Biz Beat

Modesto’s White Plum makes its mark on e-commerce

From left, Jay, Hilary and Rodney Zwahlen hold orders ready to be shipped Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, at White Plum in Modesto.
From left, Jay, Hilary and Rodney Zwahlen hold orders ready to be shipped Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, at White Plum in Modesto. jlee@modbee.com

It started in 2012 as a side business. Something for Hilary Zwahlen to do after her baby was born to make a little money while she and her husband, Rod, decided their next step. They figured they might open a local nursing home, as that was the industry in which Rod worked.

“I thought I might do hospital jewelry shows,” Hilary said. That might seem like an odd match, but it isn’t – one of my favorite bracelets came from a hospital gift shop, courtesy of my mother-in-law.

But something went awry along the way. Hilary’s business, in which she sold items by posting them on such sites as Pinterest, boutique marketplace Jane.com and other flash sales sites, took off sharply.

Eventually, “I was making more than he was,” Hilary said. So Rod quit his job, and the Zwahlens brought in his brother, Jay, and White Plum was born.

“We never thought we’d be in women’s fashion,” Rod said, laughing.

What, exactly, is White Plum? Well, I wasn’t familiar with it when Rod sent me an email a couple of weeks ago. And I would like to think I would be aware of most businesses around here that bring in $11 million per year (that was the projection for 2015).

White Plum – the name is a nod to the agricultural industry that reigns in its hometown – is an e-commerce business that sells women’s clothes, accessories and shoes out of a warehouse in north Modesto. Roughly 1,000 packages are shipped each day.

Since its inception, the company has grown to employ 75 people, Rod said, “in an industry that doesn't usually have much of a footprint in the Central Valley.”

After starting with selling jewelry, White Plum moved on to selling clothes, mainly printed leggings to start. I asked the male Zwahlens if they even knew what leggings were at that point. No, Jay said, but when they saw how light the items were to ship, they became big fans right away.

“It’s the perfect product,” Jay said. They were in fairly early on the leggings trend, and the pieces soon “went viral,” he said. “In a matter of a few weeks, we went from selling zero to thousands.”

Eventually, rather than just selling other manufacturers’ clothing, they got into making their own through contracts with manufacturers in the Los Angeles area. The Zwahlens point with pride to the fact that most of their line is made in the United States, with even most of the fabric for it created domestically. They also donate $350,000 (retail) worth of clothing to local women’s shelters, according to the White Plum website.

As for how to know what to sell, Hilary has a typical customer top of mind – herself. After having a child, she was looking for clothes that would be “cute but covering,” she said. And she couldn’t find much of what she had in mind – conservative yet stylish clothing.

That’s why you’ll find lots of tunics and flowy fabrics on White Plum.

Hilary relied on knowledge she gained working as a dancer/choreographer in Los Angeles for several years. “I’d been around talented, creative people, and I was there asking all the questions I could,” she said.

As for why I hadn’t heard of it, the Zwahlens said there’s a reason for that: Most of their client base is in the Midwest and the South.

They have talked about potentially opening a brick-and-mortar store at some point or working with boutiques to stock their items. They also have considered moving into more lines, such as children’s clothing. “We’ve done a ‘Mommy and me’ thing a couple of times,” Hilary said.

But right now, it’s a matter of keeping up with demand and expanding the website. And, for the brothers, taking the occasional breather from women’s fashion.

“We only talk about football during breaks,” Jay said. “People would have no idea.”

Find White Plum at www.whiteplum.com.


Elsewhere around the Business Beat:

A longtime Modesto business is getting a renovation.

Boomers, on Bangs Avenue off Highway 99 in north Modesto, is undergoing changes that include a new indoor bumper car attraction and a sports bar, the company said in a news release.

The Spin Zone bumper cars will be round and will “spin and twirl when bumped, creating a wild ride and unique experience for guests,” the news release reads. The sports bar area will include 10 flat-screen television sets and will offer adults a selection of beer and wine, assuming a pending liquor license is approved. Improvements also are planned in the cafe area and the prize redemption center.

“I am really excited about the forthcoming improvements to the park,” general manager Misty Romero said in the release. “The overall experience for our guests will be enhanced greatly with a new indoor attraction, the addition of beer and wine, and the facility improvements.”

Boomers is aiming to get the work completed in time for local schools’ spring break vacations.

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