Consumers can expect to see unfamiliar store brands cropping up in the Baltimore area as a handful of retailers eye the market for expansion.
Newcomers could include businesses that are well-entrenched in other markets, such as Stein Mart and Gabe's, along with new, fast-growing chains such as Caffe Bene, a South Korean coffeehouse that targets millennials. Wagamama, a British chain of quick-casual Japanese restaurants, says it is considering Baltimore as it spreads to U.S. cities.
All say they are primed for growth as consumer demand strengthens. And they see opportunities in the Baltimore-Washington region.
The off-price department store chain Stein Mart struggled during the recession but has seen its sales rebound and is aggressively seeking new sites. The Jacksonville, Fla.,-based chain, with 263 stores in 29 states, plans to open 10 locations this year, including two in Virginia.
"Once we fixed everything internally, it made sense to get back on track" with store expansion, said D. Hunt Hawkins, Stein Mart's president and COO. "Plus, the economy is improving. We are very excited about the Baltimore area ... Annapolis, Towson, Columbia. We'd like to expand into those areas."
Hawkins described the region as "an area where we don't have a presence but have had success." He said the nearest store, in Falls Church, Va., has performed well since it opened in the spring.
Hawkins said the chain, which targets style-conscious women ages 35 to 65 with above-average household income, is "a perfect fit" for the Baltimore-Washington market.
Stein Mart is planning much of its growth in the near future in its existing markets in the Southeast and Texas. But long term, the retailer envisions 10 to 15 stores in the Baltimore-Washington area, including the four it will have by fall in Northern Virginia.
It makes sense for retailers to branch out in markets similar to those in which they've built a following, said Howard Davidowitz, a New York retail consultant and investment banker.
"You try to grow in markets that are most like markets where you are successful, that is a guiding rule, said Davidowitz, who chairs Davidowitz & Associates Inc.
But elbowing into new markets full of entrenched rivals can be tough, Davidowitz said, especially for those that try to expand too quickly. New players need to test the market and win over customers by setting themselves apart from the competition, he said.
"Depending on the level they're selling at, they typically will do something to get noticed," he said. "Today, everyone is watching every dollar. ... Value is a very powerful message in this economy."
Davidowitz said Stein Mart competes on price but tries to lure shoppers seeking a more enjoyable experience. It designs its space to look more like a department store than a discount outlet.
"The message is, 'We have a great deal and are promotional ... but it's not a mess,'" Davidowitz said. "Stein Mart stores are attractive. It's like the Wal-mart-Target comparison."
Caffe Bene, which plans to open its first Baltimore-area coffeehouse in Ellicott City in mid-August, hopes to set itself apart from the giants of the coffee world — Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts — by marketing itself as a different kind of coffee-drinking experience.
Founded in 2008 in Seoul, Caffe Bene is now the second-largest franchised coffee chain in the world, with a menu that features Belgian waffles, Italian gelato and fresh-baked pastries in stores designed to look like European coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th centuries. Customers are served at their tables.
"We want to create an environment that's relaxed and conducive for [customers] to stay," said John Barry, franchise sales director. "Starbucks has had a great run for 40 years, but there's a new generation of coffee drinkers."
The chain grew to 900 locations in Korea in its first three years before expanding to the United Store in 2012 with a store in New York's Times Square.
The chain has licensed 100 franchisees in the United States, most of them in and around New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas.
The first Maryland location, planned for the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, is part of a push in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.