By  on March 12, 2002

THEY MAY HAVE TO CONTEND WITH MALLS AND AN INFLUX OF HUGE SPECIALTY CHAINS, BUT NAPERVILLE RETAILERS REMAIN DETERMINED TO SERVE THEIR COMMUNITY.

Situated along the banks of the DuPage River in DuPage County, 30 miles west of Chicago, the city of Naperville boasts a growing population of 133,000 and a median household income of $89,500. But despite the 34-square-mile community's affluence, some specialty store owners are reluctant to set up shop in downtown Naperville because the competition is fierce: Not only is there the Fox Valley Center -- a 1.5 million-square-foot shopping center in nearby Aurora that houses four department stores and 180 specialty stores -- but a number of national specialty store chains, including Ann Taylor, Eddie Bauer, Gap, Talbots and Chico's, have locations in downtown Naperville.

"We're competing against the big boys," said Ruth Carlson, owner of Elin Bennett, one of Naperville's longest- standing women's clothing boutiques.

Julie Lichter, director of the Downtown Naperville Alliance, said it is "unusual" that there are so few locally owned specialty stores. "It might be really hard to compete against those large retail chains," she said.

Heather Wachter, vice president of the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, said women's boutiques are "not the mainstay of downtown."

Instead, it's filled with a 100-year-old drugstore, a skateboard shop, jewelry store, children's clothing boutique, Italian restaurant and ice cream parlor. "It's not focused on one client," Wachter said. "It's a young population; we have a lot of parents with young children."

Considering that the median age in Naperville is 34.2 and 34 percent of the population is below the age of 20, Naperville has been named the "Most Kid-Friendly City in America" by the Washington-based nonprofit group Zero Population Growth.

"Christina Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership, said, "It's a fairly conservative town, and it's a more outdoor, casual Midwest lifestyle. The focus is on more of the casual, comfortable fashions."

Despite the competitive retail environment, there are, of course, several shop owners who continue to outfit the locals, in the shadow of national chains. Here, a look at a few shops that are weathering the competition:Deborah Jean

It was Debbie Hennen's dream to open her own clothing store, a dream that eluded her for much of her life.

"One day, I said to myself, 'I don't want to say I didn't sing my song,"' recalled Hennen, who worked as a financial planner and vice president at automobile conglomerate The Torco Group, before opening Deborah Jean six years ago. "I walked away from a very comfortable career."

Although it seemed liked a risky move, Hennen said, "Not only did it work, but I've never had more fun."

Hennen has spoken to women's groups about fulfilling dreams. "I tell them, 'Don't wait until you're 80 years old and say, 'I wish I would have done this or tried that."'

Hennen did not wait, and at age 45 opened Deborah Jean in a house in downtown Naperville. Built in 1854, the structure once served as a large family home, and it includes a wood-burning fireplace. Hennen left that homey feature intact and calls the one-time parlor "The Fireplace Room." That room will house a March promotion in the form of a spring fashion preview, attended by a plastic surgeon and cosmetic dentist, to answer questions from women. "We're calling it a 'fireplace chat,' so when people ask "'About that liposuction. . . ,' they can pretend they are looking at the clothes," Hennen joked.

Hennen said over the years she has witnessed two women's specialty stores shutter their doors and another store relocate due, in part, to high rent. But she said, "I know my customer. I cultivate new customers and I follow through. That's how I've been successful."

Hennen said Deborah Jean affords women versatile looks suitable for the office, an evening out or a vacation. One of the store's most popular lines is Lisbeth Oslo, which features washable silks. A pair of slim-cut silk ankle pants retails for $88. The store also carries Anage, which offers brightly colored cotton novelty jackets with sequins and beading. The pieces, which retail between $100 and $150, have names that reflect its design. The "American Dream," for example, is red, white and blue. The store also carries Trousers Etc., Willow and Debra DeRoo.Infini

Attracting a younger, trendier clientele than Deborah Jean is Infini, located in nearby Riverwalk Plaza.

Owner Najat Masri said about 40 percent of the five-year-old store's business is generated by selling gowns for high school dances. Prices range from $100 for a Jessica McClintock gown to $800 for a Nicole Miller dress. Other lines Infini carries for party-goers are Laundry by Shelli Segal and ABS by Allen Schwartz.

Masri said shoppers peruse Infini's offerings in search of something special, be it a special occasion gown or sexy sweater for a date. "My customers used to go to malls," said Masri, "but we carry items that are unique or different than the malls."

Infini has a loyal following of locals, as well as out-of-towners who drop by the shop while in town.

"The area draws a lot of outsiders, and every time they're in town, they come to me," Masri said. "They say we seem like some place in New York. We're more upscale than other places in town."

During the early Eighties, Masri operated a tonier boutique in Oakbrook that featured Armani and other high-end designers. The shop, which Masri ran for six years, closed in 1987. But for Naperville, with its plethora of young families, Masri believed a store with lower price points was more suitable.

Elin Bennett

When Naperville was booming during the Eighties, so was Elin Bennett. The city's population more than doubled, from around 42,000 in 1980 to 85,000 in 1990. At the height of the Eighties boom, owner Ruth Carlson and her partner employed 15 people and pulled down annual sales around $900,000. The recession hit in the late Eighties, and businesswent down from there.

After that, Carlson's partner wanted to declare bankruptcy. It took a while for the two to negotiate Carlson's taking over the business, but in 1995 Carlson became Elin Bennett's sole owner.

Although the boutique survived, business never returned to its Reagan-era peak. Today, Elin Bennett employs two people and posted annual sales of around $210,750 last year.

The boutique, located in a house that's on the city's historic registry, has not disappointed its longtime clients. Carlson boasts a list of customers she has catered to for more than 20 years, some of whom admit they still wear suits Carlson sold them decades ago.Elin Bennett's better sportswear brands include Eileen Fisher, David Brooks, Joseph A and Splendor. Popular items include a $47 silk mock turtleneck from Joseph A and a $50 cable knit cotton sweater by Splendor. Overall, price points range from $27 for a fluffy Betmar nylon scarf to $400 for a hand-painted Ela Designe gown.

"As I've gotten older, so has our average customer," said the 65-plus Carlson, who wears her long gray hair in a well-accessorized bun. But, she said it's probably time for her to move on and sell her business. She's negotiating with a couple of women in their 40s who may be able to better serve the younger market. "They have lots of energy," she said, "like we did."

Dean's

Dean's would like to increase its share of the younger market. "Our core market is 40 to 60," said women's wear buyer Shari Weakman. "We're trying to get more 30- and 40-year-olds."

Top-selling lines include Garfield & Marks and Tommy Bahama, Icelandic, Dakota and Fia Italia.

"We're known for our sweaters," Weakman said, noting that they accounted for 25 percent of sales last year.

Dean's sold almost all 100 units of a $164 baby cable silk turtleneck from Barry Bricken this past fall-winter season. "It's a good weight and a great fit," she said. "It's a great layering piece. We rarely have to mark any down."

Dean's first opened in 1959 as a men's store and added women's wear about 20 years ago. Women's clothing constitutes about 25 percent of business, making about $650,000 in annual sales, Weakman said.

Personalized customer service keeps clients coming back, she said. "We're friendly; [sales] people are good about calling customers if something comes in."

When a co-worker retired, Weakman said customers were in tears saying goodbye. "People make friends here," she said.

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