For 65 years, EbLens has evolved with its industry, but its values have always stayed constant, President Richard Seaman says. “Our main goal is to give the customer the right product in a fantastic shopping environment.”
Based in Torrington, Conn., EbLens operates 38 stores that offer clothing and footwear from active brands such as Nike, Jordan, adidas and New Era fused with lifestyle products from Timberland, LRG, Smoke Rise and Soho Babe. The company’s history goes back to 1949, when friends Ebner “Eb” Glooskin and Leonard “Len” Seaman opened EbLens Workingman Store in downtown New Britain, Conn.
The new and popular store specialized in clothes for the blue-collar work force of that era. “We sold everything: work shoes, work clothes, hats, jackets, socks and underwear,” Seaman explains.
At the time of the Vietnam War, EbLens changed its business model. Many of its customers’ employers were moving their manufacturing-based businesses out of New England. “It was creating somewhat of a void,” he says.
EbLens transitioned to an Army and Navy surplus store with a product assortment that included fatigues, paratrooper boots, camping equipment, knives, sleeping bags, ammo boxes and compasses. “We stayed with that concept through the Vietnam conflict,” Seaman says.
When the war ended, “We gave up the machetes and we became EbLens Casual Clothing and Footwear,” he continues. The company also started moving into neighborhoods and rural areas so it could be closer to its customers than its major competitors.
It was then that a new fashion trend was emerging with young people wearing jeans, work boots and sneakers. It was a look being adopted by both men and women alike. “We stayed in that niche, serving those small markets,” he says.
In the late 1990s, EbLens saw the potential to increase sales by servicing inner city markets that were clamoring for fashion inspired by a more urban lifestyle. “In 2000, we started looking at how to open a store geared towards those customers,” Seaman recalls.
After doing some research, EbLens opened its first store geared specifically to urban fashion in Brockton, Mass., in 2004, across the street from Brockton High School. “It was the largest public high school east of the Mississippi River,” Seaman says, noting that it had a population of 4,500 students.
“From day one, it was a success. EbLens became that market’s destination for the hottest streetwear of that time,” he continues. “That was another key transition for us which set the stage for the even bigger opportunity that is unfolding right now.” The company now has locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York.
Fast forward to 2012 when EbLens joined forces with KarpReilly LLC, a private equity firm based in Greenwich, Conn. After decades of success and having thrived through the financial crisis of 2008, EbLens embarked on yet another transition; one that would kick off a wave of aggressive expansion within its New England home and into the surrounding markets beyond.
EbLens had become not only a key destination for streetwear, but also successfully transitioned into a major player in the modern day sneaker game. “We saw the opportunity we had to expand [with them],” he says. “With the demand for our merchandise elevating higher and higher, we were taking our stores and customers to new heights. Their expertise with consumer products was something we could use to really push us over the top.”
Together, EbLens and KarpReilly are positioning for further store expansion, taking the EbLens brand from local New England neighborhoods to some of the very best malls throughout the northeast. Also in their sights is the entry into the boundless market of ecommerce. The next chapter of EbLens story has just begun.
A Student of Retail
EbLens recently appointed Paul Eusebio its general merchandise manager, tasked with leading its future growth. A longtime student of the industry, “On top of buying, I’ve done everything from cut boxes open to store management to district management,” he says. “I’m kind of a retail junkie at heart.”
A native of Canada, Eusebio previously worked for the Bata Shoe Company and Roots Canada Ltd. Additionally, “I spent the last 10 years with Foot Locker Inc. on both sides of the border,” he adds.
Eusebio saw a great opportunity when he joined EbLens. “The interesting thing about EbLens is, when you are inside the industry looking at all the channels of distribution, specifically our corner of retail,” he says. “These are the guys you want to be like someday.
“We have access to tons of product,” Eusebio continues. “We also have an interesting territory that we can definitely say is our own.”
