By  on March 18, 1994

LONG ISLAND CITY, N.Y. -- Ruthless Health & Beauty Aids is breaking the rules.While most of the nation's drugstores uniformly feature straight shelves and white tile floors, this new drugstore flouts convention with a provocative name, crooked shelves and a mosaic floor made of glass from crushed light bulbs. The 2,000-square-foot store is decorated entirely with recycled materials.A junked fire extinguisher, painted to resemble a lipstick tube, hangs from the ceiling. An old hot water heater has been recast as a toothpaste tube. All the shelves holding the usual drugstore products are angled."We wanted to make it look askew. You might even need to buy some Dramamine," joked J.J. Veronis, one of the store's designers."At first we wanted to have regular shelves like any other drugstore," said Kung S. Kim, owner of Ruthless Health & Beauty Aids. "Then the designers came to us and suggested we make it match the rest of the building." Straight metal shelves were pulled, and recycled grids, splashed with red paint, were brought in.Opened three months ago, Ruthless became the first retail entry in a former Macy's warehouse here that is being transformed into a shopping mall.The warehouse, now owned by Corporate Life Insurance and SIG Partners, will eventually house other retail establishments, a restaurant and a food court.The designers of the mall think it will appeal to customers from the entire New York market, visitors who might be drawn as much by the ambience and the art as the products.Several other parts of the shopping center are expected to open before the end of the year. "People today want something different when they go shopping," Veronis said. "They want entertainment and we see this as a way to bring art to a commercial environment."Currently the upper floors of the 1 million-square-foot structure are occupied by 2,000 office workers, comprising most of Ruthless's clientele."We're open to the public, but until other stores open, most customers come to shop at lunch or before going to work upstairs," said Kim.Kim is experimenting with her mix to determine what customers want. The building's tenants are an ethnically diverse group, including Hasidic Jews, Koreans, Hispanics, Chinese and African-Americans.To serve the various needs of her customers, Kim stocks everything from ginseng soap for Asian shoppers to Pro-Line hair kits for black customers.There is also a wide array of natural teas, diet aids, vitamins and imported kitchen gadgets. There's no pharmacy, but Kim said she might add one when the entire mall is in operation.Beauty items are to the left of the entrance, beneath the fire hydrant-lipstick. They are estimated to be less than 2 percent of overall volume.However, Kim picks it as an area ripe for growth as the store attracts new customers. The beauty assortment is a perfect example of how Kim is target-marketing the mix in the store to meet the demographics of her customers.She carries mostly budget and popularly priced lines, including Maybelline, Almay, a budget line called Parfait Cosmetics and an ethnic line named Ethique based in Pocoima, Calif.Several closeout brands are also carried, such as an ethnic cosmetics line called Honey & Spice. Ruthless Health and Beauty Aids has a fragrance display with scents ranging from Vanderbilt to Revlon's Downtown Girl.Although she doesn't carry the most recognized prestige brands, prices are discounted 20 percent off list. Kim said the pricing is enough to inspire fragrance sales."We sell a lot of fragrances and we especially did very well with fragrances at Christmas," said Kim, adding that scents will be an area pegged for expansion as traffic builds.Kim also targets her assortment with niche brands not always found elsewhere, such as Nadinola skin bleach for black customers and Mirta de Perales shampoo for Hispanics.Although the designers came up with the Ruthless name to match the decor, Kim thought it fit her sharp pricing.Since she and her husband run a beauty supply business called K.S. in the same building, they are able to take advantage of lower prices on large-quantity buys. Even though Kim operates only one store, she can offer competitive prices. "I think our prices are the best in the area," said Kim, who estimated her prices are 10 to 20 percent lower than local drugstore chains.When Macy's vacated the warehouse over two years ago, Corporate Life Insurance Co. and SIG Partners took over the space and gave Veronis and two other artists the chance to design something unusual. In slightly more than two years, 50 tons of sculpture have been created that cover 5,000 square yards of floors, ceilings and walls.The materials to create the works have been obtained from trash on the Long Island Expressway and from other buildings in Long Island City.Beyond being good for the environment, the designers have made Ruthless and the common area around it fun. Much of the art is interactive -- shoppers can pull on levers and make sculptures open or light up.

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