College students’ budgets contribute to closing of Berkeley clothing stores

Jamin Kim-Sanders/Staff

A sign advertising a 50-percent-off sale looks murky behind the scratched and dirtied display window, behind which stand two clothed mannequins surrounded by unclear accessories.

This storefront is familiar to some and still unknown to a vast majority of others: It belongs to the Berkeley branch of 2bella, the California apparel company, which opened its doors a year and a half ago and will close later this month.

At first glance, 2bella fits right in with the local gamut of Telegraph Avenue clothing businesses: a storefront backed by a company that already owns and operates multiple locations. But because of high prices mixed with low-quality pieces, the store had a hard time competing with the business models of other stores in the neighborhood.

2bella anticipated pricing as a barrier for students but hoped the foot traffic afforded by its Telegraph Avenue location would increase the number of items bought and make up for low-cost purchases. But the style didn’t resonate with the college clientele.

“If you look at their other stores, they’re in Laguna Beach, Lake Tahoe and in suburban areas that have more generally upwardly mobile visitors or customers,” said Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. “This is the most intense college district that they’re located (in).”

Carola Summers, co-owner of 2bella, said the company hired an in-store merchandiser to study the customers. The merchandiser also bought the inventory for the store. But nothing stuck.

She added that, overall, sales have tripled to quadrupled since the half-off sale began.

“I think (the reason for low sales is) college budgets, because that’s what we hear pretty much every day,” Summers said.

Walk through campus and UC Berkeley students’ style is on display — an alternative look that manifests in the garden clogs and boyfriend jeans that pair so easily here. Student style is also flannels and Birkenstocks and so many other things. But the one thing Berkeley is not is colorful, chiffon and chic.

“Telegraph — Berkeley — has become one of the vintage capitals of the area, and there are a lot of people that will buy a vintage shirt or pair of pants but won’t buy vintage shoes,” said Marty Berg, owner of Bill’s, a footwear store on Telegraph Avenue, since 1974.

When Berg says “vintage,” he’s talking about used clothing, which, in recent years, has taken off. Mars, a used clothing store on Telegraph Avenue, has been a Berkeley mainstay since 1993. But it has also seen business slow in recent years.

“A while back, people weren’t making a lot of money — they wanted to get a bargain,” said Ashley Gardner, store manager at Mars. “But now I think since minimum wage has gone up and people are doing better in the economy, they can afford to go to high-end places and not thrift.”

Gardner listed the items that sell well in the store, among them Levi’s denim, “crazy printed windbreakers,” printed men’s sweaters and florals. Flannels and tie-dye are also consistent sellers.

Two and half blocks away from Mars is Francesca’s, which opened in August 2014. It doesn’t carry the darker, thrifted tones of Mars. Instead, it is bursting with 1970s print riffs and inspired dresses. A huge display of shiny jewelry greets you on your way in.

Francesca’s Collection Inc. trades on the stock market and has more than 600 boutiques in the United States, according to its website. For this reason, the company can afford to flop on deck for a little while until it can gets back into good financial waters.

Alexandra Crockett, Francesca’s boutique store manager, said the store wouldn’t close if sales declined.

“We’ve never had that be an option,” she said.

Crockett said that clothing and jewelry account for approximately 50 percent of store profits, with the other half of sales made on the rest of their merchandise. Non-clothing items are mostly a coagulation of snarky shot glasses and sarcastic how-to books.

That’s like getting an “F” in clothes. The boutique is half-supported by add-ons, likely to offset the lack of clothing purchases.

When Heavenly Couture opened across the street from 2bella, Summers said she noticed a small decline in sales. More options — at very, very low prices — is what students seem to be looking for. And they’re not willing to spend on much else.

Elizabeth Moss covers fashion. Contact her at [email protected].