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EbLens' Sales Volume Grows With Urban Strategy

BY ROBIN STANSBURY, The Hartford Courant

April 13, 2008

Richard Seaman remembers being 9 years old and taking inventory in his father's New Britain clothing store and "being bored as can be."

But his boredom soon turned to intense interest.

By the time he was 18, Seaman was traveling to New York to buy merchandise. By his early 20s, he was running the entire store.

Today, more than 40 years later, Seaman can still be found on occasion counting inventory at one of the Connecticut-based retailer's clothing stores, even though they look nothing like they did when he was young.

In fact, at this point, only the name remains the same: EbLens.

Thought that EbLens had all but disappeared?

In one respect, is has. The retailer founded in the 1940s in New Britain as a clothier for the workingman and its later role as a mainstream retailer offering clothing and footwear for the entire family are long removed from the vision of its founders, Ebner Glooskin and Leonard Seaman, the duo who combined their names to create EbLens.

But reinvention has been key to the company's long-term success. And quietly and out of the mainstream the stores continue to thrive.

The Torrington-based retail chain is expanding, opening three to four new stores each year, including in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The company now employs about 400 in 27 EbLens stores.

While declining to reveal revenue figures, Richard Seaman said the company's sales volume has grown by 40 percent since 2004, when the stores underwent their latest transformation. They abandoned the crowded suburban clothing market dominated by retailers like Gap, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch and Kohl's department stores in favor of an urban product line.

"We decided to get out of the Kohl's rat race and serve a different customer," Seaman said recently at the company's small headquarters in the woods of Torrington. "We saw an opportunity in the urban market."

It didn't happen overnight, but the change was significant.

The company closed some of its rural and suburban stores, typically in strip malls or small shopping centers, in places like Colchester and Killingly, Southington and Torrington. They headed to more urban locales, adding stores in East Hartford, Bloomfield, Bridgeport and Worcester.

It cut back on some longtime clothing labels, like Champion and Levi's, in favor of new labels like Ed Hardy, Akademiks, Rocawear, Ecko Red, Phat Farm and Enyce. And they studied successful urban clothing stores in New York City, like Dr. Jay's and Jimmy Jazz.

"They were all bright, alive," said Seaman, 50. "You could feel an energy when you walked into the store."

So EbLens adopted some of the design ideas, such as hardwood flooring instead of carpet, and bright paint colors. The chain's first "urban" store opened in Brockton, Mass., in 2004. The store has since been replicated across Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Already established stores, like the outlet in Bristol, are scheduled to undergo similar renovations during the next year.

"We've been more successful with this format than with anything we've ever done," Seaman said.

Susan Spiggle, head of the marketing department at the University of Connecticut School of Business, said it's not easy for local retailers to compete with national clothing chains, which design, manufacture and sell their own clothing labels.

"It's also not easy to change your image. But for a small regional retailer that has decided not to go head-to-head with the Gap, it seems to me a very smart strategy," Spiggle said. "EbLens is using a niche strategy in the urban market where the other stores aren't competing. They are able to offer value to those customers and in those locations where you don't find the Gaps and Banana Republics."

EbLens' long history began in the 1940s, when the first outlet opened in New Britain as EbLens Workingmen's Store, selling clothes and shoes for industrial, construction and factory workers.

The company slowly expanded and by the mid-1970s had added stores in Southington, the Unionville section of Farmington and Litchfield. By then, the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War, and the company switched gears to capitalize on a popular military look, making its first transformation to EbLens Army Navy. Although the company still sold uniforms, it added popular clothing items such as jeans, pea coats and army jackets and added merchandise like sleeping bags, gas masks and even machetes.

"I don't remember what they cost, but we made a lot of money on those machetes," Seaman said.

By the 1980s, jeans were the company's biggest seller, and EbLens carried brands like Levi's, Lee, Wrangler and Jordache. It was the start of another transformation that would eventually leave the company name as simply EbLens, with 10 stores selling footwear and clothing for the entire family.

Throughout the transformations, the company followed similar patterns, such as choosing locations away from major shopping malls and keeping its stores relatively small at about 6,000 square feet. Footwear also remained a large part of the business, a division run by Seaman's brother, Robert.

Richard Seaman said choosing the right locations is one of the keys to the company's success.

That was proven in 1989, when they opened a store in Mansfield in a ramshackle strip mall on one side of Route 195. A few months later, with business slow, they moved the store almost directly across the street into the small East Brook Mall.

"The store was half the size, but our sales volume increased almost 100 percent," he said. "It convinced us we needed to be smart about choosing our locations.

"And when you go out of your own backyard it gets harder, and you have to work harder to make it a success. We now spend a lot of time before we open a new store looking at the shopping habits of the local customers to find a town that is supportive of the product mix."

EbLens carries a variety of items, from $5 T-shirts to $170 hooded sweat shirts, shoes for $14.99 up to a two-pack of Nike tennis shoes for $350.

"Retail is retail. What we are doing today is no different than what we've done the past 50 years. The product is just a little different," Seaman said. "You just have to pay attention and learn your customer."

One thing that hasn't changed is the company's quirky name, which Seaman doesn't like but won't change.

"It's a dumb name that no one can pronounce. There's no one we call for the first time who can pronounce it. We've talked about changing the name 55 times but we didn't because we already had existing stores we didn't want to change," he said. "We know it's a rough name that means nothing. There's no purpose to it. We'd like to have a name that you hear once and people remember but EbLens is not one of those names."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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