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Winter 2014 Enduring Industry Stars: Two Companies, One Product Category and Vastly Different Journeys

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SolarX Eyewear: A look back

Solarex-principalsMuch like Babbino and Behar, the owners of SolarX, John Norris and Mike Mahoney were childhood friends. While neither of them had a background in retail, in March 2000, they decided to embark on a retail business venture together selling sunglasses from a cart when they spotted a similar business at their local mall.

Seeing as how there was always going to be demand for sunglasses, the duo went ahead with their decision. By the time they were operating 25 cart locations, they made the critical decision to start manufacturing sunglasses on their own and entered the wholesale business in 2002. By winter 2006, the wholesale business made up 80 percent of total annual sales. Since we last interviewed them, they have acquired two companies and have grown the management team to include co-owner and director of sales, Mike Thompson.

Securing the space

One of the key growth strategies that SolarX Eyewear has implemented includes securing deals on a large-scale basis with mall developers across the country.

Thompson explains, “We will go to Simon and look at their entire portfolio and then sign for multiple locations. Then continue the process with various other developers until they have secured a few hundred locations. Then they set out on the mission to find operators for those locations. He explains that this strategy gives SolarX the opportunity to control more properties and maintain market share. Also, according to Thompson, it gives them more consistency in merchandising and branding. Plus, the mall can have one contact for the locations. Thompson adds, “It also gives retailers the opportunity to operate a location they may not have been able to secure on their own.”

Responding to the challenge

Thompson mentions that there is growing competition since so many permanent stores have added sunglasses to their product offerings. One of the ways SolarX has responded to this challenge is by adding a line that includes a lower-end price point with higher-end quality frames.

In addition, SolarX has a very interesting retail sales strategy that includes selling sunglasses in the first three quarters of the year and then transitioning to selling holiday ornaments in quarter four. “These two products have staying power. This strategy helps us to find a really good operator that we can rely on and the operator can have a really great year-round business,” Thompson says.

New directions

sunglassesThompson feels that there is still plenty of room for growth in the mall industry. SolarX has been diversifying by selling wholesale through various new retail channels. For 2014, Thompson says that SolarX will focus more on visual merchandising to make their RMUs look better. Similar to NYS Collection, they also conduct a lot of product testing, constantly testing new sunglass styles and holiday products. He expects to add a lot more selection in the area of higher-end frames next year. And SolarX plans on pursuing more international growth in the UK, Australia and Canada. “Canada is a very large market for us,” Thompson says.

Unlike NYS Collection, he explains that custom kiosks and temporary stores are not the direction they are headed in. “RMUs make a lot more sense for us,” he adds.

The Future is Bright

Clearly, both NYS Collection and SolarX have a lot of plans for the future—from new products, to new merchandising to global expansion. Wherever they are both headed, their futures look bright.

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Patricia Norins

Norins is the founder and publisher of two national trade magazines and two trade shows. Specialty Retail Report, the voice of the specialty retail industry (carts, kiosks and temporary in-line stores) has a readership of more than 75,000 and GIFT SHOP, the magazine for independent gift shop owners, has a readership of more than 60,000. She also serves as consultant to small independent retailers across the country.

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