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Architecture + Branding: Discount fashion retailer Steve and Barry’s departs with few tangible traces of formidable triumphs

1-Exclusive becomes extinct

At the height of it’s popularity in 2008, discount clothing and apparel chain Steve and Barry’s had become synonymous with affordable fashion, combining trendy designs with super-low prices, while undercutting mass discounters like Walmart and Target. Lacking some of the cachet of more established brands, Steve and Barry’s forged marketing and distribution deals with celebrities and sports figures to create exclusive product  lines.

Sarah Jessica Parker (actress): “BITTEN” line geared towards women
Stephon Marbury (NBA basketball player, New York Knicks): “Starbury” line, sports apparel and sneakers
Amanda Bynes (actress): “Dear” line geared to teens and young women
Venus Williams (tennis player): “EleVen” line apparel and shoes
Bubba Watson (golfer): “Bubba Golf” line of golf clothing
Laird Hamilton (surfer): “Wonderwall” line of surfing and skating clothing

Instituting an almost universal price of $9.98 for the majority of the merchandise, Steve and Barry’s depended on a slim profit margin spread out over massive sale volumes of tees, hoodies, jeans, footwear and varsity apparel. Shunning traditional advertising, Steve and Barry’s relied on publicity from celebrity endorsement deals, viral marketing and word of mouth.

The financial crisis that would hit the United States housing market beginning in 2007 would also adversely affect commercial real estate and retail sales, which began to expose cracks and shortcomings within the Steve and Barry’s business model. The swiftness with which the credit markets froze up affected inducement payments the company would receive by commercial landlords (source: wikipedia / Wall Street Journal). When these payments decelerated, became delayed or ceased entirely, a collection of marginally profitable stores began to be revealed.

Faced with slowing sales, Steve and Barry’s struggled with financial problems, eventually filing for bankruptcy in 2008, and began closing and liquidating stores throughout the remainder of the year (source: wikipedia). The company would eventually cease operations on January 30, 2009 (source: wikipedia).

2-Formative university years

Founded in 1985 by Barry Prevor and Steven Shore, the Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear operation evolved substantially from the modest first store over the course of the business’s 20+ year existence.

Located at the University of Pennsylvania, the original store began selling dramatically inexpensive collegiate branded apparel and merchandise at prices that undercut sanctioned university bookstores and campus stores. Attracted by the compellingly low prices and similar quality, a loyal student-centric following developed.

SB_Steve and Barry's University Sportswear storefront Exterior

Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, exterior view small format store (source: MichiganDaily.com)

Additional locations on several university campuses, including Rutgers and the University of Colorado (Boulder), as well as BIG 10 schools Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Indiana University, and Purdue University ensued (source: wikipedia).

SB_Steve and Barry Orange CA 1

Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, exterior view smaller format store, Orange, CA (source: yelp.com)

SB_Steve and Barry Orange CA 2

Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, interior view smaller format store, Orange, CA (source: yelp.com)

The Steve and Barry success would not go unnoticed. Eventually the founders would be lured to expand away from the relatively secluded campus environments and thrust into the mainstream market.

3-Graduating to mall darlings

Michigan mall owner, Taubman Centers Inc., reasoned that the concept could generate additional traffic to mall locations at a time when department-store consolidation was costing anchor tenants across the commercial real estate industry (source: Wall Street Journal). In 1998, Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear opened their first mall-based store in Auburn Hills, Michigan at Great Lakes Crossing (source: wikipedia).

SB_Great Lakes Crossing Outlets 4000 Baldwin Road Auburn Hills MI

Aerial view of Great Lakes Crossing Outlets, 4000 Baldwin Road Auburn Hills, MI (source: maps.google.com)

Initial success would lead to an emerging mall superstore format that would come to define the brand.

Traditional mall design principles depend on major tenants, also referred to as anchor tenants, to act as catalysts with greater drawing power to create consumer traffic, which assists in leasing the smaller boutique and specialty retail spaces. Anchor tenants are typically placed as far away possible from each other to generate a traffic corridor between the major tenants.

SB_Great Lakes Crossing Outlets

Location map of Great Lakes Crossing Outlets (source: greatlakescrossing.com)

Anchor tenants, traditionally department stores, generally benefit from higher exposure, including exterior signage and storefronts, as well as lower per square foot rents compared to the smaller boutique locations. The loss of an anchor tenant can deal an escalating and substantial blow to the financial health and success of a mall. It can trigger clauses in smaller tenant leases that reduce their rental rates as the mall no longer benefits from the drawing power of the anchor, and is likely to suffer from a commensurate drop in consumer traffic. Therefore, securing anchors is primordial.

Courted by mall owners desperate to fill large spaces vacated by department stores and national chains, generous inducement payments and incentives by mall owners would become commonplace for Steve and Barry’s. In some cases, the incentives, including upfront tenant improvement payments, would exceed total rents over the course of the lease (source: Wall Street Journal). As a result, Steve & Barry’s growth became exponential, registering over 3.5 million square feet of retail space under lease in shopping malls throughout the United States in 2005, and adding over 3 million square feet each year between fiscal 2005 and 2007 (source: wikipedia / Wall Street Journal).

