GREENWICH, Conn. — Madison Avenue, Rodeo Drive, Worth Avenue…Greenwich Avenue?

An influx of hip, independently owned fashion boutiques has brought new excitement to this thriving suburban shopping mecca, populated by national chains and several high-end specialty stores, rivaling some of the most desirable streets in the country.

In the last few months, such contemporary retailers as Scoop, Wish List, Theory, Sharagano and JL Rocks have set up shop along Greenwich Avenue, the six-tenths-of-a-mile block that winds its way south from East Putnam Avenue to Railroad Avenue. These new boutiques appear to be transforming this once conservative and classic shopping town, which has been dominated by large chains such as Talbots, J. Crew, Chico’s, Ann Taylor, Gap, Limited, Victoria’s Secret and Banana Republic, as well as luxury retailers such as Richard’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Razook’s.

Many retailers credited Richard’s, the well-known men’s specialty store that entered the women’s business in 2000, with bringing a fashion sensibility to the town and especially for making the lower end of Greenwich Avenue — which had been a mishmash of retail establishments — more desirable. The opening of Saks and Tiffany & Co. in 1996 and 2000, respectively, also added more prestige to the town.

“The avenue has changed a lot in the past 10 years, and a lot in the past five years. The new stores are great in bringing in a variety of customers to Greenwich,” said Susie Hilfiger, owner of Best & Co., a children’s department store at 289 Greenwich Avenue and a longtime Greenwich resident. “There are great restaurants, too, and you no longer have to go into New York for your needs. We have customers from Manhasset, New Jersey, Boston and, of course, Greenwich, who make a day of shopping.”

Many of these new shops have replaced the area’s delis, stationery stores and mom-and-pop operations. Still, despite all this new development, Hilfiger pointed out, “The avenue is still charming. There are police guards [directing traffic] who are wonderful, and that will never change. There’s Subway Barber and Betteridge Jewelers [founded in 1897] and the Greenwich Health Mart. When [old-line department store] D.W. Rogers and Woolworth’s closed, people were sad to see them go, but it’s inevitable.”Marks Bros., a fixture on Greenwich Avenue since 1907, recently moved its stationery operation to the second floor. It was replaced by Wendy Gee, a colorfulhome furnishings and gift retailer that has locations in Larchmont and Chappaqua, N.Y., which opened last Saturday. “I live in Greenwich and it seemed like a vital, happening location,” said Lee Rubin, Wendy Gee’s owner. “There’s a lot going on in terms of retailing, and we wanted to be part of it.”

Greenwich resident Carolee Friedlander, president and chief executive of the Greenwich-based jewelry company, Carolee Designs, has had a storefront on Elm Street since 1985, and renovated the store into the company’s flagship in 2000. Carolee opened its 20th unit in Tucson on Thursday. Friedlander believes that all the new independent stores could have a negative impact on the national chains.

“The customer loves the idea of shopping in these smaller boutiques,” said Friedlander. “They get much more attention, and get phone calls from the salesgirls when something comes in that they think they would like.”

Friedlander has found that her Greenwich customer is “fashion forward, and comes in weekly to see what’s new. The more trendy the item, the faster we sell it.”

Razook’s, a women’s specialty store that features designer apparel from lines like Rena Lange, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, has been a fixture on East Putnam Avenue since the mid-Sixties. Leslie Razook, the store’s owner, said she’s not deterred by the influx of women’s stores to the neighborhood. “They’re a welcome addition. Greenwich is becoming a focal point for shopping, and it gets a broader draw all the time. What you’re always dealing with is New York metro consumers. They can shop anywhere in New York at the drop of the hat.”

But perhaps the biggest change is the preponderance of teenagers shopping “the avenue.” On any given Friday afternoon, private school girls are shopping in their school uniforms at Wish List in search of the latest jeans, sweaters and accessories to add pizzazz to their uniforms or to wear on weekends.

With a population of 61,000 and a median household income of $99,086 (according to 2000 U.S. Census data),Greenwich is a prime shopping target. To be sure, rents on Greenwich Avenue are high. According to John Goodkind, managing principal of Newmark, the real estate company, rents in the most desirable section —the middle of Greenwich Avenue, housing such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, Banana Republic, Gap and Victoria’s Secret — average around $70 to $80 a square foot, triple net. Historically, rents on the lower and upper ends of the avenue were 30 percent less, but now they are only 10 percent less, he said, adding that in the past two years, rents have gone up 15 to 20 percent.One of the biggest problems, though, is the traffic congestion on Greenwich Avenue and a lack of parking spaces, felt especially on Saturdays. But as far as a great destination for shopping, Goodkind believes Greenwich Avenue is ranked right up there. “It’s somewhat similar to Rodeo Drive, in terms of per-square-foot for returns,” he said. For a top town that’s not New York or Chicago, “it’s absolutely premier.”

