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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the February 11, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Retail Women: Merrick’s Fun, But No Nonsense, Formula

An attractive matron of uncertain age, but at least old enough to have recently worn a mother-of-the-bride gown, is shopping at Merrick’s on Moore at noon. As she tries on an off-white pants suit, she and the sales lady helping her dissect the outfits that appeared on the red carpet at the recent Golden Globe awards ceremony. There are plenty of negative comments, but both approve of Melanie Griffith’s gown. “It’s like a Bob Mackey we have here,” says the sales lady, both of whose arms are lined with outfits yet to be tried on.

At 2 p.m. the matron, every hair in her short page boy mysteriously in place, is still at Merrick’s, the upscale specialty clothing store just off Nassau Street in downtown Princeton. She emerges from a dressing room wearing a turquoise knit suit and turns the conversation to dieting. “Will it still fit well after I lose another five pounds?” she is anxious to know. The sales lady assures her that it will, and the two happily trade Atkins diet stories.

At 3 p.m., fresh and full of lively conversation after more than three hours of non-stop shopping, the matron pays for her purchases and prepares to head home. But not before exchanging hugs with Barbara Racich, the owner of the specialty clothing store. Warm and vivacious, Racich asks after her children and gets an update on her parents’ health.

Home for this long-time customer turns out to be a demanding drive away — in Somerset. In a decade that has seen price become the driving factor in nearly every consumer decision, Merricks sails along thanks to a coterie of loyal customers like the package-laden matron. The store has a limited advertising budget and a side street location with little visibility and foot traffic, yet it is going strong after 19 years, and an expansion may be in its near-term future.

“Eighty-percent of our business comes from repeat customers,” says Racich. “They come here to shop, not for nonsense.” Princeton co-eds come twice a year for formal gowns. Mothers — and grandmothers — of the bride or groom drop in before their youngster’s big day. But the bulk of the store’s business comes from a core of women, most between the ages of 35 to 65.

“We wardrobe doctors, lawyers, bankers, and corporate executives,” says Racich. These core customers, who typically break their busy routines to refresh their wardrobes two or three times a year, become like family. That, in a nutshell — or perhaps, an evening purse — is the key to the store’s success.

The loyal shoppers come back for a reason. That is where Racich comes in. Long knowledgeable about fashion, and born with a smile and a liveliness that pull people to her, she came to retail with natural advantages. But there were gaps in her skill set. “I knew nothing about running a store!” she exclaims. She had counted on her mother, the late Nan Watkins, for retail expertise, and was shocked to find that there were considerable gaps in her mother’s knowledge.

Watkins, a striking woman who was almost certainly the best-dressed person in Princeton, had been involved in retail in Florida, but apparently had not paid attention to some of the basics. No matter, the two felt their way along together.

“My parents started the first retail store on St. Armand’s Key,” says Racich. The key, just north of Sarasota, Florida, is the sort of place that takes a northerner’s breath away. It is now also home to big money, but that wasn’t the case shortly after World War II, when Racich’s parents began buying up land left and right.

“They had no idea of what they were doing,” says Racich. But they also had little competition. The pair opened stores and restaurants around half of St. Armand’s Circle, now one of the most upscale shopping areas in the country. In the summer, the little family fled a Florida still unfamiliar with air conditioning, and headed for the coolness of Highlands, North Carolina, where they also owned a restaurant.

“The Southern girls came in to make rolls and cake before dawn,” says Racich. Working beside them, she learned to cook. “My first love is cooking,” she says. A woman who obviously squeezes every bit of enjoyment out of life, she hesitates just a second before adding, “and gardening. I love gardening.”

When Racich was 12, her parents separated, and let their businesses go. Waterfront property, purchased for a song, was sold for the same. “That’s why I have no money now,” she says cheerfully enough.

Her mother went to work for other stores, and she was soon off to college. Choosing an all-girls Southern Baptist college in Virginia, Racich was soon miserable. Lighting out for New York City at 18, she enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked at Saks. Then came a stint a Mademoiselle magazine, first in merchandising and then in fashion marketing.

Pausing for love, marriage, and children, Racich settled in Bucks County, but soon grew restless. “I did employment recruiting, and different things,” she says. None was particularly satisfying. Returning to the world of fashion she had left behind, she next “paid a lot of money” for a color analysis course in Arizona. “Color analysis was big in the ‘80s,” she says. The course was a disappointment, but Racich was back on course.

