At the height of the recession, Norman and Marlene Weiss realized their Plainview plus-size women's store, named alight, was struggling.
Their store sold to a range of plus-size customers, from a trendy crowd favoring edgy styles to traditional and conservative types. But as the recession swept through the economy, the store couldn't compete with larger chains that were slashing prices to sell to newly frugal consumers.
Ultimately they decided on a gamble. At a time when other retailers were limiting their risk, they became even more specialized: catering to a niche within the plus-size category.
"We said, let's make some changes," Norman Weiss said.
When alight had opened in the spring of 2007, the Weisses figured they had many advantages. Norman Weiss had run alight.com, an online plus-size women's business catering to fast-fashion, edgy styles, since 1999. They knew plus-size customers had long been underserved, especially the younger ones. When they opened the Plainview store, they decided it made sense to diversify their inventory and try to attract a wider customer base.
For a while that formula worked. Norman Weiss said sales increased nicely until the very end of 2008.
In 2009 customers pulled back. The Weisses tried running promotions. They considered leasing space to another retailer within the store. They discussed targeting the junior and plus-size junior market exclusively.
As they debated options the Weisses noticed that accessories were selling well. College and high school customers also had discovered the store.
Those observations led the Weisses to refocus the store on the edgy, trendy fashions they sold online. "We're not going to muddy it [inventory] even more, we're going to go even more young and trendy because that's a customer who's even more underserved," Norman Weiss said.
That trendier market comes with risks.
"It's a very fickle customer that always wants what's hottest," said Alison Jatlow Levy, a Manhattan-based retail strategist at the consulting firm Kurt Salmon. "You have to get the product right and have the product in the store at the right time."
The Weisses traded in the Old Country Road store's minimalist look for more funky displays filled with props like an antique radio and sewing machine. They almost tripled their accessory section, finding that scarves, jewelry and bags sold well to budget-conscious consumers. They created Marlene's Jewels, a jewelry store within the store. They brought in prom dresses.
Customers began to respond. "We found that our average order went up because we were more of a niche," Norman Weiss said. The store also continued to attract women in their 40s and 50s with "a youthful attitude," he said.
Specializing has a long history, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, a Port Washington market research firm. "There is a formula that made retail success stories 25 years ago, and that was being unique and special, catering to a target audience with the best product. That formula has resurfaced because of the recession."
Now the Weisses project that both the online and store sales will return to the 2008 level by the end of this year. They say online revenues are more than $2 million a year and store revenues are more than $200,000 a year.
Customers like Sarah Insolera, 34, of Valley Stream, said the fit of the clothes, and prices, are "comfortable."
Caryn Richman, 54, of Commack, self-described as city chic, said the styles have made her an alight fan. Moreover, Marlene Weiss will search for items online and order them, or direct her to another store.
"If you're hip and you want what's on the page of Lucky magazine," Richman said, "this is your shop."