A REBOUNDING OIL INDUSTRY AND FASHION-HUNGRY SHOPPERS ARE POWERING OKLAHOMA CITY’S REVITALIZED RETAIL SCENE.
Byline: Rusty Williamson
OKLAHOMA CITY — At Ruth Meyers, an upscale women’s specialty store in Oklahoma City, a woman recently bought two mink coats — for her maid.
“Women are buying fur coats like we’re giving them away,” said Ruth Meyers, a veteran retailer who opened her eponymous store 25 years ago.
“The luxury market is strong here. I can tell you there’s no reluctance to spend in Oklahoma City,” said Meyers, whose boutique is located in the tony Nichols Hills section of town.
Her top-performing labels include Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Louis Feraud, Oscar de la Renta, Yansi Fugel, Cambio Jeans, Laundry by Shelli Segal and CK Calvin Klein.
“We had a strong holiday, and we’re looking forward to an equally strong spring with high single-digit sales gains. People here are more optimistic now that the presidential election has been settled.”
Meyers isn’t the only retailer with such glowing sales reports.
In fact, her optimism is becoming the norm among women’s specialty retailers in Oklahoma City, a modern city of 475,000 people that melds Midwestern conservatism with a Southwestern earthiness.
With a strong and diverse economy fueled by a reinvigorated oil market, a revitalized central business district that’s luring corporations as well as tourists, and a fashion-hungry populace that craves trends and is willing to pay for them, Oklahoma City is to some a retailer’s dream.
“I’m having one of the best years in my 20-year history of retailing,” said Mary Soter, owner of Tres Chic, a women’s better-to-designer specialty store. “I’m attracting younger women and average tickets are way up over a year ago.”
Last fall, Soter refocused and remerchandised her business to attract a wider array of shoppers and stocked her store with more updated fashion items and separates. Previously, she’d catered to an older clientele with safer merchandise.
Tres Chic is located in North Park Mall, a small but upscale shopping center that draws a trend-conscious crowd.
“The retail climate in Oklahoma City is very dynamic,” Soter asserted. “It’s a wonderful place to have a store. Women follow the trends very closely.”
Since last fall, Soter has consistently scored high single-digit sales gains, doing well with fashion items such as sequined and novelty tops, sweaters, slinky sportswear and social occasion dresses.
“There are lots of professional women in Oklahoma City, and my clientele includes lawyers, doctors and real estate executives. They want modern dressing — pulled together, but not structured.”
Best-selling vendors at Tres Chic include Breeze, San Remos, Alberto Makali and Joseph Ribkoff.
High demand for luxury fashion is reshaping the business at Balliet’s, a women’s specialty store that’s been an Oklahoma City treasure since 1936.
The store is owned by Robert and DeDe Benham. Along with their buying team, the Benhams have recently started to play up social occasion and pageant attire in a bid to stand apart from the competition.
“We had dinner with Burt Tansky, a former boss when I worked at I. Magnin and now chairman of Neiman Marcus, a few years ago,” recalled Robert Benham. “He told us to expect a real resurgence in the luxury market. And was he ever right.”
Two years ago, Balliet’s began to grow social occasion while scaling back on homogenous bridge-price sportswear that Benham felt was all over the market and boring to consumers.
Social occasion now encompasses 12 percent of the merchandise mix at Balliet’s and is expected to grow in importance next year with a new emphasis on pageant dressing.
Social occasion is merchandised by lifestyle and includes separate departments for cocktail dresses, evening separates, prom dresses and fancy entrance and exit makers.
Bestselling social occasion labels include Peggy Jennings, Oscar de la Renta, Lane Davis, Tadashi, ABS and Chetta B.
A new addition to Balliet’s social occasion category is a dress department aimed at capturing a share of the lucrative beauty pageant business.
“We’ve developed a pageant-wear office to consult with women on their total competition wardrobes, including interview suits and evening gowns,” explained Benham.
“We’ve constructed a specially lit runway so that young women can see how they’ll appear before judges when competing. We have two full-time consultants working in this department. Key price points will be between $1,500 and $2,500 per dress. Vendors include Stephen Yearick and and Sheri Hill.”
Benham reasoned that there will be crossover business as well when pageant contestants, their moms and female pageant chaperones sample Balliet’s other apparel offerings. In the most recent Miss America contest, state winners from Oklahoma and two neighboring states bought wardrobes at Balliet’s, Benham said.
“Women in Oklahoma City seem to always have a need for social occasion fashions,” Benham observed. “We want to be known as the destination for social occasion in Oklahoma City, along with our other strong businesses.”
Balliet’s does a sizzling business with St. John Knits, which annually rings up 18 percent of total sales.
Other top performers are Cerruti 1881, Armani Collezioni and a stable of contemporary labels including Luca Luca, Margaret M., Thalian, Moschino Cheap and Chic and Virani.
Sales rose 13 percent at Balliet’s last year, continuing a three-year trend of double-digit increases. A similar pace is planned for spring. Average sales at the store are $700 per square foot.
“Oklahoma City is really coming back strong, and our business is booming,” Benham enthused. “Tourists are discovering our store when they come here to see the bombing memorial or visit one of the hot downtown neighborhoods such as Bricktown and Paseo.”
Paseo is a regentrified artists’ conclave near downtown Oklahoma City that was built in the 1920s and now is home to trendy restaurants, bars and boutiques.
Kathy Jacobson owns a women’s traditional casual sportswear and fashion item store called Kathy’s on Paseo.
She opened the store last May to capture a share of the neighborhood’s resurgence and also to be closer to long-time clients who have had to drive nearly 25 miles to shop at her other store, Kathy’s, which is in Midwest City, Okla.
“The response has been good,” Jacobson said. “The new store already is busier than our unit in Midwest City, and business there is strong. Paseo is close to a very affluent section of Oklahoma City.”
Jacobson said women in Oklahoma City look at style first and price tags second when shopping for their wardrobes.
“If the look is right, they’ll buy it.”
Bestselling labels at Kathy’s on Paseo include Central Falls, Sharon Young and Telluride Clothing Co., along with Brighton accessories.
Gil and Janet Mitchell are so bullish on Oklahoma City that they have three retail venues that cater to unique niches. The Lingerie Store, open about a year, features luxury innerwear and some hard-to-find sizes, such as bras in sizes 32A to 44G. Urban Classics opened in 1995 and accents better and contemporary styles. And Gil’s, a better juniors and contemporary business, opened in 1985 and now has two units: in college town Norman, Okla., and in Oklahoma City.
“We cater to a sophisticated segment of the population,” explained Gil Mitchell.
Business is good at all three stores and is lead by strong double-digit gains at Gil’s.
“We love Oklahoma City for its business environment, cost of living and easy lifestyle,” said Gil Mitchell. “One of our best customers is a neurosurgeon from New York City. He and his wife could have lived anywhere in the world. But they chose Oklahoma City because of the opportunities for doing business, a central location and the ease of the lifestyle. We think they made a great choice.”