She moved into personal shopping, and was soon doing mass makeovers at conventions and escorting customers — many of them business executives — on shopping trips. “I knew all the salesmen at Barney’s,” she recounts.

Her husband, John Racich, now retired from an accounting career at RJR Nabisco, hearing of the sums her clients were dropping during the shopping expeditions, told her that she was making money for other people. He pointed out that her mother, working in stores in Florida, was not making a lot of money. Why didn’t the two of them team up and open their own store? She was hesitant, arguing that she had no retail experience, but nevertheless, she started looking for a store.

It had to be in Princeton, although she was living in Somerset at the time. “I’ve always loved Princeton,” she says. “When I walk down the street I smile. I feel connected.” She found her space on Moore Street, across from the parking lot of St. Paul’s church and steps from Nassau Street. It had been the home of Bellows, a landmark children’s clothing store.

She gave lots of thought to the name her store would carry. “I couldn’t use my name; no one can pronounce it,” she says, “and I don’t like businesses called ‘The Clothes Horse’ or anything like that.” Looking back — and forward — she chose Merrick’s because it was her grandmother’s name and it is her daughter’s middle name. Grounding the store even further, she added “on Moore.”

Opening her doors confidently, she soon discovered a truth about her mother. “I thought she knew about running a business, but she didn’t,” says Racich. Factoring, credit lines, inventory control, it turned out that those were just some of the basics of which the pair were ignorant. Characteristically bubbly and optimistic, Racich says it was just as well. “Ignorance is a good thing,” she says. Had she known all about all of the complexities of retail, she might well have never opened the store.

The two learned together, and Racich came to depend on her mother. Watkins died in May, 2002, and Racich still misses her expertise, and perhaps even more, the partnership, the collaboration. The void has also shortened her leash considerably. “When my mother was here, I could take off,” she says. “Two years ago I went to India; I trekked in the Himalayas.” Now, she is hard-pressed to find time for her garden. Until she finds someone to fill her mother’s role, she is grounded.

Her daughter, Anne Merrick Mavis, works part time in the store, but Racich says she doesn’t want to push her into a bigger role. Mavis, formerly a television reporter and producer, has two small children, and, according to her mother, is not yet sure of her long-term career direction. “I don’t want to force my life on my daughter,” says Racich. She thinks she has potential as a third generation retailer, though. “She has a good eye; she has flair,” says Racich. “Time will tell.”

To be successful in retail, Mavis will need another key skill. “You have to be willing to make mistakes,” says Racich. “If I don’t have sale merchandise, I’m not doing my job.” Retail is not about standing still and hoping. It is about daring, and about change.

“I’ve been in Princeton for 19 years, and I’ve had five stores — at least five stores,” Racich declares. “You have to change, evolve.” When she started out, Merrick’s was a dress store, an expensive dress store. It sold suits and dresses, and also gowns, because, says Racich, “ball gowns are every girl’s fantasy.”

“We had no slacks, no sports clothes, no casual,” she says of Merrick’s first look. Then, as the need became apparent, the store began to feature high-end brand name clothing — “beautiful cashmere blazers, St. John knits.” For a time, the strategy was successful, but then manufacturers began to impose minimums. “You had to buy 150 pieces, or whatever,” says Racich. The minimums didn’t work for a small store, and besides, she had begun to realize that competing with the department stores was a no-win strategy for an independent shop.

More change was necessary, but is not easy when a retail space is an old house. “The lay-out is a problem,” she says. “You can’t show the way you want to.” Walking to the back of the store she stops in a tiny room decorated with hand-painted Beatrix Potter murals. “We tried everything in this room,” she says. “Gowns, sale, everything. Nothing worked. It was a dead space.”

Then, in another incarnation, Merrick’s added children’s clothing — gorgeous smocked dresses and sumptuous velour baby buntings — and turned the former dead space into what Racich calls “a grandmother’s room.”

The main part of the store — two long connected rooms — now holds clothes that Racich has hunted down in shows and on the West Coast. Not typical department store fare, any of it, the collection is far more casual than it was when Merrick’s opened— and far less expensive.

