things for the office” (wallets, paperweights, etc.) into the mix.

And, there’s a whole gourmet food section.

Gift baskets, which make for great corporate-sector gifts, are a cornerstone of her store, Cina said.

It’s no wonder, she says, that “the response to my store has been wonderful so far.”

Cina spent a year and a half traveling far and wide (from the Cape to Maine, to San Francisco and to other destinations) before opening Dizzi Donna’s (so named because she felt woozy after a shopping expedition on a hot summer day). She says, “I don’t allow that talk in here” when predictions of rough times for retailers are brought up. “I stay positive and friendly.”

Cina’s approach mirrors that of Gary and Judi Vaillancourt, whose folk-art store—now situated in the Manchaug Mills complex—recently marked a 25th anniversary. In celebration of that milestone, Vaillancourt Folk Art introduced its new “Et Cetera” line—innovative products designed to carry the Vaillancourt brand to new heights.

Typical of these gift pieces, which draw on Judi Vaillancourt’s creative genius, is a Knickerbocker Christmas-like painting Judi did that has been replicated on prints, jewelry boxes, coasters, coffee mugs, dinner plates and serving trays.

A gingerbread Halloween builds on the same theme of innovation that has been a hallmark of the Vaillancourt success story. As Gary Vaillancourt says, “Our strength is Judi’s designs.”

Not long ago, he said, Judi responded to the urge of, “I want a Nantucket Santa.” And so they added one, complete with a Nantucket Basket on its back. “We don’t have a dealer, we don’t have a store on Nantucket, but our Internet business, through our website, is huge” for this item, Vaillancourt said.

“How do you survive as a retailer?” he asks. “We are using Et Cetera to take our brand in several new directions.”

Initially dismissed as a possible tactical blunder by some observers, Vaillancourt Folk Art’s move from a spot right off Route 146 to a more out-of-the-way location has proven to be a masterstroke, Vaillancourt said. “The (former) model wasn’t working,” he said. For one thing, Vaillancourt’s painters “were upstairs.” Now they are on the main floor, right next to the display cases and shelves. They can be seen at work. The introduction of their son Luke to the business has freed Judi up to do what she does best: create, Gary Vaillancourt said.

Rocco Froio demonstrated similar chutzpah in relocating his men’s-attire store from a shaky block of lower Pleasant Street to Park Avenue, where he has been able to tap into the generally well-to-do West Side consumer crowd. Women are among his best customers, purchasing apparel for their men.

“A lot of women buy things their partner needs, as opposed to extras,” Froio said. Gift certificates are popular too, he said.

Froio projects an upbeat attitude. “I will be affected” by the current downturn, he says, “but I did not create a lot of overhead in holiday inventory. The ones who survive are those who know how to manage their business. You have to be conservative.”

Custom suits and custom shirts are a forte of Rocco’s, Froio said. “Once you have one, it’s a long-lasting appreciation of the gift,” which is going to serve its wearer well for a number of years, he said.

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