By  on March 15, 2006

BOCA RATON, Fla. ­­— Belly­licious boutique didn't take baby steps into the maternity market.

Within six months of deciding they wanted a store, owners and sisters Cory MacNeille and Tara Pawlowski opened a 1,500-square-foot boutique last August.

"We pretty much hit the ground running," said MacNeille, a tax attorney who was adamant about carrying maternity wear when Pawlowski, formerly in the music business, suggested a career change for both of them and thought about retail. "There were so many contemporary women's boutiques fighting over lines in our area. There wasn't room for one more."

Their area, which stretches west from Florida's Turnpike to the Everglades, is ripe with young families plunking down hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars on large homes in gated communities. Demographics have dictated an upscale retail direction peppered with New York businesses such as The Shoebox and Ben's New York Kosher Deli. The sisters chose The Reserve, a new shopping center in Boca Raton that draws mothers with a Publix grocery store, Amy's Attic, which sells high-end baby furniture and gifts, and Frayda K., a contemporary women's boutique owned by a former Scoop manager.

"This demographic gets our clothing,'' said Pawlowski, who originally considered opening near Miami in Aventura, Fla. "Half our list is Northeast transplants or visitors. We still plan to open a larger location there and maybe a third in West Palm Beach, Fla."

Although its women's wear counterparts may scurry for exclusives, Bellylicious has no problem representing new vendors to the city and sometimes even to the state. The store sells Liz Lange as a Florida exclusive. MacNeille said its bestsellers include cashmere V-neck sweaters in black, blue or camel retailing for $135 to $175 and a black column dress with spaghetti straps for $250. "It's a must-have line for conservative, basic looks," she said.

Yet the majority of the store's vendors fall under the emerging designers category. The sisters' favorite line is Childish Clothing, a Los Angeles-based maternity and children's wear company cofounded by the wife of Blink 182 member Mark Hoppus. The one-of-a-kind scarf dresses in retro prints for $204 retail and wool gauchos with satin waistbands for $129 have sold through."We ordered the gauchos in linen for spring,'' Pawlowski said. "The company's really good about asking for our input."

The sisters favor Los Angeles firms since their clothes are often designed with warm climates in mind. Another warm weather source is Australia, where they found Fragile, a contemporary line of trendy pieces like halter tops with butterfly sleeved tops in silk paisley for $175 retail.

"Buying fall is murderous for us. It's so hard to find things that aren't heavy knits and corduroy," said MacNeille, who has luck with maternity wear by Chaiken, Cadeau and Habitual.

"Habitual's maternity jeans look just like the regular ones, but with interior elastic adjusters,'' she said of the hot style that retails for $187. "They even have the same crosses on the back pocket. We just ordered 20 more pairs because the first shipment almost sold out before it arrived."

Their other challenge is buying closer to date or juggling deliveries since maternity is more buy now, wear now, than women's wear. Expectant mothers, especially first-time mothers, can't purchase months ahead since they don't know how garments will fit. In the meantime, they satisfy shopping cravings with hip diaper bags like Mia Bossi's large printed tote trimmed in orange leather for $300 retail or Paulina Quintana's slouchy hobo in gold metallic leather with studs for $450. The store also stocks Bella Materna's nursing bras, Aqua Mom's high-cut bikinis in Pucci-inspired prints and Eberjey's baby-doll nighties in polkadot mesh, along with some children's collections like Layette, Claude and Paper Denim & Cloth.

Since many items are bought for baby showers, packaging is key. For higher brand visibility, they selected preppy stripes and a logo print in lime green with grosgrain ribbon detail.

When shopping for themselves, customers tend to linger, snacking on candy held in old-fashioned glass jars and lounging on the store's oversized sofa and chairs. Beach chic decor of sheer, white curtains, ebony wood floors and wicker furniture resembles Miami Beach's Delano Hotel. Family-friendly amenities range from toys to larger dressing rooms and pathways for strollers, while monthly events like free massages and childbirth seminars also increase traffic. MacNeille estimated first-year sales of about than $1.5 million, 30 percent from the store's e-commerce business.

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