Before even opening the doors of its first urban clothing store in 2004, EbLen’s Clothing & Footwear had a problem. As they were unloading the first shipment of merchandise, the dozen or so kids hired to work at the Brockton, Mass. store had to not so gently remind owner and president Richard Seaman that if he was planning to put Yankee hats in the store, he would need to find someone else to work there.
“They said, ‘You have to get those out of here because you’re going to have fights,’” Seaman recalled. Although EbLen’s had stores in Springfield, Webster, and New Bedford, Mass. that were selling as many Yankee hats as Red Sox hats, Brockton’s proximity to Boston meant the company needed to reevaluate its priorities.
“The first thing we did when we got back to our home office was order more Red Sox hats,” Seaman said. “That was the only mistake of the opening; we adjusted quickly, and, in the big picture, it didn’t mean much. The urban changeover was a success, and there was no looking back.”
Although this incident may seem inconsequential, the appreciation EbLen’s has for the differences in each neighborhood it enters is one of the main reasons that the 13 stores it’s opened since 2004 have been profitable almost since day one. In addition, since 2004, the company’s sales have grown 40%. EbLen’s has no formal merchandising program in place, but what it has is an understanding that to break into the urban clothing market, it’s best to leave most of the merchandising choices to employees, not executives.
Unlike other major retailers that rely on written merchandising floor sets and plan-a-grams formulated at corporate headquarters and sent down the chain for implementation, EbLens lets its store management and employees make most of the merchandising and display decisions. “We try to make each store feel like it’s a neighborhood mom-and-pop,” Seaman said. “Although the stores are very similar, they’re all unique.”
Unlike most other urban clothing stores, EbLen’s provides a one-stop-shop experience for the whole family, with clothing, footwear, and accessories available for customers of all ages, from newborn to adult. Although the company provides its managers a basic footprint of where each category should go, store personnel direct what key products go where.
“They’re there every day and see what the local customers are looking for,” Seaman said. “In one store, LRG may be ‘the’ brand, while two towns away, you can’t give it away, so why feature it? It’s not that there is a tremendous amount of difference in the number of items or brands, but it is that 10% variation that makes us unique.”
If you walk into an EbLen’s store, Seaman said, and you think you’ve just walked into a one or two-store operation, he’s succeeded in reaching his goal. The key to the company’s success, and a philosophy that’s been present since Seaman’s father, Leonard Seaman, and his partner, Ebner Glooskin, meshed their names together to create EbLen’s, is to know your customers and give them what they want, not what you want to sell them.
“The Vietnam War was going on, and the Army/Navy look became gigantic,” Seaman recalled. “We saw an opportunity. We brought in Army goods, whether it was pea coats, paratrooper boots, or Army fatigues. It was a success, so we changed over and became EbLen’s ArmyNavy.”
The company expanded its military line to include both soft and hard goods, such as ammo boxes, machetes, and footlockers. The business was booming with the company’s male clientele, but also building was EbLen’s women’s business as girls began wearing men’s clothes. When companies like Levi’s, Wrangler, and Lee developed women’s lines, EbLen’s saw the opportunity to expand its relationship with its vendors and began carrying women’s name brand merchandise.
When the war ended, the “in” look changed, and EbLen’s took a hard look at what was selling and what was not. “We still had kids coming in that were camping and buying the hard goods, but it wasn’t the direction we wanted to go,” Seaman said. “We changed again and went from EbLen’s ArmyNavy to EbLen’s Casual Clothing and Footwear. We got rid of the pea coats, ammo boxes, and paratrooper boots and kept the jeans, making them the primary focus along with sneakers as the footwear draw.”
In the 1980s, when brands such as Sergio Valente, Calvin Klein, Jordache, Nike, and Reebok came along, EbLen’s saw its female client base continue to grow, but it was still primarily a men’s store, with much of its growth in footwear. Through the early 1990s, EbLens continued to grow within the smaller secondary markets, successfully offering up-to-date name brand product in local markets where residents would normally have to travel to regional shopping areas to find. This formula worked through the late-’90s, when the secondary markets that EbLen’s had once dominated were invaded.
“Now we had to compete with local competitors such as Bob’s Stores, as well as national players such as Old Navy, Kohl’s, American Eagle, and Famous Footwear—all those specialty stores that previously would only consider opening in major markets and malls,” Seaman said. “Because we avoided the larger markets, when they started entering secondary markets, we didn’t know where to go.”
At the same time as the nationals were expanding into the secondary markets, a few of the company’s stores in communities with growing Hispanic and African American populations were doing well. Recognizing this growth in the urban markets, EbLen’s decided to take a step back and from 2001 to 2003 studied the proper way to develop a store that an inner city or urban customer was looking for. The majority of that time was spent in New York looking at urban retailers.
In 2004, EbLen’s opened its first urban lifestyle store in Brockton Mass., right across from Brockton High. Its prototype was designed as a hip looking store, building on its original clothing and footwear focus, which included brands like Nike, Timberland, Jordan, New Era, and South Pole. EbLens now carries urban brands such as RocaWear, Ed Hardy, Blac Label, Sean John, Akademiks, Phat Farm, and Enyce. EbLen’s has become a small neighborhood specialty store within large densely populated urban areas. As always, EbLen’s has its finger on the pulse of what today’s younger generations want, and Seaman is surprised to see popular brands of the past coming back full force.
“Eighties’ dominant brands like Levi’s and Champion are coming back strong now,” he said. “They’ve made a funny circle. What we sold in the ’80s is coming back for a totally different customer in 2008.”
Seaman is hoping to pass the same sense of ownership he’s had about EbLen’s since he went to work with his father to the managers and employees who now work for him. He wants his people to connect with the customers coming into their stores and become attached to the merchandise they sell, just as he did working the sales floor as a kid for his father and his partner.
“Most people, if you give them a chance to do their thing, will do it better than someone telling them what to do,” he said. “I tell everyone, ‘When we hired you, we hired you to run the place. You’re a big part of a small company, not a small part of a large corporation.’ We try to get the managers and the employees to feel it’s their store now, not someone else’s. It’s how we attach to the customers and the neighborhoods we’re in.”