Out and Ahead
Eusebio plans to build on EbLens’ foundation. “That to me was the most compelling thing,” he says. “My experience can help our company evolve from where we were into what we’re going to become.”
Already, EbLens has firmly established itself as a retailer that satisfies the demands of its customers wherever it operates. “That’s not a bad gig,” he says. “But we have to become more of a directional retailer; a place our customers will turn to for what is next and not just what is now.”
For that role, EbLens draws comparison of its outlook to brands like Apple Inc., Eusebio says. “Apple has always been a brand that tells you what you need before you need it,” he says. “Whatever the latest trends developing from a footwear standpoint are, we are working to communicate those ideas early.
“We want to be farther out and farther ahead of what’s next on the street,” he continues. “We want to tell our consumer what is next and then we need to give it to them.”
But staying ahead of trends can be challenging, Eusebio admits. With technology moving faster and faster, “Information is not something that is exclusive to the big companies anymore. If something is hot, we don’t necessarily get to be the first to find out.”
To keep current, EbLens tries to stay close to its primary customers, “the teenage guy and his female counterpart who are up on the latest street fashion,” Eusebio says. Along with its stable of brands, EbLens’ merchants are constantly working to present the newest looks in streetwear through social media like Instagram, through its account @eblensfootwear and with the hashtag #Eblenslook.
The responses EbLens gets helps measure interest in new ideas and can ultimately direct product assortments. “That type of interaction lets us know if we are on the right track to what is next,” Eusebio says.
Engagement through social media also enables EbLens to inform followers when it will launch limited edition products. In recent years, EbLens has worked to elevate its standing in product distribution with all its key vendors. On top of enjoying strong partnerships with the most sought after brands, EbLens also finds itself positioned as a key distribution point in its market for the best and most exclusive products those brands have to offer.
“Strengthening EbLens’ association with our brands’ hottest products is a key part of my role,” Eusebio says. “Broadening our access to service new categories our customers are interested in is also key. Consistently bringing our customers the best gives us credibility with them. It really helps build customer loyalty when you have something they want that isn’t that easy to get.
“And ultimately these products help drive people back into our stores,” he continues, “which is key for any retailer.”
Eusebio goes on to explain that EbLens’ access to limited edition products was granted because of the evolution of its stores. “The strength of this company has always been in stores,” he asserts. “We’ve done a lot of work ... [to] have a much more exciting and relevant shopping experience in our stores.”
An ongoing project, Eusebio looks to EbLens’ future not only online, but especially in brick and mortar. With upcoming expansion in 2015, customers can look for EbLens to break new ground with a flagship store opening first quarter in New Haven, Conn.
“The store will be the most complete experience we can provide to our customers whose fashion is so heavily influenced by sneakers,” he says. “Everything – from what we carry to where we put it, to the fixture it’s presented on and even the sign that completes the story – will be elevated further then where we have already reached.
“Comprehensive storytelling for the brands that make up EbLens’ assortment is a main focus,” Eusebio continues. “From the journey starting with the outside windows and eventually through the cash wrap, EbLens wants the customer to find not only the hottest shoes but any and all of the products to compliment them. We want to be the first destination when our customers go out to find the latest in street fashion – from toe-to-head.”
‘A Great Ride’
Seaman sees a strong future for EbLens. “We try to be better than our competitor, and we’ve been very fortunate to be included in all our brands top tiers of distribution,” he says. “It’s been a privilege and fantastic opportunity.”
Eusebio also sees continued success. “I can’t say enough about how good a job they’ve done with their stores and people throughout the years,” he says. “It’s very interesting to look back and see where we came from. You really get a good sense of how much all our [business] partners want us to succeed. That’s a great, great thing. It’s not always difficult to be a big company, but it’s difficult to be a good company – especially one that everyone roots for.
“It’s going to be a great ride [because we’re] looking to serve the customer more,” he continues. “Having succeeded through so much change, it just seems like the company is poised to do anything. We’re positioned to do very well as we continue our latest evolution into the future.”