OCEAN CITY – Southern Exposure in Fenwick Island has become a landmark over the years for returning vacationers who have placed the store on their checklist of things to do while visiting the resort area.
Owner Tim Collins took a look back in time this week to explain the evolution of how the clothing and accessory stores have become what they are today.
“We have been in business down here over 40 years, so it has been a long haul,” Collins said. “A lot of things can happen over 40 years.”
Collins and his wife, Gretchen, are both from Bridgeville, Del. In the 70’s, Collins worked as a bellhop at the Henelopen Hotel in Rehoboth Beach and following college he worked in management at JCPenney’s. At the time, he came across a fellow who became his employer in New York. This man was known for designing and creating shifts, also known as sundresses that were sold to well-known department stores.
“In the first or second year I had started to work for him, we would have these guys come in from all up and down the eastern seaboard looking for last-minute summer deals,” Collins recalled.
Being familiar with the Rehoboth area, they opened what became the forerunner of the outlets in the area, a store called Shifts Etc. Eventually the store operated in several locations, including a couple in Ocean City.
“We would bring a lot of the product in that the department stores didn’t buy, or they didn’t pick up their contract, and we would bring them down here and sell them at pretty ridiculous prices,” Collins said, explaining this was before the outlet stores debuted, as well as TJ Maxx and Marshalls.
Shifts Etc. operated for at least four years before Collins’ business partner retired in 1976. Collins decided to carry on a small portion of the business, calling the stores Right Angle, with locations in Rehoboth and Fenwick Island.
As the market grew, Collins bought a piece of property in Fenwick in 1982 at 1200 Coastal Highway and named the store Southern Exposure, offering an upgraded mix of products.
Next, Collins purchased the shopping center immediately next store to Southern Exposure to the north and opened another clothing store called Ocean Avenue that offered garments at a more moderate price. The store was eventually relocated a couple blocks south on the oceanside of Coastal Highway. The store operated for a number of years as Ocean Avenue until about six years ago when Collins decided to place all the businesses under one umbrella, and the store became what is referred to today as Southern Exposure seaside.
The Collins family has downsized from multiple locations up and down Coastal Highway to the two current stores in Fenwick Island.
“Even though it is the same name it is two different formats,” Collins said.
Southern Exposure seaside is operated by Collins and his wife, and the original location is now operated by their son, Brian, and his wife, Kirstan.
Southern Exposure seaside sells merchandise at a lower price point, Collins described. The store sells different lines from the original location except for an overlap on a couple of lines, such as the popular brands of Fresh Produce and Tribal.
“Our merchandise mix is totally different, and we are very price conscious,” Collins said. “We try to compete with the Macy’s and the Nordstrom’s. We are very price competitive.”
Collins furthered the family will make a trip to New York at least five times a year to buy merchandise for the clothing stores. Southern Exposure seaside takes on brand names that department stores will place under their own private label and buy them under the manufacturers name in general trade, which lowers the price point.
He highlighted popular brands at the seaside locations, such as Ruby Road and Alfred Dunner. The seaside location also provides a small men’s clothing section of swimwear and casual beach wear.
Collins described Southern Exposure’s original location as a specialty boutique that sells popular clothing lines like Flax and Jams, sandals by Island Slippers and jewelry by Brighton.
“They look for lines and have lines that are more unique, different, that is not all up and down the beach, and are easy and casual with upper moderate price points,” Collins said.
Southern Exposure original has expanded over the years with a house being added to the storefront to provide a second story that has now become known as the Sale Loft.
“We are always looking for ways to generate additional business. It’s always something at the beach; it’s the weather, it’s the economy … and a lot of manufacturers approach us about a lot of really good deals during the summer, and in the past we have not been able to take full advantage of that, so this year we have opened up the second floor where everything there is at least 50 percent off,” Collins said of the Sale Loft that offers fresh, current goods.
Regardless of the different locations, both Southern Exposure stores offer a wide variety of clothing and accessories, including shoes, hats, handbags, jewelry and scarves.
“We feel very strongly if people are coming to the beach you have to have something that acts as a magnet. In today’s age, shopping has to be fun at the beach. They [vacationers] want to come in and have an experience, and that is what we are trying to provide. Our plan is to keep the stores as different and unique as possible,” Collins said.
Southern Exposure finds their customer base is local, but have many returning vacationers every year.
“That really ties into what we are trying to do because I am convinced a lot of the people that come year after year have a mental checklist. They are going to make one trip to Nantuckets, a trip to one of the crab houses, they are going to go to the Seaside Country Store, and we want to be and I think we are on that list,” Collins said.