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Local retailers brace for Forever 21 brand, and some even welcome it

Posted by Roy Greene  November 23, 2010 01:28 PM

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The highly anticipated opening of clothing store Forever 21 is expected to bring a wave of competition to the shopping district as local retailers gear up for the new arrival.

Construction is under way for the four-story Forever 21 at 343 Newbury St., scheduled to open just before Christmas. While some local retail employees projecting Forever 21's success say they are concerned about losing customers, others are confident that business will grow as the rival store draws more customers to the area with its wide selection of trendy, inexpensive clothes and jewelry for men and women in their mid-20s.

AP photo
Forever 21 store in Japan
According to Forbes, the privately owned company is now worth more than $1 billion, with fiscal year 2009 sales up 37 percent from the previous year.

"Forever 21 will be competition for everyone on the block," said American Apparel's Ashley Fenwick, assistant manager to one of the national retail chain’s Newbury Street locations.

American Apparel, across the street from the Forever 21 site, has a similar target audience, yet sells at a higher price point than Forever 21 – a disadvantage Fenwick believes the company can counteract by staying true to its all-American image.

"What differentiates us from [Forever 21] is that we stand for American-made clothing," Fenwick said. "Our customers will appreciate that."

Locally owned jewelry store So Good, adjacent to Forever 21, is "a little bit nervous" about the opening, according to Sandy Lai, who has worked at So Good for five years.

Lai believes, however, that jewelry-seekers will continue to choose So Good over Forever 21.

"They’re cheap and popular, but we have more [jewelry], and our prices are really, really comparative," Lai said.

Forever 21 is ready to meet the competition, according to the company’s Executive Vice President Larry Meyer.

"Newbury Street is a great shopping street," Meyer said. "We believe our offer of a great assortment [of products], strong pricing and a really terrific store will please customers of Newbury Street."

Despite recent concerns among local businesss about the opening, competition is nothing new for the area.

Back Bay Association president Meg Mainzer-Cohen says that Back Bay, especially Newbury Street, is "the popular destination" for retailers in Boston, despite the recession.

"All the retail businesses want to be in the Back Bay," said Mainzer-Cohen, "both national and international."

Mainzer-Cohen sees the businesses on Newbury Street as a cooperative community, however, and says the variety of stores creates "natural competition" that attracts shoppers.

The competition derived from Forever 21's opening is expected to bring even more customer traffic to the area.

Michelle Gattenio, 19, a brand ambassador for the American Eagle clothing company at Boston University, is one shopper who plans to attend the opening with several of her friends, which she predicts to be "a madhouse."

"Forever 21 definitely poses competition [to American Eagle]," said Gattenio, who says she does not buy clothes from the company for which she works. "It’s cheaper, and it's more appealing to the college student than American Eagle clothes because it’s not full of logos and brand names."

American Eagle relocated from Newbury Street to Copley last summer, but is still susceptible to Forever 21's brand power, Gattenio said.

Last June, Forever 21 gained media attention when it opened its biggest store yet in Times Square; the 90,000 square foot shopping center was reported by The Wall Street Journal to expect 100,000 visitors a day.

While Forever 21 expects to both give and face competition, the company, like Mainzer-Cohen, sees this as a positive addition to the area.

"We think that competition is healthy," Meyer said. "It’s important for everyone, including us, to have competition so we give customers the best service and the best satisfaction. That’s the American way."

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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