This retailer continues to dominate the fashion scene at one of the East Coast’s most popular summer tourist destinations. The latest cultural flashpoint for those in the know is MTV’s newest reality show “Jersey Shore,” which has fascinated some, entertained many, and aggravated others with its over-the-top portrayal of stereotypical New Jersey Shore residents. But Jeff Davidson, who’s been coming to the shore since 1974 when his father purchased the iconic B&B Department Store, said the show presented an opportunity for the chain.

“The notoriety of the show is driving more people to the shore and our location-specific merchandise,” he said, referring to the chain’s sweatshirts, t-shirts, and other clothing items emblazoned with the name of a town or simply “Jersey Shore.”

Davidson is the executive vice president of B&B Department Stores North, LLC, which is half of the original chain once jointly owned by his father and another family. The company split in 2006, and Davidson and his team now run two stores in Lavallette, NJ and a third in Seaside Park. He said B&B is different from most shore stores: it’s a full-line department store geared toward summer. The store sells primarily bathing suits, summer apparel, and beach accessories like hats, sunglasses, and sandals, and it has a growing section of location-specific clothing.

“You can’t go to a local mall for these items, you need to drive down the shore, and we have the biggest selection and the best prices,” said Davidson.

Smart buying

That’s because B&B goes above and beyond its local competitors to source the hottest merchandise at the best prices. Most Jersey Shore retailers go to the Atlantic City and Maryland shows, and many go to New York as well. But Davidson and his buyers rarely see them at the shows in Orlando, and they’re largely on their own at the shows in Las Vegas and California, where they talk to vendors twice a year.

Davidson explained this keeps B&B a whole season ahead of its competitors; the items flying off its shelves last August are only now popping up in area department stores as hot items for spring. Davidson said the company has been going out to California for many years, explaining that it’s monumentally beneficial to experience a fashion culture based on summer every day of the year.

“Our success comes from our ability year after year to deliver the products our customers want at a great price,” he said.

B&B’s junior’s buyer, Amanda Caggiano, weighed in with the biggest trends she and her team are following for next season. Specifically, she said they are seeing novelty tops with both an edgy look, featuring stud and sequin details, and a feminine look, with floral applique cut-outs as well as crochet and lace features. Alternative bottom lengths, like five-inch shorts, a wide range of denim washes, and destruction features are also popular.

As important as keeping ahead of national trends is knowing what B&B’s customers want to wear. Caggiano said she and her team start wide, sourcing for all the trends in the market, paying close attention to sales reports from the stores to narrow those trends down during the summer.

“Last year, we were hearing that maxi dresses, long, flowing cover-up pieces, were all the rage, but that trend didn’t translate at retail for us,” Caggiano said. “This year, everyone is talking about rompers, which we are testing in our juniors department, but we are taking a wait-and-see approach before fully committing, unlike traditional department stores.”

Davidson added that he hears all the time how B&B customers won’t shop for summer clothing at their local stores, instead waiting to make it down to the shore. “They trust us to have the best products, and we take that trust seriously,” he said.

Looking toward summer

Even with all the success B&B has been enjoying, it’s seen its fair share of challenges in the last year as the economy beat up retailers across the country. Davidson said this business is unique since there is always a summer and there are always people heading to the beach in need of a new bathing suit or pair of sunglasses. And in a recession, more families are choosing for a weekend at the shore instead of a trip that requires extensive travel.

He said weather, gas prices, and the economy effect the fringe months in B&B’s selling season, specifically May, June, and September, but rarely impact July and August. The key is planning. B&B tracks past years’ data and staffs accordingly. The company also adjusts hours by the season to reduce costs. Caggiano and her team have perfected the art of buying in the off season, bringing in enough merchandise to keep the stores interesting, but not to overwhelm the reduced customer traffic.

So 2009 was still a good enough year for him and his team to continue looking for new locations to grow the chain, although he said he doesn’t have a specific plan in place.

“We’re always looking for the right neighborhood and the right rent ratio,” he said. “Right now, landlords are keeping rents as high as they were before the recession, hoping to make a lot of money in a short period of time instead of trying to attract long term tenants. But as fewer retailers are willing to meet those rents, that’ll change, and we’ll be ready.”

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