THE GOLDEN ISLES’ SECRET TREASURE
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, JEWEL OF THE GEORGIA COAST, HOSTS THE HIGHEST-QUALITY SPECIALTY RETAILERS.
Byline: Georgia Lee
St. Simons Island is the country’s best resort, and best-kept secret,” boasted Linda White, owner of Limited Edition, one of the island’s many specialty retailers.
Twenty five miles north of the Florida state line, the natural beauty, history and lifestyle of St. Simons rivals any Florida resort. The Georgia barrier island is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by salt marshes. Ancient moss-draped oaks form a canopy over sandy lanes and quaint streets, lined with oleander and hibiscus.
The rich history of St. Simons ranges from undisturbed burial grounds of early Native Americans to the site of The Battle of Bloody Marsh, where the British defeated Spain in 1742. Fort Frederica, built by James Oglethorpe and Christ Church, founded by Charles Wesley in the 1740s, are unique tourist attractions.
The pier, village and Neptune Park are gathering places, with playgrounds and picnic areas near the nation’s oldest working lighthouse. St. Simons is known for exclusive golf courses, along with kayaking, fishing and cruises. Cottages and beach houses coexist with opulent estates, including a home built by AmericasMart founder John Portman in the Eighties. The Cloister Hotel, which still requires jackets at dinner, has hosted affluent vacationers for most of the last century.
This 12-by-4-mile island overflows with stores, around 20 in women’s apparel, yet zoning and maintenance avoids a garish commercial look. The village mixes galleries, antiques, restaurants and diverse shops, like Moondance, a vintage store specializing in retro Hawaiian shirts, as well as Go Fish manufacturers and imports clothing, and gifts with Christian themes.
Lacking the usual commercial chains, restaurants have a distinct character. From a beer and burger on Brogans scenic porch to a light lunch at Delaney’s, to formal dining at the Cloister, there’s something for all.
The best place to stay is the landmark King and Prince, the island’s only beachfront resort. With a European and Moorish-inspired design, its 140 rooms and 44 two-to-three bedroom villas are more luxurious than most homes, with fireplaces and full kitchens.
With too many fine retailers to profile, many bear mention. Sayde’s, a social-occasion retailer, has dressed ladies for social events for generations. Moncrief’s is a longtime sportswear favorite. New hybrids, such as Indigo & Cotton, mix apparel, bath products and gifts for a delightful browsing experience.
Below are four standout independent specialty stores on the isle, all in shops outside the main village. (Mari Max, a St. Simons retailer and DIVA Retail winner, is profiled on page 57.)
Ira Moore, a former senior vice president of operations for Macy’s, is the dean of St. Simons retail. With six stores, Cloister Collection is the biggest independent specialty operation here, and growing.
Despite uncertain economic times, Moore expanded in 2001. With four island stores and one in Atlanta, Moore opened on Amelia Island, Fla., near Jacksonville earlier this year, and launched an e-commerce site in January. In May, Cloister Collection was one of 20 stores nationwide chosen for a Lilly Pulitzer in-store shop. In September, Lilly Pulitzer honored Cloister Collection as the best merchandised shop in the chain.
Moore opened Cloister Collection in 1987, on the Cloister hotel grounds in Sea Island, the ritziest part of St. Simons. In 1990, he bought Evelyne Tallman, a special-occasion store that kept its name. In 1994, he opened an Atlanta store, and, in 1995, a Cloister Collection in the new Shops of Sea Island.
The 5,000-square-foot flagship, originally owned by Macy’s, has the broad product range of a mini-department store. The 2,380-square-foot Evelyne Tallman is a romantic cottage, with mother-of-the-bride, bridal trouseaus and some sportswear. Evening separates have become a hot area for all stores, with bestsellers by Chetta B, Victoria Royal and Kay Unger. Sales of Lilly Pulitzer grew 134 percent since the shop opened. The shop will roll out to more stores, pending approval.
Overall, sportswear is the fastest growing area. Contemporary looks have done well, along with updated traditional lines. Bestsellers are Ann May, Tamotsu and Krazy Larry’s basic stretch cotton sportswear. Sweaters, cotton blouses and shrunken “bubble tops” have been key items this year.
Strong vendor relationships assure Moore of occasional exclusive arrangements, but more often, exclusives refer to specific styles within a line. Private label has boosted margins and profits. Buying power enabled Moore to increase private label programs to 18 percent of total sales, a figure that should grow to 38 percent next spring.
“Private label has helped combat rising business costs. Rents, along with property values, have soared. Payroll has grown 23 to 27 percent of total costs, and staffing remains a challenge, said Moore.
Internet sales, launched in January, have grown to 3 percent of total sales of more than $4 million. Favorite vendors — Lilly Pulitzer, Ann May — and impulse or gift items, such as slippers or one-minute manicure sets, have sold well.
This summer, Moore significantly lowered inventories, and was in good shape for strong early fall sales.
It may be a men’s store offshoot, but Lady Outfitters is no afterthought. Owner Elizabeth Aylward is building the original traditional/athletic store into a moderate-to-better casual sportswear niche.
After four years here, and despite cutting her teeth in retail, Aylward still feels like the new kid on the block, among so many well-established women’s stores.
Aylward and brother Frank Still were trained by their father, Frank Still Sr., a former Belk executive who opened Gentlemen’s Outfitters in Brunswick, Ga., 18 years ago. He opened an Athletic Attic franchise on St. Simons in 1980, which then combined with a second Gentlemen’s Outfitters seven years ago, in the Shops at Sea Island.
