A longtime Boise retailer who specializes in missionary clothing says more customers are walking through his door with shopping lists. A former "sister missionary" in Boise who runs a website catering to female missionaries says orders have quadrupled.
The customers are preparing for a rite of passage - a two-year mission to spread the word about their faith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And now, a lot more people are eligible.
The Mormon church in October lowered the minimum age for missionaries from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women. Church leaders reported a surge in applications for service, with the usual 700 applications per week rising to 4,000, just more than half of whom were women.
The surge quickly spilled over into retail stores in Utah, driving up demand for conservative, knee-length dresses and skirts for young women, known as sister missionaries. Salespeople at Ann Taylor and The Limited stores in a downtown Salt Lake City mall reported a boost in the number of women shopping for clothes for their missions.
It also resulted in more traffic at Petersen's Clothing, a Boise company that specializes in durable, tailored clothing for young missionaries. Owner Wayne Petersen says sales increased about 25 percent over the past several months.
"It's a whole different ball game," he said.
Petersen started selling clothing out of his garage 22 years ago. The Boise store on Overland Road has been open for 11 years.
Since the age change went into effect, "We're seeing quite a spike, particularly with the young women," Petersen told the Idaho Statesman.Petersen sent two of his daughters on missions - one to Taiwan, one to Sweden - and thinks the lower minimum age for women is especially game-changing. It allows young women to go on missions before they reach an age where they start to focus on marriage and children.
The lower age also means men and women can resume college earlier and some can finish the mission before starting college.
Candace Martineau, who owns a Web-based missionary clothing and accessories retailer named Sorella Bella, agreed that going on a mission at age 21 could be "a big disruption" in a young woman's education and life.
She started the website, sistermissionary.com, as a hobby business three years ago. She wanted to have a part-time project while raising a family and to save other women the hassle of going from store to store looking for stylish but modest clothes - a task she undertook for her own mission on Temple Square in 2005.
"My mom and I had the darnedest time finding modest, cute clothes that would meet the clothing guidelines but also that I wouldn't die of embarrassment from wearing - jumper, anyone?" she explains on the website.
Orders through her website are now a source of income to help support her family. She said it helped permit her husband to leave his job and focus on his own side project, a lending business.
The age change has "really grown my customer base." Her orders last year were about $40,000, she said. This year, she's on track for $220,000 in sales.
Petersen has already hired three new employees - one for his store in Twin Falls and two in Boise - to accommodate the new shoppers. He added a female employee at each store to help young women try on clothes and have them tailored.
When a missionary-to-be walks into the store, he or she usually clutches a checklist - five to six ties, one pair of black winter boots, 12 to 14 pairs of socks, for example - that varies depending on the destination. Petersen and his employees guide the customer through the selection process, often sharing personal anecdotes and lessons learned, then tailor the clothes in the store.
It's a two-hour process. With socks averaging $9 a pair, suits ranging from $180 to $250 and microfiber or stainproof ties at $12 to $13, the young shopper walks out with a receipt averaging $1,400, Petersen said.
He sells more than clothing, though, and it's common for shoppers to pick up a few supplies. One of the most popular lately, he says, is a backpack that holds water that squirts out with a pressurized pump.
He expects to be "slammed" in May, June and July. Some high school graduates and college freshmen who would otherwise go shopping for dorm furniture and back-to-school fashions will instead be prepping for a mission.
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey. The Associated Press contributed.