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What is a Boutique?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A boutique is a small retail store that focuses on selling unique items, or items targeted at a niche market. These shops are established to sell a wide range of things, although products like clothing, food, or jewelry are common offerings. Many people associate boutiques with elite, special products, and they may pay a premium for goods purchased there. Many resort towns and areas that cater to wealthy populations have a high concentration of such stores in their shopping districts.

At one point, any small shop was considered a boutique, and most stores could be included under the definition since merchants usually focused on a single product, like fabric, produce, or fish. The word is French in origin, and derived from the Old French word botica, for apothecary. Around the 1950s, people starting referring to specialized, elite fashion shops as “boutiques.” This meaning of the word quickly obscured previous usages, and spread to include any highly specialized or fashionable store.

Many people think of a this type of store as a standalone shop with a single owner. Some high-end shopping chains actually own multiple boutiques, however, and these stores may be scattered in wealthy areas all over the world. Chain stores sell specialized products and target a very specific market, just like their standalone counterparts. They may have very well marketed and recognized brands; Tiffany's is a good example of one with international branches, with its distinctive little blue boxes and their contents being prized and coveted objects for some people.

A boutique may also be part of a larger department store or shopping center. In this sense, it offers higher end versions of items sold in the general departments of the store, or it sells very specific products with an elite twist. A department store might have a lingerie boutique, for example, using the social cachet of shopping in an elite store to encourage people to buy more undergarments than they might otherwise.

The term is also used more generally to talk about a business that offers tailored products or services for a very limited market. A boutique law firm, for example, might focus on a specific aspect of legal practice, while a boutique butcher offers traditional butchering services and handles unique special orders. Many people associate the term with quality, personal attention from staff, and generally higher prices that are considered reasonable because of the perceived quality of the products on offer.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By julies — On Nov 09, 2012

I think the word 'boutique' is overused and now references just about anything that is specialized or caters to a unique market. I have never heard of a boutique butcher before. Somehow this doesn't have nearly the nice ring to it as a boutique store full of fashionable clothing, accessories and special products for the bath and home.

By honeybees — On Nov 09, 2012

Generally I like to shop at chain boutique stores. For the most part you know what you are going to find and know the quality is good. I have been to a few boutique stores where the product seems kind of junky.

I would rather stick with a high end store where I know what I am buying is good stuff. That being said, I do have a favorite town near Colorado Springs that has a lot of unique boutique shops. I have family close by there so like to visit once every couple of years.

My sister and I love to take a day and visit all the boutique shops. I am always pleased with all the unique and special shops I find when I am here. Every time I go it I like to visit my favorite shops, and there always a few new ones that catch my fancy as well.

By John57 — On Nov 08, 2012

@golf07 -- That is a great idea. I have a few people on my gift list who are hard to buy for, and trying to find a gift for them can be a challenge. There is a new boutique store that opened up next to a restaurant I eat at quite often. The next time I am there I will have to stop in the boutique and see what I can find. My mother-in-law has a birthday coming up, so hopefully I can find something that is her cup of tea.

By golf07 — On Nov 08, 2012

@anon290071 -- I love shopping at boutique stores as well. Whenever I am looking for something unique, either for myself or for a gift, I always head for my favorite boutique store.

I often get compliments on the clothes and accessories I wear, and most of them have come from a boutique. If you are looking for something different, yet stylish, this is the kind of store to shop at.

By backdraft — On Nov 08, 2012

In just the last few years there have been a few boutique underwear stores that have opened up in my city. All they sell is bottoms. They have tons of different designs and graphics, a lot of them kind of subversive or ironic or kitschy.

I have bought a few pairs at these stores that I love, but you pay a lot more than you would at a big store. I couldn't stock my entire underwear drawer that's for sure.

By gravois — On Nov 07, 2012

It seems like these days, boutique is just a buzz word that gets applied to anything people want to portray as cool and unique. For instance, I just heard about a boutique ad agency. They are small and work with a lot of creative clients, but what makes them boutique?

By anon290071 — On Sep 07, 2012

I love to shop and I've found that shopping at women's boutiques I find better things than going to other stores. Boutiques usually have a bunch of cute blouses which are hard to come by these days. I don't know what I'd do without the local boutiques I shop at!

By claire24 — On Feb 13, 2011

I love shopping in boutiques for clothing. There are a few that are favorites of mine. I love them because there is a certain style to their clothing that is far from generic. It suits me perfectly.

By geronimo8 — On Feb 11, 2011

I always think of a boutique just as being a small shop. To me, a boutique may have average priced items, or very expensive ones. One reason I love visiting small towns is that they are usually filled with small boutiques.

Not only does this kind of set up have a charming look, but usually a boutique has a collection items that aren't in larger stores. I always like to find things that are a bit different from what everyone else has.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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