“When I first started,” says Racich, “the women were dressing like men.” She now buys for women who are having more fun with fashion. “Women still need two suits, but it’s a different suit. It’s mix and match. It’s not necessarily a man-tailored shirt under the suit. You can wear a crazy T-shirt.”

Whether under a soft, colorful suit jacket, or paired with slacks, “T-shirts are so big,” says Racich. “Everyone wants T-shirts.” A current favorite is a little number in stars and stripes with a V-shaped cut at the neck. At $54, it is no more expensive than a cookie cutter T-shirt from Liz Claiborne or Jones New York. There are also classic knit, two-piece suits, including one by Rich & Levy in copper with pewter-color trim at the neck and wrist, which is on sale for $272, down from $945. A gorgeous Catherine Regeh navy and white patterned gown is $1,000, reduced from $2,013.

Racks on one side of the store are given over to clothes that would be at home in the most conservative board room or court room, while racks on the other side hold fashion forward clothes, many showing Asian or tropical influences. ”

Racich keeps careful tabs on what is selling. Not technically inclined, she is amazed at how computerization has improved her business. “The computer runs it all,” she says. “I see immediately if I have too many T-shirts, or if I need to bring in more dresses.”

Recently, she determined that restaurant dresses, which, she explains, are dresses that make a seamless transition from work to a social engagement, were selling out. She asked an employee to print a two-month run of sales data, and saw right away that one manufacturer in the category “was really selling well.”

Tapping computer power to make her business more efficient, Racich says she would like to go even further. “My dream is to get somebody to put part of the store online,” she says. “It’s a natural adjunct; more and more people are online. If I wanted to expand, that’s how I would do it.”

In addition to embracing help from technology, Racich has sought out human assistance. She has used a consultant since 1995. “I just felt I needed some direction,” is how she explains the decision to bring in an outsider. On hand for several hours once a month, the consultant, says Racich, “tells me what’s new, what other stores are doing.” He also advises her on how much of what types of clothing to order. “He tells me what I’ve done well,” she says, “and what needs improving.”

There is one problem that even her consultant cannot remedy. “Nobody addresses what to do with overage,” she says. “I don’t know what to do with it,” says Racich. “I’ve tried everything. I’ve even tried consignment shops in New York. If I could find a kid to list it on E-bay for me, I would.”

Another issue is location. Racich came close to moving to Palmer Square six years ago. The plan was that she would take the space on the corner now occupied by Ann Taylor. But negotiations ran into a snag. “You know how it works,” she says. “They take a percentage over break-even. They told me what my break-even should be, but they didn’t take into account that I’m not an Ann Taylor. I hire women, not girls, and I pay benefits. I have a seamstress.”

In short, break-even for a store where a knowledgeable, long-time employee can spend the better part of a day with one customer is higher than it is for a chain store. Racich and Palmer Square could not come to terms, and the space went to a chain outlet.

“After all these years,” she says, “I still meet people — Princeton residents — who don’t even know we’re here.” Many of those who do know of Merrick’s have misconceptions, she says, often thinking the store still carries only dresses, or that its clothes are uniformly high priced. An area with more foot traffic would bring in more customers. But that, Racich concedes, might be a mixed blessing. “It would be a different store,” she says. At least some of the intimate feel and personal attention would be diluted.

She is weighing these factors carefully now. Her lease is up in little more than a year, and she is pondering her options. “My ideal space,” she says, “would be a standalone store that I own.” She’s not sure that she will find it, and she is not even sure that she will move. If she does, her neighbors, even those who have never set foot in the store, will very likely miss Merrick’s. A perennial winner in Princeton’s holiday decorating contest, the store is decorated year round with the same combination of subtle good taste and daring design that is on display inside.

Much of Princeton marches up and down Nassau Street, a stone’s throw away, day after day, never even glancing toward Merrick’s. Nevertheless, “we do a huge volume for a small space,” says Racich. The reason is that long-time customers, some traveling for well over an hour, display the loyalty of swallows choosing Capistrano again and again. They may not drop in frequently, but when they do, they leave with their arms full.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring

Merrick’s on Moore, 6 Moore Street, Princeton 08540. Barbara Racich, owner. 609-921-0338; fax, 609-921-6918.

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