By  on October 21, 2010

NEW YORK — At Aéropostale’s 19,000-square-foot flagship, which opens in Times Square here Friday, high-tech interactivity resides alongside good, old-fashioned New York imagery.

A 120-foot animated billboard made up of 2 million LEDs features varying content, including the store’s own shoppers, who can dance with virtual Aéropostale models in a 700-square-foot room called the Balcony. A camera embedded in the screen will film their antics and display them on the billboard 20 minutes later. Just the idea of the Balcony, a room devoid of product and cash registers, and devoted solely to shoppers’ entertainment, is unorthodox.

“No other retailer would want to do this because it’s not productive space,” said Thomas Johnson, co-chief executive officer of Aéropostale Inc. “We want to give these incredible views to our customers,” he said, gesturing to the north and east. “We want to showcase what’s so great about Times Square.”

Even though the cha-ching of cash registers won’t be heard in the Balcony — dance music will — Johnson and co-ceo Mindy Meads aren’t as benevolent with other parts of the store. An area on the first floor near the front door is devoted to T-shirts with 144 choices. A curtain that closes off the space to the rest of the store will be used for selling T-shirts after store hours, nightly until 2 a.m.

The flagship has been designed to raise Aéropostale’s profile and is viewed as the company’s ticket overseas. “This is really a key part of our strategy to be recognized worldwide,” said Meads. “We’re now working on overseas. Tom and I have traveled the world. We are working on a project.”

Meads and Johnson said it’s too early to elaborate on overseas expansion, but noted 36 million tourists visit Times Square each year. “We’re right on the 50-yard line,” Johnson said.

According to Cushman & Wakefield’s Marketbeat midyear report, the average asking rent in Times Square is $691 a square foot, a 14 percent increase over last year, and few spaces remain available on Broadway between 42nd to 49th streets, driving up rents. Meads and Johnson declined to comment on the flagship’s rent, which is said to be in the vicinity of $10 million a year. “We did negotiate a pretty favorable deal,” he said.

The executives also did not comment on the store’s projected annual volume, but said Aéropostale units do an average of $635 a square foot and the Times Square flagship “will do significantly more.” Aéropostale’s prices are competitive — graphic T-shirts are two for $18, hoodies are priced as low as $16 and jeans as low as $20. The retailer is promotional. One of its first offers will be a T-shirt with subway line logos for $5 with a purchase.

Other retailers have made big bets on Times Square, including Forever 21, which in June opened a 91,000-square-foot flagship at 1540 Broadway and has projected $100 million in annual sales. The Disney Store is coming to the neighborhood next month.

Subway mosaics and white tile can be found in several parts of the Aéropostale store, including the main floor cash wrap. P.S. Aéropostale, the company’s concept aimed at seven- to 12-year-olds, is tucked away near the cash wrap at the back of the store. A SoHo shop-within-a-shop on the second floor displays graphic Ts and graphic fleece. The space is surrounded by a fake cast-iron facade and has worn wood floors, brick walls and a pressed tin ceiling. Adding to the ambiance are details such as a gas pump, a Brooklyn Bridge mirror etching and vintage luggage.

The flagship allows Aéropostale to present a deeper selection of its core businesses. The second-floor denim space — with the largest selection of any store — was inspired by the New York Public Library with its antique chandeliers, library ladders and books. There’s even a fiberglass lion that looks like Patience or Fortitude, the marble lions that guard the library on 42nd Street. A recurring design element is what appears to be I-beams with rivets similar to those used in the construction of bridges. “We wanted to capture elements and neighborhoods in New York but not look like a theme park,” Johnson said.

The Dorm Room will cater to 14- to 17-year-olds in an apartment-style setting with beribboned chandeliers, an oversize blue brocade settee, and hair curlers and notes to boyfriends on tables and tucked into mirrors. “This is going to teach us a lot about how big the dorm [business] can be,” Meads said. Another category Aéropostale hopes to exploit is jewelry. “We see jewelry as a business we can expand. We really think that’s another opportunity,” she said.

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