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.