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Winter 2003 Shades of Success

If you see the world through rose-colored glasses—or gray or blue or amber—you may have Sal Babbino and Marc Behar to thank for it. They’re the dynamic duo behind NYS Collection (Brooklyn, NY), retailer and wholesaler of high-fashion sunglasses—a new take on what the two of them call “eye candy,” and Babbino and Behar come up with just the right “flavors” time and again. How do they do it? When they’re predicting more than $8 million in sales for 2002, it’s worth taking a look at how they reinvent their product, and business to ensure their success.

Standin’ on the corner

Remember your best friend when you were five? The one who boasted being able to run faster, jump higher, do everything better than you? You may have lost track of that best friend long ago, but Babbino still has his, and so does Behar.

Growing up within shouting distance of each other in the heart of Brooklyn, these two were always chasing the next thing, whether a money-making venture or the hobby of the week. To anyone who knew them then, entrepreneurial success for these two would come as no surprise. They started early—age 10, in fact—selling flowers and newspapers on the street corner. Some 10 years later, after college, Babbino set up an embroidery business on a cart, while Behar joined the ranks of Wall Street. Longing to be a part of his friend’s grown-up entrepreneurial start, Behar jumped at the chance to join him. And so began their journey into sunglasses roughly seven years ago.

Do the lifelong pals still compete? Sure. Except that, now in their early 30s, the game is who can pick the better style, rake in higher sales, pick the best location. (Babbino confesses to “walking around the office with a strut” when he comes out on top.) But more important than their competitive spirit is the mutual support that sustains this relationship—the feeling that no matter the outcome, the one friend stands behind the other every day. “We’re a good mix because we have different ideas,” says Babbino. He’s the risk taker; Behar is more cautious. Although their personalities are different, they exude the same energy, share one vision, and speak with one corporate voice.

In the beginning, Babbino and Behar wore more “hats” than sunglasses. Not only did they operate the cart, they were the fledgling enterprise’s bookkeepers, buyers, deliverers (they put more than 30,000 miles a year on their cars), and more. They did everything they could to keep sales up and costs down, and reinvest their revenues in the business. It wasn’t unusual for them to work a full day—that’s retail hours—before hitting the office sometime after 9 p.m. Soon, the business expanded like an accordion.

It took more than the proverbial “many hats” and countless sunglasses to pave the way from a single cart nestled between the now fallen Twin Towers to the 45 states they cover today. But retail was only the beginning. Babbino and Behar took a plunge during their fourth year that dramatically changed their business: they became wholesalers, and spawned more than 500 owner-operator sites.

Fashion forward

imageWatching what customers were buying day after day taught the two entrepreneurs what was hot at the moment and what was not. And it sparked an idea: Why not design their own sunglasses, manufacture them overseas, and ship them to the States—not only to supply NYS carts but also any retailers who were interested in carrying the merchandise? Why not indeed. Because their retail locations put them at the forefront of fashion, they became expert in designing one hot seller after another—which they also produced.

Today, NYS style categories include conservative, polarized, children’s and readers. But 75 percent of the company’s sales come from the fashion side. “We’re able to read the market and react quickly,” faster than the competition: three months from concept to cart. For customers, sunglasses aren’t just about cutting the glare, of course. It rarely is. Sunglasses are a must-have fashion accessory. For the guys of NYS, being ultra-selective in choosing colors, shapes and every detail imaginable was key to their success. Then they ensured it by putting the right trend merchandise—their cutting-edge shades—on the right cart in the right malls.

Today’s sunglasses shopper looks for more than protection against the sun. “They want to add personality to their outfit,” Babbino says. In their hunt for fashion “personality,” Babbino and Behar make an annual trends trek to various locations in Europe where they check out the future of high style everywhere, from trade shows to cafés. Their famous “candy” colors often come from fashion-show runways, the next season’s couture designs. NYS eyewear accessories are cutting-edge and often Euro-inspired, too: from racy “bug clip” glasses holders that attach to car visors, to the trendy eyeglass “totes” cases that resemble miniature handbags.

To capture the latest looks, Babbino and Behar not only keep their eyes open to trends, they also keep their ears open to what customers want. Continually tweaking and reinventing their product gives these two their edge. “We don’t believe in ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ ” says Behar. What’s hot today is not hot tomorrow. Any given style might go through three color changes in one season. “Even though we have a hot seller [now], we’re looking to improve it for next year.”