Aylward opened the 1,400-square-foot Lady Outfitters next door in 1997, and a Brunswick addition two years later. St. Simons stores total 9,000 square feet.
The women’s store grew in response to women who shopped the men’s store. Originally, Lady Outfitters followed the men’s stores’ traditional direction and added activewear lines. The new space brought expansion opportunities.
“There are plenty of dressy and bridge stores here,” said Aylward. “We added better sportswear to our athletic focus, at more moderate prices — capri pants for $55 to $65, instead of $120.”
Active islanders still shop Lady Outfitters for Moving Comfort, Champion and LBH athletic apparel. Best-selling Soffe shorts, cotton shorts at $8 retail, sell hundreds each year. Athletic apparel is around 20 percent of sales. Sportswear lines such as Berek and Belle Point sweaters and Bentley Arbuckle have helped build a new identity.
Aylward targets affluent customers, many stay-at-home moms, with casual, easy-wear, easy-care clothing.
“St. Simons is laid-back, yet extremely social, with lots of old money,” she said. “We serve soccer moms looking for an outfit to wear to a party or a barbecue.”
With around 12 sportswear lines, Aylward added Brighton accessories in May, which played a big part in a total 15 to 29 percent store sales increase this year. Lady Outfitters is now a Brighton “Heart” store, designated for significant volume.
Tourists respond to nationally recognized brands, said Aylward. A Texas shopper bought $1,000 of Brighton in one day. Liz Claiborne divisions Liz & Co., Liz Sport and Liz Jeans, resonate with tourists. Sales reps help Aylward adjust her Liz selection, avoiding department-store repetition. With strong tourist sales, Aylward now focuses on building the local clientele, with pampering and top-notch customer service.
“It helps that they often already know me through the men’s business,” she said.
With a unique formula of custom apparel, key lines like St. John and a great shoe department, Limited Editions is a one-of-a-kind store that’s inspired fierce customer loyalty for more than 20 years.
Originally from the Northeast, owner Linda White opened here in 1978, after her husband transferred to the area. Previous retail experience did little to prepare her for this then-sleepy Southern town.
“We had requests for chartreuse wool gabardine pants. We didn’t have them,” she said. “I saw the demand for color from women who wouldn’t be caught dead in colors elsewhere. Color makes women look pretty, and husbands love it.”
White, who only wears black or navy herself, set out to fill the need for color, and every other request, to the smallest detail. Painstakingly, she cultivated small artisans from all over, who could customize apparel in color, size, sleeve length, silhouette — whatever customers wanted.
Hope Designs, a Dallas designer, makes jackets of multicolored ribbons woven together. Gretchen Underwood, a Sante Fe, N.M.-based designer, Judy McCormick, a Vermont resource, and Annikiki Karvinen of Finland, all do jackets in combinations of colors, patterns and texture, with specified fits. White takes the same approach with sweaters and handmade leather.
Pouring over swatches, in hundreds of shades, she learns specific customer needs, such as a small collar for a short neck. This time-intensive approach is neither easy nor cheap, said White. Custom jackets can top $2,000 retail, and at average, range from $600 to $400. But customers will pay for lasting quality and personalized style, she said. The payoff is customer loyalty and a total lack of competition.
“Nobody here does this kind of thing,”she said. “You have to be willing to work the business, which can include returns and more hassles than a regular store.”
One-third of sales for the 1,400-square-foot store come from custom-made apparel. A range of vendors, including Le Painty and Italian line Zanella, make custom pants for the store. Blouses, from best-selling resource Starington, exactly match pants, jackets, etc. White takes color swatches to shoe markets for exactly matched shoes, which are often important to Southern customers, she said.
Footprints, a leased shoe department, offers 20 resources displayed on a wall that looks like an art gallery. Lines, such as Icon’s handpainted clogs with scenes from famous artists, sell from $200 to $235. More than 100 pairs sold this summer. One customer bought four pairs. Other lines, such as Margo, are all unique or whimsical.
Two-thirds of inventory are from wholesale lines such as Teri Jon, St. John and Nicole Miller.
Sales increased the past two years, along with more year-round traffic, and her affluent local customers, who “may put off home repairs or car buying, but won’t put off buying clothes,” she said.
White, a veteran retailer who has seen stores come and go, firmly carved a niche.
“Over 20 years, vendor loyalty, and customer loyalty, deepens,” said White. “It’s a loyalty that works both ways.”
“We’re pushing South Georgia into fashion,” said Michael Stogner, co-owner, Tamary’s. “We try to stay at least six to eight months ahead, more in sync with New York.”
Tamary’s is taking customers beyond their comfort zone with more contemporary, fashion-forward clothing.
Tami Stogner, Michael’s wife, is a St. Simons native and former buyer for Cloister Collection. She opened a 1,000-square-foot women’s better-to-bridge store 13 years ago, combining her name with Mary, her mother and then-partner. Michael, a former construction engineer, joined her a decade ago, and they opened a second, 1,600-square-foot location two years ago.
While the original store has a more casual mix, from Michael Simon sweaters to Tommy Bahama, the new store is more forward, with slightly higher prices. Prices overall range from $150 to $600 for a complete outfit.
Avoiding extremely bare or tight styles, the new store offers belted hip pants in techno-fabrics by Jenne Maag, Equestrian or Votre Nom, Custo’s T-shirts and jeans by Edwin or Calvin Klein.