WORKING ALL THE ANGLES
THE RETAIL SCENE IN RALEIGH/DURHAM/CHAPEL HILL STRIKES A BALANCE BETWEEN THE EDGILY TRENDY AND THE NOT-TOO-TRADITIONAL.
Byline: Georgia Lee
The Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill triangle is home to only around one million people, but it appears to be bursting at the seams, particularly during rush hour. The Research Triangle, a technology, business and medical magnet, is becoming a big-time attraction.
Given the area’s rising stock, it’s no wonder why: Economists say this is the place to watch. Area employment, led by IBM, Lucent and others, should grow 24.8 percent by 2010. Yet compared with other booming areas — Silicon Valley or even Atlanta — the triangle is affordable and the quality of life is good. Last year, Money magazine named the triangle the best place to live in the South.
Three colleges — Raleigh’s N.C. State, Durham’s Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — draw academic types, while technology, engineering and medical research/development centers lure big thinkers of all kinds.
Sports are big, from the locals’ obsession with the three college basketball teams to the duffers lured by the promise of year-round golf. Perhaps that’s why Raleigh-Durham/Chapel Hill’s unofficial motto is “Trees, Tees and Ph D’s.”
In addition to college students, residents include academic types, from high tech go-getters and business people, who provide an upscale clientele for local retailers. Department stores have yet to saturate the area, although Nordstrom plans to enter in March 2002 in The Mall at Southpoint in Durham. Along with malls, shopping areas, often near college campuses, maintain a unique character.
Most remarkable for a town of this size is the number of independent specialty stores that thrive on the affluent, well-educated customer base. Well over a dozen local independent retailers, many of whom are part of healthy multistore operations, are located in the Triangle. Along with the six stores profiled below, standouts include Night Gallery, Silk Quarters, Fantasea and Serrotta’s. Many independents have units in Cameron Village, a sprawling 100-store, 650,000-square-foot center — the first planned shopping center in U.S., built in 1949.
In the face of strong competition, though, retailers must have clear strategies and strong identities. Below, WWD looks at six different specialty owners that can lay claim to both.
Doug Harris has no problem ordering a million dozen T-shirts for Target, but buying a $60 sweater throws him for a loop.
“He’s had to learn small orders and small business,” said his wife, Luella Harris. In his combined 20 years with Target, Montgomery Ward and Rose’s, Doug managed soft goods and private label programs. In 1995, he plunged into specialty retail with Luella, who worked in a gift store. They opened Certain Things in 1995 in Cameron Village.
The decision proved the right one. In 1998 they opened a second Raleigh location, CT Weekends, with partner Kristi Hipple. Another Certain Things bows this September in a new mixed-used development in north Raleigh. Sales for 2000 were $2.3 million, translating to about $1,300 per square foot. The store was voted “Best in the Triangle” by local weekly Spectator magazine.
Business sense and plain old common sense were invaluable factors in their success, said Doug, who brings a military precision to operations; everything — sales, on order, and to be paid — is recorded in three meticulously kept books.
The heart of Certain Things is anything but regimented. Stars, moons and local artists’ paintings float on white walls. Gold-painted phrases such as “You go girl” adorn dressing-room walls and slips of paper Lu sticks in the store’s shopping bags.
With 75 lines, customer demand dictates the mix. Everything is impulse- and item-driven. Thirty to 50 Michael Stars T-shirts and five pairs of Cambio jeans sell each day, with sweaters representing over half of sales. White + Warren, Garfield & Marks, & Trousers, Erik Stewart and Cousin Johnny are core lines, while Papillon Blanc’s velvet sweaters, camisoles and C’est City’s funky tops add spice.
Cameron Clothing Co.
The most striking thing at Cameron Clothing Co. is the stock level. The 7,000-square-foot store, also at Cameron Village, has 3,000 sweaters, beautifully assorted by color, and it doesn’t stop there. “Inventory is not a liability,” said Marshall Lamb, who owns the store with his wife, Jenny. “It blows customers away.”
Emphasizing basics over novelty, wardrobing over items, the store targets career women and the country-club set. Sportswear lands 65 percent of sales, with sweaters from Belford, Michael Simon and Misook. Starington blouses, Carol Cohen coats/jackets, and Garfield & Marks or Emil Rutenberg’s suitings are good career looks.
Marshall, who has logged over 25 years in retail and as an independent rep, met Jenny, whose experience nearly equals his, in the Eighties. The couple married and launched Cameron Clothing Co. in a 3,000 space in 1991. In 2000, the store tallied $2.5 to $3 million in sales.
The doubling of its size six years ago allowed the store’s expansion into social occasion and bridal — the mere mention of which prompts Jenny to roll her eyes, exasperated by emotional brides and mothers. But with little local competition, their wedding-related business yields strong profits.
Around 15 salespeople serve as personal shoppers, showing customers how to update their old clothes or even redoing closets. They keep tabs on each customer and write thank-you’s for each purchase. “There are very few customers that we don’t know by name,” said Jenny.
Selling the epitome of pretty, tailored dressing, Tyler House has the air of an old-line institution minus the stuffiness.
Opened in 1967, Tyler House, now in Cameron Village, once had six stores, all focused on classic, traditional clothing. Seven years ago, longtime associate Jennifer Huggard bought Tyler House from its original owners. While maintaining the store’s name and cachet, she updates constantly without alienating old-line customers.