4- Litany of legacy designs

In the process of exploiting the enviable position the chain found itself vis-à-vis mall owners, several early Steve and Barry’s mall stores were most likely to be located in some of the most remote, difficult to lease or secluded spaces within the mall. Referred to commonly as “dead zones”, some of these spaces are typically the farthest points from the main entrance, next to mall loading zones, away from the primary parking lots, on secondary corridors or in the mall basement level.

Filling the role of anchor tenant, Steve and Barry’s could theoretically weather these drawbacks, acting as a magnet to draw in clientele that would seek them out, even in the least desirable spaces of the mall.

Incidentally, as Steve and Barry’s popularity grew, the attraction from mall owners with some of the least performing, troubled, or so-called “failing malls” grew as well, presenting a combination of being in the worst locales within the worst locations.

By and large, the foray into malls was characterized principally by the company’s ability to absorb vast department-store locations with reckless abandon and little attention paid to establishing an overarching design theme or concept.

SB_Steve and Barrys University Sportswear mall storefront

Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, mall storefront (source: bloggingstocks.com)

Amorphous shapes, not linear forms,leftover and abandoned retail spaces cobbled together, previously subdivided, and then opened up again, few of the mall stores had any design commonality. Nonetheless, one common feature was size as the mall stores were overwhelmingly large, typically ranging between 50,000 to 100,000 square feet.

Many mall stores were located on a single floor with a relatively small front-facing display that would open to a vast back area beyond. Conversely, there were also several examples of multi-level stores (Westmoreland Mall, Greensburg, PA / Crossroads Mall, Oklahoma City, OK / Hickory Hollow Mall, Antioch, TN).

SB_Steve and Barrys modern exterior storefront

Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, exterior mall storefront (source: thebudgetbabe.com)

Further examples of inherent contrasts, some mall stores were endowed with direct exterior access complete with parking lot frontage and/or street facing exposure, whilst several other locations were housed in mall basement levels, without the benefits of added visibility or exposure.

SB_Steve and Barry interior store view 1

Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, interior view 1 (source: knoxnews.com)

Haphazard, strewn together, and at times hastily assembled, tenant partitions, floor layouts, change rooms, restrooms and fixtures would often be carry-overs. High shelves, fluorescent lighting, inconsistent materials and mismatched finishes would often result in an untidy and frenetic blend of flea market meets dorm room meets warehouse.

SB_Steve and Barry interior store view 2

Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, interior view 2 (source: knoxnews.com)

Originating on university campuses across the United States, Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear had established a loyal following amongst many students.

SB_Steve and Barry San Francisco CA 2

Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear, interior view smaller format store (2), San Francisco, CA (source: yelp.com)

In a nod to the company’s roots, the “T-Shirt wall” became an integral part of the brand identity. Floor to ceiling cubbies filled with row upon row of college, sports and graphic tees, would dominate the walls at the front of the store, be arranged near the nucleus of the store in giant back to back dividers or be tucked into a corner of the store.

SB_Steve and Barry storefront view from mall interior

Steve and Barry’s, mall storefront (source: fabsugar.com)

SB_Steve and Barry Eastridge Center San Jose CA

Steve and Barry’s, mall storefront, Eastridge Center, San Jose, CA (source: yelp.com)

SB_Steve and Barry storefront grand opening with banner

Steve and Barry’s, exterior storefront with Grand Opening banner (source: transworld.com)

SB_Steve and Barry Sugarloaf Mills Lawrence GA

Steve and Barry’s, mall storefront, Sugarloaf Mills, Lawrence, GA (source: yelp.com)

Steve & Barry's Manhattan Mall Store, New York City, September 27, 2007.

Steve and Barry’s, mall storefront (source: topnews.in)

SB_Steve and Barry Colonie Center Albany NY

Steve and Barry’s, mall storefront, Colonie Center, Albany, NY (source: yelp.com)

However, the company would adopt the shorter and simpler appellation of “Steve and Barry’s” around 2007 as it attempted to broaden the market beyond students after securing celebrity licensing and distribution deals (source: wikipedia). Yet, devoid of a holistic concept or commonality, few visual ties existed from store to store locations. In fact, many of the brand’s outward and exterior appearance in mall locations were design elements inherited or re-utilized from previous tenants. Operating with slim margins, abundant effort was expended to keep costs low, highlighting re-use and minimal changes or improvements made to previously occupied spaces.

5-Embracing the basics

Opening an ever greater number of new mall superstores at torrid pace, Steve and Barry’s missed out on multiple opportunities to build, apply and reinforce basic brand standards by developing an architectural design identity across the spectrum of stores.

Conversely, there exists some indication that the company was looking into rolling out a brand concept that would have begun to heal some of the self-inflicted wounds resulting from a deficient and barely present unifying design theme.

Purposefully designed, more refined, conservative and unified, industrial and chic, incorporating the trademark cubbies, the concept store was an evolutionary departure from the ragtag approach that had defined some of the earlier mall stores.

However, economic softness in retailing and financial troubles sank the company before it could prototype the concept store.

It is complex to predict whether the new store concept would have helped to reverse the chain’s fortunes. On the other hand, it is just as difficult to reject the notion that the newer concept would have proven extremely helpful in elevating Steve and Barry’s profile amongst other retailers. Therefore possibly, allowing the company to finally and successfully raise average prices, as it attracted a wave of new and more affluent customers to its suddenly more engaging and elegant mall stores.

Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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