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Leather goods maker expands from online to brick and mortar

Joe Marcellino displays a finished handmade leather briefcase

Joe Marcellino displays a finished handmade leather briefcase in his Huntington showroom. The craftsman, who makes high-end briefcases, satchels and bags for professional men and women, has opened a retail location in Huntington. (Oct. 12, 2013) Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Joe Marcellino has built an Old World-style business selling handmade, custom-ordered bags using the modern tools of online sales and digital marketing. Now, as he attempts to grow, he's testing a more traditional retail channel: a shop, in downtown Huntington.

When Marcellino, owner of Joseph P. Marcellino Bag Co., opened his store two months ago, he took on a new challenge: growing a local clientele that understands his specialized, bespoke operation.

That means a customer who walks into his shop can't purchase any of the briefcases and satchels on display. They are just samples; everything must be custom ordered.

"I am building my reputation one on one," Marcellino said. "My brand is never going to get built if I come out of the gate mass-producing."

Another challenge is building a workforce. He has two part-time assistants and is working on bumping up production by training three apprentices in the studio adjoining the shop. He hopes eventually to open other small stores, in Manhattan and on the East End.

The company is in a rarefied niche, retail experts said, but it can benefit from riding the wave of general retail trends, including the recent expansion of online-only merchants such as eyeglass retailer Warby Parker and men's clothing seller Bonobos into physical shops.

"You can compete on the Internet," but with a brick and mortar store "you have this three-dimensional real place where you can build an addictive experience for your customers," said Robin Lewis, CEO of The Robin Report, a retail strategy newsletter.


An artist at heart

Marcellino, 43, who began making leather accessories for friends 10 years ago, has managed his family's restaurant, run a recording studio and built computer networks for restaurants. But he also considers himself an artist, initially expressing himself through music and eventually learning to design and make leather bags with the help of books.

The leather he uses, made with a process called vegetable tanning, is too thick to be stitched by machine, he said. Even the holes for the stitches must be made by hand. Each bag takes one to three days to produce, and prices range from $250 to $1,800 or more.

In 2009, after he had success selling bags online through eBay and Etsy, Marcellino launched his own website, which he runs with the help of his wife, Jean Marcellino, a fashion designer. He advertises on online style forums and social media and now draws customers from Asia to Europe. Last year he made 300 bags.


Know your market

He likens himself to a fine tailor, designing bag features ranging from an iPad pocket to a gun holster to satisfy individual customer requests.

Marcellino has researched his competitors, such as British leather-goods maker Swaine Adeney Brigg, as well as his target clientele of lawyers, doctors and professors. Lewis suggested Marcellino look at total sales in his price segment to gauge growth potential. "That would tell him how many apprentices he would need," he said, and whether he can support more stores.

Marcellino can also benefit from renewed support for local shops and interest in artisanal endeavors, said Alice Bredin, a small business adviser to American Express OPEN. She suggested he hold store events to demonstrate how his bags are made. He does that informally every evening, leaving the door open so pedestrians can wander in and watch him work.

"He's doing something cool," Bredin said. "People are interested in the whole 'farm-to-table,' how things are made."

Marcellino believes the demand is out there. "As an artist, I see that I can create," he said. "From a business perspective I see that the market is open. The market doesn't have artists like this anymore."

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