by Max Marbut
“We have to be different because the competition for retail dollars is very strong right now,” said Tom McCleery, co-owner of Edge City, last Friday as a steady stream of lunchtime shoppers browsed through the store.
McCleery and Gunell Humphreys have survived the ups and downs of the economy and the retail environment since 1976 when they bought the business in 5 Points in Riverside. At the time it was a classic late-1960s style “head shop” and sold a selection of pipes, cigarette papers, posters, incense and even waterbeds. The name of the store was taken from Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.” The story had nothing to do with retail, but McCleery said “Edge City” refers to the area between sanity and insanity.
“Having a small business is right there,” he said.
McCleery attributes the store’s longevity to a philosophy of catering to a specific age group’s tastes and interests.
“It has been an interesting ride reflecting what’s going on in fashion and other trends,” said McCleery. “We’ve gone through the hippie era and the punk era and the grunge era and goth and new wave and hip-hop. Older, larger stores lock onto a group and follow them through their progression. We have always followed society’s progression and served the youth-oriented culture.”
In the early days, in addition to the aforementioned lifestyle products, the store carried clothes and accessories for men and women, but about 10 years ago started stocking clothing, jewelry and accessories for the female clientele exclusively.
One trend McCleery and Humphreys embraced as soon as it was available was the World Wide Web, but as it turned out that particular aspect of high-tech retail didn’t turn out to be an advantage for Edge City.
“We were one of the first stores on the Internet, but we found it was very time-consuming to try to have a store and a Web site. We also discovered how much retail is a person-to-person business and you lose that on the Internet,” said McCleery.
They do appreciate how technology has changed retail and see it in action all the time.
“It’s not unusual to see a customer use their cell phone to take a picture of a dress and send it to their parents,” said Humphreys.
One of the challenges faced by retailers in the current economy is keeping up with trends and offering unique merchandise that represents a good value.
“For the past five or six years, our business has been driven by tweens and teenagers who shopped with their mom’s credit cards. Now we try to offer a lower price mix with more value and more personal service. We have to outperform the big retail stores,” said Humphreys, who does the buying for the store and takes a young woman who works part-time in the store with her to the merchandise markets.
“I’m always asking her if she would wear something or if she would buy it. The buying trips have become much more challenging because anything trendy is found so quickly by everyone. People are so connected these days,” said Humphreys.
Another part of Edge City’s success has to do with the neighborhood, said McCleery. Riverside and 5 Points has always attracted the arts scene and, “people who want to be different,” he added.
Surviving in the specialty retail game for more than 30 years has taught the Edge City entrepreneurs a lot of lessons, they said, but the basics are what have proven to be most important.
“You just have to stay flexible and stay lean,” said McCleery. “You also have to stay close to the street. Just sit out on the sidewalk and see what people are wearing.”