Houston Chronicle | Reserve Supply Co

Lifestyle stores survive on the edge by being edgier

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By David Kaplan

December 15, 2013

The month-old Saint Cloud in Rice Village sells designer jewelry, lounge wear and even pet accessories from around the world. Goods also include espadrille flats, from London-based Prism and offered exclusively in Houston, that are among the store's best-selling items.

But Saint Cloud co-owner Cecelia Marquez has prepared herself for the moment when a bigger Houston store with deeper pockets takes Prism or another line away.

"It's inevitable," she said. "You're happy for the designer when it happens, and you want them to do well, but it can hurt."

A small lifestyle store - a shop that offers an eclectic mix of artisan-made items - faces other challenges, too. Some designer websites sell the same products for less, for example.

Amanda Valentine, co-owner of the lifestyle store Ph Design Shop, said she often jokes that her store, also in Rice Village, is a "benevolent showroom" for retail websites.

But all is not lost as long as a small shop can cultivate a compelling in-store experience, Valentine said. You gain customer loyalty, she said, by creating the sense that, "If it is in the store, it's special."

"You want it make it a place where people walk in and think, 'I want to look at everything,' " she said.

Almost like museums

Owners of such lifestyle boutiques often have lofty visions. Their stores are almost like museums, curated with their favorite objects from artisans they like.

And when they lose an exclusive to a bigger retailer in town, it's no fun. But they say they've learned to deal with it.

"It happens," said Heather Bruen, co-owner of Reserve Supply Co., a casual menswear store that also sells motorcycle gear, grooming products and, soon, outdoor equipment.

When her store opened more than two years ago, she carried a certain hot-selling T-shirt. But then Urban Outfitters began carrying it, so she dropped it, she said.

She also has a sneaker line that has done well, but now the malls are carrying it. It's losing its uniqueness, she said, so she is scaling back.

Valentine also takes it in stride when she loses an exclusive at Ph Design, which features paper and leather goods and home accessories.

If she is first in town with something, chances are "the style tentacles" will find it, she said. "You have to be constantly seeking and searching. You can't rest on your laurels."

The trick, she said, is to be six months ahead of the big guys.

"By the time I see it everywhere, I'm over it," she said.

Friendlier in Houston

Luke Cosby, owner of SHDBX Showroom, a Houston-based wholesaler of designer men's apparel, works with both large and small retailers and aims to make both happy.

"I give smaller stores edgier pieces from a collection," he said, allowing them to cultivate a reputation as a trend-setter. Nordstrom or Barney's would be less interested in them, he said.

He sells one line of Red Wing boots to Barney's, for example, and a different line to Reserve Supply.

Trang Nguyen, co-owner of Myth & Symbol in Rice Village, will sometimes share one of her exclusives with another local shop, she said. She'll carry one line from the brand and the other store will carry another.

"I've talked to shop owners at trade shows, and I've noticed that in other cities it's really competitive among the different independent retailers," Nguyen said, "but in Houston it's much friendlier."

Marquez said Saint Cloud and other small lifestyle stores regularly send their customers to each other.

But online designer retail websites pose a daunting challenge to small boutiques.

A number of brick-and-mortar retailers in the U.S. have gone out of business because discount designer-goods sites can buy in bulk and sell for less, said Gail Rubin, a principal at local boutique public relations agency Studio Communications, and who previously worked in the fashion industry. A small retailer might buy eight units from an artisan, and a large-scale, online discounter can buy 100,000, she said.

Websites can be an ally

But there are also websites that can be a small store's ally, she said.

Farfetch.com, for example, can give a small shop global access. It enables viewers from around the world to order from the store in exchange for a cut of the sale.

It is tough competing with online, said Nguyen of Myth & Symbol, a seller of women's apparel, jewelry, home wear, candles, perfume and prints, many of them exclusives.

Luckily, some designers want to protect their brand and do not like having their items on sale online after a few weeks, she said.

Patricia Peckinpaugh, co-owner of The Ehthereal Room in the River Oaks area, has a somewhat different business model for her month-old life- style store, offering merchandise that can't be found anywhere else. She and co-owner Minnie Baird have designed most of it.

Peckinpaugh designs jewelry, and Baird designs exotic skin handbags and accessories. They also sell candles, artisan objects and antiques.

There are more than just downsides to being small, said Gene Morgan, co-owner of Settlement Goods & Design in the Montrose area. His store is focused on apparel and design objects made in the U.S.

One advantage of staying small, he said, is that it is easier to create a sense of community. Many of his customers live in the area, he said, giving his store a neighborhood feel.

"I'm the owner and also walk the floor and get to know the loyal customers and give them deals to reward them," he said.