Avalon Exchange, after starting small in Oakland, branches out with successful formula

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Imagine a store where Prada shoes and vintage polos intermingle in the aisles. Or a place to purchase low-key Gap jeans and a high-end Max Mara top -- for less than 50 bucks.

Retail entrepreneur Stuart McLean turned this vision in the late 1980s into a small shop in Oakland that has since evolved into a chain of cash-and-trade stores called Avalon Exchange in Squirrel Hill and Mt. Lebanon, as well as in St. Louis and Cleveland.

It also has tweaked its original business model a bit, transforming from exclusively vintage to an aggregator of gently used designer duds (some clothes still sport their original price tags). People can sell their clothes for money or store credit. The store also carries some new merchandise, mostly sunglasses, hats and jewelry.

"It's like a treasure hunt," said Mr. McLean, who runs the operation with his wife, Tammy. "People never know what they're going to find."


Despite the down economy, Avalon Exchange's four stores have been doing well, bringing in a combined total of more than $2 million in annual sales, Tammy McLean estimated. The economy also did not stop Mr. McLean from opening the latest store in Cleveland almost seven months ago.

"Things are going really well," said Chelsea McLean, Mr. McLean's daughter who manages the new store. Like other locations, Cleveland's branch offers extra-small through extra-large sizes of men and women's clothing and accessories that appeal to a wide demographic. Shoe sizes typically range from 6 to 10.

"I think people are impressed that we have more to offer, more brands," Chelsea McLean said. "Different age groups can shop here -- not just high school kids."

Mr. McLean has been eyeing Cleveland since the late 1990s but couldn't find the right site, he said. When a venue opened up in a prominent shopping and dining area of Cleveland Heights, he seized the opportunity.

So far, Chelsea McLean sees Avalon Exchange as a good fit for Cleveland. "I think people here dress really well. It's a pretty fashionable city."

Moving forward, she hopes to continue to get the word out about the store.

"I just hope that more people find out about us," she said. "Nobody really knows that name here."

Mt. Lebanon is another spot where Avalon Exchange is still trying to boost its clientele. The store opened in August 2008 on Washington Road, in the heart of Mt. Lebanon's business district.

"Our business is growing there, but it has not hit the level that I would like to see it. But, nevertheless, it's still a great business," Mr. McLean said.

He attributes the slow start to a lack of college students, such as the ones who jam the Squirrel Hill store, and not as many nearby restaurants and shops to attract people to the area. But he remains optimistic that Avalon Exchange can have a future in Mt. Lebanon.

"I felt like the market's underserved."

Name recognition is not a problem in St. Louis -- the site of the top-selling store -- or at Avalon's headquarters in Squirrel Hill, which was opened after the Oakland store closed. Passers-by toting Avalon's signature yellow bags are common along Forbes Avenue.

"One of the main reasons it's so popular is because it's really fun," Mr. McLean said. "Against the backdrop of your typical cookie-cutter retail concept, people are really looking for something different."

"It's a funky, eclectic store," said Sonya Poellnitz, 38, of Shadyside. "You see things that you haven't seen in a long time."

"There's always a surprise element, where if you go to American Eagle or something, you know what they're going to have," said Ryan Burba, 28, of Shadyside.

The eco-friendly aspect (or what Tammy McLean considers the "revolving closet" factor) also is a big draw.

"I very much believe in the principles of recycling," said Stephanie Meyer, 28, of Lawrenceville. "So, it's fun to take my things from home, and basically I don't like seeing things go to waste."

Low prices for upscale items is another plus for shoppers.

"I only go to second-hand stores because right now with the economy the way it is, it's just a wise way to shop, I believe," said Tara McNeish, 27, of the North Side.

Prices vary depending upon quality and if a style is in season. Some items on the racks at the Squirrel Hill store have included a Banana Republic blouse for $13, a leopard print Bebe jacket for $15.50 and a J. Crew skirt (retail price $69.50) for $20. Another recent find was a John Varvatos jacket for $125 -- its retail price was probably hundreds more, Tammy McLean said.

Sellers can opt for a cash payment worth 30 percent of what store buyers price each item or a store credit of 45 percent of what Avalon will tag it. If items are flawed or are not in trend or season, buyers may reject them.

"Some people are really pleased [with the cash or credit they receive]. ... And some people will leave without getting anything, and you know, they're not quite so pleased," said Dawn Davis, a sales associate and buyer in Squirrel Hill. "It's hit or miss a lot of the time."

The McLeans are poised to continue to find ways to bring affordable high fashion to everyday consumers. They regularly attend trade shows in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and study magazines to keep up on latest styles. They also spend time developing Avalon Exchange's sister store Reddz Trading, which opened in March 2010 in Bethesda, Md. Mr. McLean and a couple longtime friends from the retail business run the store, which is the same business concept as Avalon Exchange but tends to carry higher-end goods. Reddz Trading's sales are soaring, Tammy McLean said, and Mr. McLean is currently exploring additional locations.

"It's so much fun," Tammy McLean said. "It really is."

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com . First Published May 24, 2011 4:00 AM


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