According to Caroline Banker, executive vice president at real estate firm Douglas Elliman, “There’s now very little space available. The market has become very tight. Traditionally, Greenwich was deemed to be a sleepy, fashionless market, but it has dramatically changed in the past 10 years. A lot of younger people who are very fashion conscious, monied and sophisticated have moved in, and what Greenwich offers is that unique mix of independent retail tenants, local chains like Plaza Too and Great Stuff…and national chains like Tiffany’s.”

One of the retailers that’s bringing teenagers to the avenue in droves is Wish List, a contemporary store that has been in Westport for six years and opened at 350 Greenwich Avenue, across the street from Richard’s, last March. “All of my Greenwich and Westchester customers were begging us to move further south,” said Suzanne Zarrilli, who owns the store with Carla Strobel. “It was the demand that brought us to Greenwich. We didn’t want to move as far south as Westchester. Greenwich is a big draw for outside shopping versus malls.”

Wish List carries a mix of brands including Juicy Couture, Miss Sixty, Blue Cult, Z. Cavaricci, Hudson, Alvin Valley, Puma, Yanuk and True Religion. The 2,000-square-foot store attracts women ages 12 to 45, and sometimes even grandmothers, noted Zarrilli.

“Everybody’s wearing jeans,” she said. “She still wears great shoes and a great handbag, but she wears more jeans and casualwear. We do well with what I call‘the jean of the month.’ Right now, the best-selling jeans have been True Religion; Yanuk; Paper Denim & Cloth, and Joie. Number one for us the past six years is Juicy.

“Teenage girls buy a new pair of jeans every week,” she observed.Besides carrying some of the pricier jeans lines, she also stocks Mavi and Buffalo. “If you’re selling a kid a new pair every week, you can’t shove $150 jeans down her throat each time,” said Zarrilli. On Saturdays, there are 15 sales associates working, and the five dressing rooms always have a line.

Zarrilli said word of mouth is what is driving her business here. “You wear a new pair of pants to school, and everyone knows where you got it,” she said.

Greenwich stores have a lot of overlapping resources, according to Zarrilli, and she always asks for exclusivity, but doesn’t always get it. In fact, she said she doesn’t stock the hot T-shirt brand, C&C, because Scoop has that exclusively.

Zarrilli believes Greenwich is a great community for independent retailers. “The customers demand boutiques. Isn’t everybody tired of shopping in chain stores? The kids feel more comfortable in boutiques. They think they can find something unique. But the truth is, they want to look exactly alike,” she said.

Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop, which opened a 3,800-square-foot unit in Greenwich in September, said she and her partner, Uzi Ben-Avraham, “absolutely love this town.”

She said she looked at her customer’s demographics and realized she had a huge following in Greenwich, Purchase and Scarsdale. She thought Greenwich would be a great place to open a joint women’s and men’s boutique.

So far, Greenfield has found her Greenwich and Manhattan customers have similar fashion needs. “The Greenwich customer wants the same stuff the city people want. A lot of our customers are moms and they run around in casual Juicy and our private label sweat shirts. They also buy the sexy clothes. The women are in unbelievable shape. They have great bodies whether they’re a size zero or size 10.”

Her average customer ranges from the mid-20s to the mid-40s. “They’re affluent, but it’s a low-key community. They have a high sense of personal etiquette, and there’s a real sense of sophistication among the clientele. In a town without a traffic light, you learn to be somewhat human,” she said.Greenfield hopes to do $1,500 a square foot in thisstore, or about $5.7 million annually. “So far, we’re exceeding plan,” she said. Most of her stores do between $1,500 and $2,000 a square foot. Right now, 70 percent of Scoop’s business in Greenwich is in women’s apparel and the rest is in men’s. “The women are buying Marc Jacobs dresses and bags, and Juicy tracksuits. The men are buying the Martin Margiela coats. So far, the best-selling jeans have been Citizens of Humanity and Seven, and they like Yanuk.”

With all the new competition, getting exclusives in Greenwich has become a tricky proposition.

“If someone was there before me, and they carry it, it’s OK. If I go there first, I want the exclusive,” said Greenfield.

