Right before COVID hit, Buddy DeMarco, owner of Saltwater Long Island, was contemplating expanding beyond his small mall kiosk at Walt Whitman Shops.
He opened the kiosk at the Huntington Station mall in November 2017 to sell his Long Island-branded coastal apparel after gaining traction selling at fairs.
What started with a limited selection of hats, T-shirts and sweatshirts has grown to over two dozen items from polos to kids' clothing.
With an eye on expansion, DeMarco started scouting locations both inside and outside the mall. Then everything came to a standstill when the mall and most other shopping was closed due to the government shutdown in response to the COVID pandemic.
Sales continued on their website and, with support of customers, the brand was able to get through the worst of COVID. And DeMarco never gave up the idea of expansion.
In April, he was able to secure an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan, which provided capital to purchase merchandise and invest in the new store. After the mall reopened and kiosk sales started to pick up, DeMarco inked a lease Aug. 1 to occupy a vacant storefront in the mall next to Saks Fifth Avenue. The store officially opened Aug. 31.
"The store holds six times more items than the kiosk," says DeMarco, 58, who still operates the kiosk across from Bloomingdale’s.
Newsday spoke with DeMarco about his expansion. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What was business like pre-COVID?
2019 over 2018, I had an 88% increase in sales overall between online and the kiosk. That also included sales from a holiday pop-up store we had at Roosevelt Field for five weeks. By January, I was looking for my next opportunity to keep growth going.
When did you start feeling COVID’s effects?
February and early March the mall hadn’t closed yet, but kiosk sales were going down by the end of February based on talk of COVID.
Why did you decide to expand during a pandemic?
Before COVID, I had been looking at different spaces in the mall for expansion. We clearly outgrew the kiosk. This space was empty in January. An opportunity to get an SBA loan came along and I took the loan. I’m a firm believer in building the brand. When everyone else is in defense mode, I like to go into offensive mode.
How did your online presence help during the pandemic?
Our March and April sales were zero. We struggled, but we continued to push forward. Sales in June skyrocketed online for Father’s Day and didn’t stop.
Have you seen other changes due to COVID?
We currently order our clothing from Peru, and they are having an extremely difficult time with COVID-19 as well. The factories closed in Peru due to COVID. They are now open. But our order lead times are significantly longer. It was 60 days and now it's an 85-day turnaround. We're placing the spring order by Dec. 1 to come in by March.
How has the new store contributed to growth?
Oct. 1-19 sales were up 78% overall over last year. Eighty-five percent of that is the new store. Our online sales are actually down now, about 30% over last year. People are back out shopping.
What do you anticipate for holiday sales if there is a COVID surge?
Clearly it’s uncertain, and I can’t predict the future, but people still need to shop for the holidays, and I’m confident that if people can’t get to stores that online sales will be substantial to support the brand.
Why did you keep the kiosk?
I didn’t want to just disappear from the original location. It’s a billboard for my brand. We have signs directing people to the new location.
How do you feel about the expansion overall?
The storefront sales are three times more than the kiosk for the month of September. Support from new and existing customers has been great. We’ve been very fortunate.