No-frills attire for babies Start-up: The first Earth Babies store opened recently in Towson Town Center, and the plan is to build a chain of infant-clothing stores.

November 17, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

When Shelley Sarmiento became pregnant and went shopping for baby clothes, she couldn't find the nonfrilly clothes she wanted.

Her solution was to open her own baby-clothing store, the first, she says, to sell clothes for the newborn- to 24-month-old set, exclusively.

A rather extreme measure to take to dress her 9-month-old daughter, perhaps, but Sarmiento is the vice president of real estate and construction at the White House, a chain of 47 women's apparel stores owned by her husband, Rick Sarmiento.

The first Earth Babies store opened in September at Towson Town Center, and a Maryland-based national chain could soon follow. Sarmiento plans to open her second store next month in Naples, Fla., and a third is scheduled for Annapolis in the spring. If all goes as expected, she said, she hopes to have six stores in a year and more soon thereafter.

The 600-square-foot stores are filled with mostly 100 percent cotton or natural fibers clothing, about 50 percent of which carry the Earth Babies label. The merchandise is decidedly not frilly, pink, blue or traditional. While some of the clothing can be bought for less than $15, most of it is more expensive than at a discount or department store.

"Some people think our prices are a little high, but I think they are affordable," Sarmiento said. "Our biggest customers are our gift customers." Specifically, she said, many grandparents come to shop for their grandchildren.

On a recent day, a grandmotherly looking woman had just walked into the store to browse when a mother outside with a full stroller mouthed to her through the glass, "No, it is too expensive."

Sarmiento has strived for a boutique feel inside the store, but Earth Babies has the look of a chain in its polished logo and signage.

The greatest compliment on the store came, Sarmiento said, when a man walked by and said into his cellular phone, "Oh, they have an Earth Babies store in this mall." Obviously, she said, he thought Earth Babies was already a chain.

The greatest challenge to the business may be competing in a market that most analysts believe already has too many stores.

"The question that is left is, is there enough of a market to get a share to have a real business?" asked Skip Briggs, a Severna Park-based retail consultant. Apparel stores have the greatest failure rate in retailing, but smart retailers have found micro-niches in the market and taken advantage of them, he said. Earth Babies may be able to do just that, he said.

A civil engineer by trade, Sarmiento ran a permit-expediting business for builders and retail stores. But she was persuaded by Rick Sarmiento to become vice president of real estate for his chain, so she closed her business and moved on several years ago. The two later married.

When she began talking about opening a chain, Sarmiento said, her husband kept putting her off, saying they were too busy.

But one day, Jennifer Levin walked into the White House looking for a job. She had recently moved to Baltimore from New York, where she was a children's clothing buyer for Bloomingdale's. Although impressed with her, the White House didn't have a position.

But Rick Sarmiento suggested that his wife talk with her.

"I called her that night; we decided in three hours we were going to do this," Mrs. Sarmiento said.

Mrs. Sarmiento is the president, and Levin is the vice president. Sarmiento finds store locations; Levin does the buying.

So, when Sarmiento's child passes her second birthday, will Earth Babies expand its inventory? Sarmiento isn't anxious to jump into that market, she said, because she believes that shoppers are less anxious to spend $30 for an outfit for a 5-year-old. But her mother, Joanne Price, who can often be found helping out at the store, said they have had many requests that they carry larger sizes.

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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