“Unless you’re going to put in a whole designer department [for a single designer], exclusivity is hard to come by,” noted Razook.

JL Rocks, a contemporary jewelry store, opened its store at 18 Greenwich Avenue in September. Jennifer Goodkind, a partner, said she’s selling trendy, funky fine jewelry, in the $375 to $6,000 range, including Anthony Nak and Scott Colee. It’s more akin to SoHo or L.A.,” she said. The store has a comfortable atmosphere, with sofas so customers can sit as they try on jewelry.

“It’s been busy. We’ve had steady traffic. Every week it’s getting increasingly busier. I’ve put ads in the paper, but the buzz is a powerful tool,” said partner Jamie Camche.

Christopher Fischer, who will open a cashmere shop under his name at 103 Greenwich Avenue on Saturday, observed, “Women are walking with Prada bags, Vuitton bags, or the shoes. There’s certainly a Barneys kind of customer there.” Fischer also has stores in Southampton and East Hampton, and through his company, C3 Store Concepts, wholesales cashmere to such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s.

“Greenwich customers are looking for a more individual shopping experience rather than the homogenized mall environment,” said Fischer. His East Hampton store does $3 million in annual sales. “We expect that kind of figure to carry through to Greenwich,” he said. Prices start at more than $150, with the bulk of the sales in the $300 range, and heavy-gauge sweaters priced around $600.Sharagano, with units in SoHo, Roosevelt Field in Garden City, N.Y., and Brooklyn, opened in Greenwich at the end of September.

“The reason we wanted to open there was there was no competition. Everyone is going after a sophisticated look, and we thought there would be a void for our look, which is trendy, European fashion. We had a lot of people asking us on our Web site, ‘Who do you sell in Greenwich?’” said David Shamouelian, owner.

Describing his customer as a younger, shapely woman between 20 and 35 years old, he said the store attracts women “who understand fashion. They see it at the designer level and then see it at contemporary prices at one-third the price.”

When Richard’s grandly entered the women’s business in 2000, it moved into the site of a former bank across the street, and built a 27,000-square-foot, two-level store, with an 18th-century-style grand flying staircase, 13-foot windows, a glass elevator, a coffee bar and more than 200 parking spaces. Currently, there are 12,000 square feet devoted to women’s apparel and 15,000 square feet for men’s apparel.

“We anticipated we’d do well, but we never anticipated we’d do as well as we are. We are the dominant designer store in Greenwich,” said Jack Mitchell, ceo of Richard’s. The store’s women’s assortment includes Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani’s Black Label, Michael Kors, Loro Piana, Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Hermès, Luciano Barbera and Escada. Presently, the women’s business accounts for 30 to 35 percent of Richard’s business. Mitchell said the pace of business “is pretty strong every day, and Saturday it peaks dramatically.

“The peak is not as dramatic as men’s,” he explained, when the husband comes with the family on Saturday. He explained that families want to come in. “The women wander upstairs, the kids watch TV, anybody can enjoy the coffee and cookies at the bar. During the week, serious shopping is done by women.”

Mitchell believes the expansion of Richard’s brought “a lot of customers to the lower end” of Greenwich Avenue. Another plus is that Richard’s offers free parking to its customers in a lot behind the store. “That’s platinum, that’s not even gold,” he said.As a benefit to the community, Richard’s hosts weekly events. The Bank of New York, for example, sponsored a seminar for a group of women entrepreneurs. “We do that all the time in the store. We serve wine and sparkling water and do a small fashion show.” He also said he sometimes reads from his best-selling book, “Hug Your Customers.”

Scott Mitchell, who runs the women’s store at Richard’s and is Jack’s nephew, said the women’s business is terrific “and is running above expectations.”

“We have a very traditional customer, but we all want a fashion flair. Barbera is traditional, but it’s still fashionable. We build off a basic traditional customer, but we also carry Dolce & Gabbana and Valentino. We do trunk shows for every major vendor,” he added.

Christina Johnson, who resigned as president and ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue last month, said since the Greenwich unit opened in 1996, taking over a former Woolworth’s, “the store has flourished, and it continues to flourish.”

“It’s one of our most productive stores, and it’s a jewel box for Saks,” said Johnson. She said as the contemporary business has grown since 1996, Saks has increased its presence in that area. “We’re very strong in that category and we continue to add designers. We also have a highly developed shoe department. We made the decision to edit [out] the more traditional resources.”The two-level, 35,000-square-foot Saks unit is said to exceed $20 million in sales.