Shared experience

Sharing their in-the-trenches retail knowledge is what they’re about. “We walk all new operators through the details,” says Babbino. “We’ll interview them first, find out what type of people shop in their center, what location they have in the mall,” he says. “We analyze particular areas of the country to tailor our line to our customers’ needs.” Then they hand-select a custom assortment of product for that retailer and location. Product picked personally by Babbino and Behar—an invaluable assist to the first-timer filling a cart. How many sunglasses does it take to fully stock a cart? Between 1,400-1,800 pairs—plus accessories. Owner-operators like Nick DiFerdinando can attest to the value of having the boys from Brooklyn by their side. “It’s more than a business relationship—it’s a personal relationship,” says DiFerdinando, who has five locations in Pennsylvania and Maryland. “From day one, they helped us out.”

Carrying the right styles is only the first step. An eye-catching display is equally important. With the vast array of colors NYS Collection offers, visual impact is a sure thing if the sunglasses are merchandised correctly. Behar explains: “The cart is like a window display at the Gap. [It] needs to be well merchandised, and the stock needs to be rotated.” Also important: “being in tune with everyone in the mall,” he says. As stores put out their new lines, the cart merchant should, too. The customer spots a pair of shades that match the brand-new outfit she just bought, and (“How cool!”) she’s got to have it.

Because a cart can be up and running in a matter of weeks, the wholesale side of the business was able to grow quickly. What started as a staff of two has multiplied to more than 100. And because Babbino and Behar continue to expand their own cart program, they can speak from experience to identify top-selling items, explain how to display them and anything else a cart operator should know. “That’s the good thing about them,” DiFerdinando says. Because they’re retailers as well as wholesalers, “they know what sells first-hand. I was immediately attracted to their product and their energy,” he says. “As they have grown the business, I have grown. When they learn new things, they call me.”

And then there’s customer service. To Babbino and Behar, the customer is always first. But unlike most retail entrepreneurs, these two answer to two sets of customers: consumers and specialty retailers, which makes them adhere to the “customer first” tenet twice as tightly. Because every NYS wholesale rep has retail experience as well, retailers still get super service even if they can’t reach either of them personally.

Let it snow

imageSurviving the winter in most places can be a challenge if you make your living selling sunglasses. Still, Babbino and Behar try to keep as many of their carts open for business year-round as possible—not just to make sales, but also to avoid losing locations (the ones on short leases) and employees, only to repeat the search for space and staff again each year. Keeping the cart going sometimes means changing product lines from sunglasses to winter items like fleece or holiday ornaments. At other times the cart is used to test new sunglasses styles for the next year.

Occasionally, a conflict arises between their retail side and wholesale side when an owner-operator is interested in the same site as they are. But in the end, says Babbino, “we’ll give a location away rather than lose a wholesale customer.” Right: the customer is always first.

Follow the leader

From another perspective, so are Babbino and Behar: “We were the first” is their regular refrain. With “reinvention” the watchword that puts and keeps them in front, they’ve had their share of competitors following their lead. When NY Shades was first to come out with the popular zodiac line, each pair with its own zodiac sign, the competition followed. When NY Shades came out with a snazzy display box in sleek silver and sporting the brand name, the competition was right behind them. And for next year, innovations include a display unit for cart merchants, a club membership for frequent buyers, and a retail Web site. (Watch for imitators to fall in and follow.)

Another key difference between NYS Collection and the competition—quality control. Babbino and Behar believe quality across the board is key to repeat sales: they want customers to buy their product more than once. Quality has its own price tag, which is reflected in the retail price: at $12- $15 a pair, NY Shades sunglasses often cost a few dollars more than competitors’, but the company and its owner-operators believe the higher prices are warranted. “New York Shades is by far superior, as far as quality and style,” says Tony Ranalli, owner-operator of six NYS Collection carts. “They have the latest styles—ten times better than others out there,” he says. “The competition may have one style of a very popular sunglass, whereas New York Shades will have 20 to 30 styles of it.” He should know. He started by selling the competition’s products and quickly changed over to NY Shades after testing a few samples. Others have made the switch, too, and most have seen a 20-30 percent increase in sales.

More to come

“We’re only at the tip of the iceberg,” says Babbino. They plan to expand every aspect of the business, including exports. In addition to selling in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, NYS Collection currently exports to Canada, the Caribbean and all of South America. Behar is particularly well-suited to this duty—he majored in international business, and speaks Spanish fluently.

Whatever their plans, wherever their vision takes them, Sal Babbino and Marc Behar are busy as friends, partners, retailers, wholesalers, innovators and more. With all that going for them, the sun shines bright on the boys from Brooklyn, and NY Shades.

Emily Lambert

Lambert, a senior writer for SRR, resides in Philadelphia. She can be reached at .

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