FROM WEBSTER CLOTHES TO SUNNY'S SURPLUS Stephen Blake now takes a more casual approach to fashion


Stephen Blake, who spent 10 years as an executive with stylish retailer Webster Clothes, says he still "leans to European styling in my suits," but when it comes to business he has taken a more casual approach to fashion.

Mr. Blake recently took the helm at the parent company of Sunny's Surplus, Elkridge-based Essex Co., as its president and chief executive officer after Rosedale-based Webster was bought out by a large St. Louis chain in October.

Sunny's, which has 20 stores in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, is widely known for its military gear -- quite different from the $16 Giorgio Armani socks and $70 Peter Maxx ties Websters carries.

"We do go after a different customer here," says Mr. Blake, 46. "The vast majority of our customers are men between the ages of 25 and 45, and they are more blue collar."

"With Webster's you were looking to be a fashion leader and there was a lot of creativity. Here, there is a lot of creativity in display, but you're selling Fruit-of-the-Looms and sweats," he says.

Mr. Blake says one of his biggest challenges at Sunny's will be to change the public's perception of the retailer from "just a military surplus store."

While 15 percent to 20 percent of Sunny's $10 million in annual revenues come from military gear and accessories, Mr. Blake says, the rest of its business comes from pants, sweat shirts and suits and camping supplies.

Jeans, he says, are the single biggest item Sunny's sells.

Camping gear is a merchandise category Mr. Blake has targeted for huge expansion in Sunny's locations, starting with its 7,000-square-foot store in Towson.

The store will carry a long line of tents, sleeping bags and accessories by April, he says.

"We feel that the company has to distinguish itself, and military gear does not interest enough people," says Mr. Blake, despite the fact that gas masks and American flags have become fast-moving items at Sunny's since the war in the Persian Gulf started.

"A lot of people have come looking to us for extensive camping gear and we've had to turn them away."

Mr. Blake said Sunny's prices will be lower than the retailer's main competition in the local camping arena -- Eastern Mountain Sports and Hudson Trail Outfitters.

"We are not going to be selling $600 tents and $250 sleeping bags," Mr. Blake says. "We'll target the family camper who only goes once or twice a year."

Essex is a privately held company and does not release its earnings figures, but Mr. Blake says that for the year to date the retailer is up by "a few percentage points" in revenues.

Sunny's fiscal year starts in August.

Mr. Blake says Sunny's low prices will probably help it weather the recession better than other retailers.

He added that the chain is looking to open one or two more stores in the Baltimore-Washington area before the end of the year.

"We're going to concentrate on good value while keeping a profit margin," Mr. Blake says.

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