Several independent stores that opened in recent years said they’re pleased with the pace of business.

Plaza Too, which carries accessories and footwear, opened a 1,900-square-foot store on Greenwich Avenue in March 2002. “It was a natural location for us, having stores in Westport, New Canaan and Rye that surround Greenwich,” said Tom Mendes, owner of Plaza Too. The retailer also has stores in Bronxville and Larchmont. “I wasn’t worried about a conservative customer. She’s a fashion-savvy client who’s shopping.”

One of the biggest surprises, he said, was how well the Marc Jacobs handbags sold in Greenwich. “We started with it last spring, with no promotion whatsoever. The phones are still ringing, and the bags sell between $800 and $900,” he said.Mendes pointed out that when the store first opened in Greenwich, the economy was struggling. “We were the new kid in a very competitive market. By this past September,we’ve had a 50 percent increase over a year ago in sales,” he said. He said the Greenwich unit does well with both high-end and lower-priced products.“Not everyone is that fashion-sophisticated customer. She may not wear Miu Miu, but she would like Cole Haan and Air Technology,” he said. Mendes said you still have the female shopper who wears penny loafers and carries a Vera Bradley bag, “but there’s a very sophisticated shopper who’s also a fashion customer and wants to have the latest.”

“It’s a cross section of a customer base. It’s not a very definitive market. It’s so diverse. That’s the key here. You can’t rest on any particular segment. We have a lot of athleisure moms looking for active-looking footwear. And, one of our big niches is our evening [footwear] business,” he added.

Unlike other retailers that might not make browsers and small spenders welcome, Plaza Too puts out the welcome mat. “Our whole thing is we want people in our store. They can buy a $3 hair clip or they can buy a $300 pair of Marc Jacobs shoes. We don’t want to lock anybody out. It is a community. It’s not New York City. It’s suburban America and kids are part of the community, as are babies and first-time moms.”

Mendes is optimistic about his Greenwich business. “We do expect it to be our number one store. The rent per square foot is the highest in the company. Westport used to be the big hub, but Greenwich has taken over. It’s more of a gentrification than anything.”

He said it has the highest rent of his stores, but it also produces the most. “It’s the risk-reward factor. You can’t demand that kind of rent unless there’s the business to support it. It wouldn’t take a lot to fail. If you open up with the wrong concept, you fail. People are looking for good product and service, and you have to stand behind it.”Lori Friedman, partner in Great Stuff, a five-unit women’s specialty store, opened a 2,400-square-foot store on Greenwich Avenue about seven years ago.“The reason I opened in Greenwich is that it’s another one of those affluent communities where people go to shop. They come on the weekends, and some are day- trippers.”

Her other stores are in Westport, Chappaqua, Rye and Scarsdale. She opened her Westport unit 24 years ago. Some of the labels she carries are Harrari, Teenflo, Diane von Furstenberg, Montclair, Three Dots and Searle.

Friedman credits Richard’s with bringing the action down the street. “My business has gotten better since Richard’s expanded. People come down here. Their stuff is very haute couture. Mine is more funky and eclectic,” she said.

Friedman noted her Scarsdale store does the most volume, but her rent is highest in Greenwich. About 70 percent of her clientele is from Greenwich, and the balance hails from Bedford, Rye, Armonk and Greenwich???. “Last week, Bette Midler was shopping here. She’s making a movie, ‘The Stepford Wives,’ here.”

Holly Adams opened Cashmere Inc., a 1,600-square-foot boutique, in 1998 on the corner of East Putnam Avenue and Church Street. Although some might consider that site to be off the beaten track, Adams said she loves her digs. “I wouldn’t trade my location for all the tea in China. It’s not to say that people who shop on my block don’t shop on the avenue, because, of course, they do. The foot traffic is a lot higher on the avenue. But I have a parking lot behind the store. They can pull in and buy their sweater and go to Razook’s and they’re done. They don’t have to deal with the parking issue.

“Our rent is expensive, but it would be more on the avenue. The fact that I have a parking lot is worth millions. And I have a corner location, so 10,000 people go by every day. There’s a stoplight in front of my store. And the windows are free advertising,” she said.

She said she sells a combination of private label and branded cashmere products. Its biggest supplier is Johnston’s, from Scotland, a brand that’s exclusive toGreat Stuff. She also carries cashmere accessories from Meg Cohen and Alexandra Eton.“I sold 100 halter tops,” she said. “But come Christmas, if I don’t a have a gold button cardigan for grandma, I’m out of business.”

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