Finish Line and Retailers and Strategic Planning and Business Topics and Real Estate & Retail

Finish Line ready to test new store

February 16, 2009

The Finish Line Inc. is preparing to unveil a new concept called Decibel that eventually could replace its struggling Man Alive franchise.

The locally based retailer plans to rebrand four Man Alive stores, including one at Castleton Square Mall, for an April launch. It also will rework the product mix in four other stores that for now will keep the Man Alive name.

The test, which is scheduled to run at least six months, is aimed at turning the 93-store Man Alive chain from a liability into a growth vehicle. The revamped stores are getting new fixtures and a fresh product mix anchored by brand-name jeans and rocker T-shirts designed to attract young men and women—a highly coveted demographic.

"In any fashion business, evolution has to happen," said Finish Line CEO Glenn S. Lyon. "We're just trying to evolve with youth culture, to be more edgy and urban."

Decibel will offer "street fashion" aimed at a broader audience than that of Man Alive, he said. Finish Line has been developing the Decibel concept for about a year, but will not immediately roll out a Web site or marketing campaign to support it. Both will come later if the concept catches on.

The company would not reveal how much it has spent developing the concept, but the chain has deemed the investment small enough that it has not yet warranted disclosure to shareholders.

Finish Line has a solid balance sheet and zero debt, a position that theoretically could allow it to pick up market share from competitors struggling to survive.

But there isn't much room to grow in the shoe and athletic niche. Finish Line is reaching a saturation point, and the 33-year-old company so far has been unable to recreate the magic of the flagship brand.

In 2007, Finish Line's attempts to capture business from sports-minded women failed and the company had to shutter a new chain called Paiva.

And in early 2008, the company had to pay $39 million in cash and $25 million in shares to wiggle out of a $1.5 billion deal to buy Tennessee-based Genesco Inc., the parent of mall chains including Hat World and Journeys. The highly leveraged deal came together just as the retail market began to tank.

Finish Line paid $12 million for the locally based Hip Hop-themed Man Alive concept in 2005 and quickly tripled its store count, but lately same-store sales and margins have been falling. Company executives have described the business as "challenging" during recent conference calls with Wall Street analysts. Same-store sales declined 6.8 percent in the most recent quarter, compared to a 3.3-percent drop for Finish Line stores.

The challenging retail market makes a rebranding of existing Man Alive stores a more compelling option for Finish Line than launching a new chain. The company plans to make its Decibel pitch to Wall Street analysts and at trade shows soon.

The cloudy retail outlook has slowed the development of new concepts, which should give Decibel an advantage, said Neil Stern, a senior partner at Chicago-based retail consultancy McMillan Doolittle LLP.

Another advantage: Stores that cater to edgy teens are one of few bright spots in retail these days.

"This is a tough audience to fool," Stern said. "You've got to be authentic. You've got to have the right products, and the trends change quickly."

The revamped stores will carry some Decibel-branded basics, but most of the clothing will be from name-brand designers. Renderings of the concept show industrial-style shelving stocked with dozens of types of jeans including brands such as Levi's, Antik and Silver, along with patterned button-ups and fashion tees. Lyon declined to discuss specific brands Decibel will carry, citing competitive concerns.

The Man Alive chain, founded by Mandell and Barbara Bublick in 1969, had 37 locations when Finish Line bought it. It grew to more than 100 stores before Finish Line began paring it back; Man Alive now has 93 locations in 19 states. Former Haggar Clothing Co. executive Lou Spagna has led the unit since he took over for three of the founders' sons in 2007.

Part of the challenge with Man Alive is the chain is competing in one of the most densely populated retail niches (flush with competitors such as Buckle, Hollister, American Eagle and Urban Outfitters), said Richard Feinberg, a retailing professor at Purdue University.

He applauds Finish Line's willingness to experiment with a new concept, but believes the chain should support the launch with an online or social-network campaign to generate buzz among potential customers. The Decibel name makes sense and seems more appropriate for stores that also carry women's apparel (a change from the original Man Alive format).

"There's money to be made and customers to be satisfied in the teen to twentysomething market niche," Feinberg said.

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