Frame Shop Mounts Expansion Strategy Tulips, azaleas and dogwood trees are in full bloom, but a chain of framing shops may be popping up even faster than the spring flowers.

Memphis, Tenn.-based BA Framer is a custom frame shop with 62 stores across the country. The company is quickly moving its stores into the Dallas market, with five about to open, four planned for later this year, and another five to seven opening next year.

"The economy is booming in this area," says Robert Luleff, vice president for Dallas-based United Commercial Realty (UCR), the exclusive leasing agent for BA Framer in areas west of the Mississippi River, and a member of The Chain Links Network. "Unemployment is low. There is a lot of opportunity for the store in this market. There hasn't been another company in this market to compete with the quality and service it has."

In the Dallas market, as well as other regions, BA Framer typically occupies space in high-end, grocery-anchored centers.

"We've got a lot of excitement and interest from developers here in the Dallas market," says Jack Breard, also vice president for UCR. "For sites, we are looking for higher-income areas in the suburbs. The company looks for a lot of recent home development in the area. BA Framer prefers to be with a grocer such as Albertson's or Winn-Dixie."

Although currently focusing on Dallas, BA Framer also is looking to expand into other parts of Texas and the Southwest. The next cities the store will focus on, Luleff says, are Austin and San Antonio, Texas; and Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla.

BA Framer plans to open a total of 22 stores this year, and possibly 30 more next year. However, the numbers could be even higher, depending on a possible alliance allowing BA Framer to open shops within a major department store chain.

"We will be testing 10 of those later this year," says Ed Brucker, vice president of the retail division of BA Framer. He declines to reveal the name of the department store just yet, but notes that the first five will open June 1 in California.

BA Framer is a family-owned business started in 1970 by Brucker's grandfather. By the time the company had three or four stores, Brucker says, it opened a manufacturing facility in Batesville, Miss.

"We are a full-line custom frame shop and vendor for wall decor, including framed pictures, framed mirrors, posters and limited-edition prints," Brucker says. "We are vertically integrated, from the manufacturing all the way to the customer. That is where our niche is. We manufacture everything, so when a customer buys from us, they are not going through all those levels."

The vertical integration of the company gives BA Framer two advantages in the framing business. First, BA Framer cuts out the middle-man, so prices are 50% to 70% less than typical furniture or frame shops, Brucker says.

Second, because there is a separate distribution facility, BA Framer is able to use 80% of its stores for retail selling space. This use of space is the opposite of most independent shops, which often use the majority of their space for equipment, he says.

"The store typically is 1,600 to 2,000 sq. ft.," Brucker says. "We supply all the stores from one distribution center, and most of the frame work is done there. Only the final work -- assembly and mounting -- is done in the store. For the custom work, there is a seven- to 10-day turnaround."

Contact: Jack Breard, vice president, or Robert Luleff, vice president, United Commercial Realty, 7001 Preston Road, Suite 222, Dallas, TX 75205; (214) 526-6262.

Retailer Grows Into Sophisticated Concept The Wet Seal Inc. has been in the clothing business for more than 30 years. Now, with its latest concept, Arden B., the company is trying a new category of women's clothing on for size.

"The Arden B. concept is a bridge between juniors and missy, what we would call the young contemporary woman," says Ed Thomas, president and COO of Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based The Wet Seal Inc. "It aims for the 20-to 40-year-old. It is more upscale than Wet Seal and Contempo Casuals."

Wet Seal, Contempo Casuals and Limbo Lounge are the three other concepts operated by the company. While there will be new stores opening for all of the concepts, the majority of expansion plans are for Arden B.

Offering dressy and casual apparel as well as accessories and footwear for women, the first Arden B. store opened in November 1998 in West Palm Beach, Fla. The company expects to have a total of 79 Arden B. stores open by April 15 of this year. "In less than six months (from the first store opening), Arden B. will be in every major market in the country," Thomas says.

With 454 stores currently in operation, The Wet Seal expects to open a total of 105 new stores in 1999 and 75 in 2000, among all of its concepts. Arden B. was able to procure locations for its stores quickly because it acquired 80 stores from Herndon, Va.-based Britches Great Outdoors.

The majority of Arden B. stores will be in regional malls, with a few street locations. "We want to be in the better centers, what we call the 'A' malls, such as Lenox Square in Atlanta," Thomas says. "Because we are going to have a national presence, we are getting brand recognition by advertising in major fashion magazines."

At an average of 3,100 sq. ft., Arden B. stores are designed to be contemporary and sophisticated. The store design is intended to be slightly more mature than Wet Seal and Contempo Casuals, Thomas says. Each store will have similar design elements but will be slightly different from the next. All of the merchandise is developed by The Wet Seal company and carries the Arden B. name.

The Arden B. concept was a natural step out of The Wet Seal and Contempo Casuals, Thomas says, because it addresses an older woman than the other two concepts -- a category of clothing that was lacking in the marketplace. Previously, merchandise for women in the 20-to 40-year-old age group was available only at department stores or high-end retailers, Thomas says.

"We saw this category in the market at much more upscale price points, but we didn't see it available for the masses," he says. "We feel Arden B. is filling a niche marketplace. We see an increasing demand for work to weekend fashions. The young-minded consumer base is growing."

Contact: Ed Thomas, president & COO, The Wet Seal Inc., 26972 Burbank, Foothill Ranch, CA, 92610; (949) 699-3903.