The 4,000-square-foot store, with its crown molding and heavy, dark wood antiques, is like a private home. The store’s philosophy rests on “investment dressing”: bridge prices, luxurious fabrics and designer styling.
In keeping with this philosophy are Sienna Studio leathers, with retail prices up to $500 and Gucci-inspired looks in ostrich, pleather or snake, or fitted cashmere White + Warren or Forte sweaters paired with Renfrew or Zanella suitings.
Targeting “debs to octogenarians,” Huggard bridges misses’ and contemporary.
“This is a diverse population,” said Huggard. “Customers, [whether they’re in] government, business or research, have different styles.”
Best-selling collections are Olsen and Elliott Lauren. Novelty pieces, displayed on a rectangular table center-store, have included shrunken, one-size-fits-all scrunchy tops by C’est Duo. “We keep up an image in everything we do,” Huggard said. “Our customers expect it.”
The sophisticated, yet laid-back Modern Times, near the N.C. State campus, nestles in nicely with neighboring bookstores, tattoo parlors and bicycle shops.
The owners’ liberal sensibilities are literally written on the wall of the 900-square-foot space. Messages include “Think in the Third Person,” and “Trees Don’t Grow on Money, Either.”
Owner Lisa Marcuson, a former fit model for Bill Blass, designed a batik line before opening the store in 1983. She lives nearby, in an old house that has space for daily, hour-long meditations with friends, and she often practices Tai Chi in the store. Not surprisingly, retail is extremely personal to her.
“I buy for myself, try everything on and edit,” she said. “If I wouldn’t wear it, it wouldn’t work here.”
With college undergraduates constituting half of her clientele, she now targets young professionals, faculty and graduate students, with a progressive mix of California lines such as Max Studio. She carried Custo T-shirts before they caught on, along with Michael Stars T-shirts and Angelica Val’s cut-out shirts, paired with Bisou-Bisou pants or printed rayon skirts by Salaam.
Mixing resources is key. A double-layer mesh rayon undershirt by Westin may be paired with a tweed skirt by ABS and a jacket by Dina Bar-El.
“We’re not high profile, like Banana Republic or J. Crew, so we don’t have to show everything the way it’s supposed to be,” said Marcuson. Annual sales hover around $400,000.
When Julie Jennings moved to Chapel Hill from Connecticut in 1992, she found a fashion-challenged clientele. “Everyone dressed like hippies, preppies or bums,” she explained.
Accepting the challenge, Jennings opened Uniquities in Chapel Hill in 1992 on the same street as Modern Times, followed by a Raleigh store in 1996, and a Wilmington store in 1999. Now, she said, everyone wears her “uniform” — denim from Diesel or Earl Jean with a fitted T-shirt or sweater. Both sell hundreds of units each month.
Denim captures 35 percent of sales, with exclusives such as Diesel, Earl Jean, Theory, BCBG Max Azria, Nanette Lepore, Paper Denim and Cloth, priced around $100. Tops are basic T-shirts by Michael Stars or Juicy, which sell two-to-one with bottoms. Denim jackets sell 600 units a month.
With 400 total resources, 150 per season, she reacts quickly to trends and demands from a primarily 18-to-45-year-old customer base that’s hip, but not overly trendy.
“I’m trying to get people to think out of the box,” she said. “I’m frustrated when women are embarrassed to take an interest in fashion or makeup. [It] reflects how people feel about themselves.”
Jennings carries swimwear and lingerie, with lines that may appear on “Sex and the City” or in Cosmopolitan. Rosa Cha and Susana Monico are swimwear lines, with Cosa Bella, On Gossamer and Shop Girl lingerie.
Her stores average 1600 square feet with an urban look, bright original artwork and handmade lighting and fixtures. In terms of marketing strategies, Jennings creates her own radio ads, holds special events and will launch an informational Web site this year.
Martha Parks sums up her place in Raleigh’s retail scene as “sticking out like a sore thumb.” But that’s a good thing, she quickly adds, because eclectic stores like SoHo keep retail from getting too homogenized.
Since 1985, SoHo has taken an uncompromising, almost antitrend point of view. “We’re like [New York’s ] SoHo used to be, before rents climbed and chains or big designers came in,” said Parks. “Now you have to go deep in the East Village or meat-packing district to find the unique stores.”
Even the entrance to SoHo’s 1,700-square-foot space is arresting. The door, quite the conversation starter, is plastered with cast-metal baby-doll heads. “I spent my advertising budget on that door,” said Parks. The metal and concrete interior is brightened with primary colors. Plumbing pipe racks capped with spigots or faucets have been converted into clothing fixtures, and accessories are displayed on mannequins rescued from a dumpster.
SoHo’s lines would not show up in department stores or, for that matter, many other specialty stores.
“We blaze a trail, the hardest road to travel,” said Parks. “It’s not the most profitable, but…I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
With up to 40 percent European designers, SoHo carries Marithe & Francois Girbaud; French lines Lilith and Cop Copine, and Italian Sarah Pacini. U.S. designers include Jane Mohr, whose spring collection has crisp linen skirts with drawstring hems. Mizono, a Los Angeles sculptor, does architectural clothing; his pieces are often made from perfect squares or circles of fabric that snap or button up, forming new sculpted shapes.
Parks cultivates the college crowd, which is usually label-conscious. Her $100-to-$800 prices are often high for them.
“I’m really proud of younger customers who are risk-takers, not followers,” she said.