Matching teens, fashions takes nimbleness, work

September 17, 1995|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff Writer

Can't anybody get teens to buy clothes these days?

Back-to-school sales plunged at the Gap last month. Same for Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, as well as for most retailers.

The entire apparel business is in a funk. Has been for years.

Don't tell Gerald Sidle. His Pacific Edge boutique in Marley Station mall has trouble keeping clothes on the racks sometimes.

Pacific Edge, a small young men's and women's apparel store with a California/skateboard flavor, is defying industry trends and belying industry excuses. Excuses like: "There are no fashion trends." "Young adults spend all their money on boomboxes and software." "The economy's too slow."

Mr. Sidle's sales last month popped by 10 percent over August 1994, which had soared by 20 percent from the same period in 1993. He's selling $400 worth of merchandise per square foot each year, he said. In the mall business, $300 is considered good.

Marley Station general manager Ed Ladd can't talk about the vital financial statistics of Pacific Edge and Mr. Sidle. But he wishes he could.

"You want so bad to make it so clear how good this guy is," he said. "Let me put it this way. He's the top performer in his category" in the mall.

The secrets to Pacific Edge's success are nimbleness, hard work and brands, brands, brands.

The Gap, especially, relies largely on "private label" house brands. By contrast, Mr. Sidle, 60, is constantly probing the marrow of teen fashion to discern the next cult designer brand, the next No Fear, Stussy, Billabong, Vans or Yaga.

When he sees an embryonic hit label, he buys. In a big way. When he sees the same brand show up in the department store next door -- years later, usually -- he stops buying.

"When it gets to the point where everyone's wearing them, our customers don't want them," he said. "They want to come in here and find something that's a little different than [what] the mass merchants have."

The skateboards lining the back wall, which match the store's pastel, West Coast color scheme, boost the coolness factor. So do the wetsuits and other surfing accessories. (The store's 2,700 square feet of selling space don't allow room for surf boards.)

The 4-year-old store doesn't make much money on skateboards, Mr. Sidle said. But they pull in traffic.

In a way, it's unfair to measure Pacific Edge against big national chains like Merry-Go-Round. Mr. Sidle runs just the one store. Merry-Go-Round has more than 900. Mr. Sidle can get garments on two weeks' notice. Merry-Go-Round must order six months or more in advance.

Like Merry-Go-Round, Mr. Sidle's store is aimed at males and females ages 15 to 25. Like Merry-Go-Round, the style is casual. Pacific Edge sells lots of jeans, T-shirts, jumpers and plaid knit button-downs. The store's young employees, who sometimes accompany Mr. Sidle on buying trips to New York and Atlantic City, form a trend intelligence network.

Pacific Edge also sells "leisure" shoes that look like basketball or tennis shoes, but are made for street wear. The category, dominated in the store by lesser-known brands, has boomed -- up 20 percent this year and up 30 percent last year. T-shirts -- embroidered, dyed or screened -- are also hot.

"He has the merchandise that young people are looking for," Mr. Ladd said. "He's amazingly able to stay on top of it. He can react fast because he's the owner and he's here on the property."

Mr. Sidle, who has three grandchildren, comes from a retail clan. His grandfather and father founded Sidle's Department Store, which served Glen Burnie for many years. It has since closed, but Mr. Sidle until a few years ago ran Sidle's Jean Scene, a specialty apparel boutique in Harundale Mall.

Four years ago, after initially thinking about retiring, Mr. Sidle decided to move to Marley Station and create a new store. Its success has prompted continued inquiries from other mall managers who want Pacific Edge to open more stores.

"We get people that come in here all the time and assume we're a national chain," said Mr. Sidle, something of a surf dude himself.

Mr. Sidle, who still personally buys 60 percent of the merchandise for his store, politely declines expansion offers. He's busy enough. But he's not about to retire.

"If anything I'm probably working harder now than I did 10 years ago," he said. "You've really got to be into it and aware of what's happening. You can't just come in for a few hours and expect it to work out the way you want to."

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