Boutiques cater to moms who don't want to look matronly

Saylor Ratliff, 19 months, knew just what she wanted. When her mom, Krista Ratliff, parked her stroller outside and brought her into Hot Mama boutique on a rainy Friday morning, Saylor made a beeline for the big glass jar of animal crackers.

Like the other toddlers in the bright yellow-and-red boutique, she soon was occupied with a paper cup filled with lion and monkey treats, while her mom browsed the collection of Ella Moss tops, Michael Stars tees and the hottest premium-denim brands around -- from Seven for All Mankind to Paige.

If Saylor got bored while her mom shopped, she could play at a train table or sit in front of an iMac or follow her mom into an oversized dressing room.

Ratliff came in wearing her gym clothes, fresh from a yoga/pilates class. She is a weekly regular and all of the store's employees know her and Saylor.

This boutique and default day-care sells clothes for moms that are anything but matronly.

Hot Mama was the brainchild of Megan Tamte, 33, who has cultivated a loyal customer base by appealing to moms like her who are, or want to be, like the name promises, s-s-s-smokin'.

"You can see it in (the customer's) eye. Deep down, she's there because she wants to look hot," Tamte said.

Tamte, a mother of two, came up with the idea right after she had her first child, Allison, now 10. "There was no longer a place for me to find clothes," she said. "Everything changes when you have a child."

She was referring to physical postpregnancy shifts as well as the demands of attending to a stroller-bound child and the time challenges.

"When I went to Nordstrom after I had my baby, ready for this big day out, the stroller would get jammed in the aisles. If someone was helping me, they didn't understand. It was unbelievable that there wasn't a store to cater to moms," Tamte said.

She talked and talked about her idea for five years. "I was spending all this time watching `American Idol.' Then I decided, I'm not going to sit here and watch other people make their dreams come true. That was it. I poured it all into a business plan."

Her husband, Mike Tamte, 35, an accountant, helped her format the plan. Then they stumbled onto an empty space in Edina, Minn., near their home. They signed a lease without having any idea how to actually open a store. They both quit their jobs, he as chief financial officer of the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and she from a job at the University of Minnesota's Department of Education, working with a reading grant.

With a small-business loan, some of their own money and investments from friends and family, the Tamtes prepared to open shop. Under the guidance of architecture firm Shea Inc., they painted their new store themselves and constructed the fixtures.

Hot Mama opened in August 2004. Since then, the couple has opened two other stores in the Twin Cities and two more near Chicago, close to where Megan grew up. They plan to have seven stores by the end of the year.

The store has also expanded its stock to include maternity clothes, which now make up about 25 percent of their business. "We were turning away so many bellies," Megan said. "It seemed silly not to have maternity."

What seemed so obvious to Megan is apparently an undertapped retail niche. "Trying to make the shopping experience a good one for those moms is a very viable approach," said Geoffrey Meredith, the president of Lifestage Matrix/Marketing, who has consulted for Gap and Levi.

He said that he thinks motherhood is one of life's major defining moments and helps to inform purchasing patterns, though he added that it's "unusual" to define the store's customer base as "moms."

The merchandise in Hot Mama also varies from the norm. Alongside familiar brands such as Juicy Couture and Trina Turk is a different selection specifically for moms.

The top-selling jeans brand is Joe's Jeans "Muse" style. Unlike the stereotypical "mom jeans" that make tweeners groan and roll their eyes, these don't have a high waist, but they're also not so low that a postpartum muffin top is inevitable. They cover trends, but not in extreme ways. "We interpret clothes for moms," Megan said.

Svelte moms, that is. Their customer's average size is a 6-8 (they carry sizes 0 through 14). One category that didn't sell well for them: sweatpants.

Prices range from $29 for Junk Food graphic tees to $180 for premium jeans. Their suburban locations attract stay-at-home moms during the week and working moms on weekends.

It's a formula that seems to be catching buzz among moms. "Ninety percent of our business is referrals," Mike said. "Once they `get it,' it's tremendous."

Last month, Hot Mama launched nationally through an online shop that features "models" who are their real customers.

Despite the added convenience of shopping at home, a bigger part of Hot Mama's success is customer service. Megan works on the floor at Hot Mama stores about three days a week.

The idea is to make shopping truly easy for moms, like Ratliff. "I love going there because my kids love going there. When they aren't a nuisance, I can shop," she said. "It's wonderful. At other stores, you have to schedule a baby-sitter."