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Cashing In On Boredom

O.C. stores offer alternatives to standard mall fare, hoping to lure young people to hang and to shop.

January 29, 1998|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the Higher Source, a music and clothing store in Huntington Beach, four guys in floppy jeans spend a recent evening reflected in the glow of a 450-gallon aquarium called the Tank.

As incense swirls, the guys listen to records--yes, vinyl platters--on headphones that plug into 12 turntables set up around the aquarium.

"You can come here and spend hours listening to records and looking at the fish," says Lana Almaraz, clothing buyer and marketing director for Higher Source, who on this night bops around the store in hip-hugger jeans, retro glasses and a Judy Jetson hairdo.

"Whoever is at the Tank ends up just staring at the fish until it's like they're one with the fish," she says.

With attractions such as Zen-inducing fish, stores such as the Higher Source hope to hook the generation of teens and 20s shoppers bored by standard mall fare. Cutting-edge stores are creating cool hangouts where people can go to meet their friends, listen to music and--ideally--buy stuff.

"We've got guys, couples, groups of kids who come in here three or four times a day and chill out," Almaraz says.

Why set up turntables and fish tanks to lure young shoppers?

They've got the fun money to spend on clothes and music. The average teen goes shopping 14 times a month and spends $31 per trip, according to a 1995 survey by Kurt Salmon & Associates of New York City. In the same survey, almost half of teens agreed that most stores are boring.

Gen-Y shoppers don't want to look at clothes on hangers; they also want to be entertained. They're a more skeptical, seen-it-all shopper than the "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" grads, who spent their high school years hanging out at traditional malls, content to eat hot dogs on a stick and buy copycat clothes from chain stores.

The younger generation seeks stores or clusters of stores, such as the Lab in Costa Mesa, that offer unique merchandise in a setting that feels more like a club.

Visit Ladies Lounge in Newport Beach, and you might find a guy relaxing on a green couch listening to Elvis albums on an old record player while his girlfriend tries on clothes, or young women sitting around a '50s dinette talking about last night's party and trying on Dita sunglasses.

Owner Michelle Ponce has created a combination martini lounge (without the alcohol), '50s teen bedroom and kitschy boutique.

"I set it up in a way that people could feel comfortable. There's a TV and a record player. But a lot of people come just to look at the walls," Ponce says.

The walls are crammed with toys and vintage finds that are for fun, not for sale. There are punk Barbie dolls sporting chopped hair and nose rings, a chandelier strewn with plastic figures of Miss Piggy and assorted cartoon characters, and an Evel Knievel "Easy Rider" motorcycle helmet.

"We had a [toy] racetrack in here, but it got messed up," Ponce says. "People are trying to find someplace different so they don't have to go to a mall."

There are signs that retail as entertainment is catching on with the mainstream. Retail giant Wet Seal/Contempo Casuals in Foothill Ranch has opened four Limbo Lounge boutiques, including one in Cerritos Mall, complete with juice bar, listening station and a kitschy decor heavy with knickknacks.

As Ponce says, "They understand."

Four years ago, the Lab began as an experiment in retail for a younger crowd. Founder Shaheen Sadeghi wanted to create a place that would become an "entertainment center and social gathering blended into one." He set up a collection of alternative stores in an abandoned '50s factory that once produced military night goggles.

"We didn't want another perfect world," Sadeghi says.

Instead of the usual palm trees, he planted native shrubs and a vegetable garden. The Lab also has a community garden where those who buy and plant seeds can return to watch their plants grow.

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To encourage people to come and hang out, Sadeghi set up an outdoor "Living Room" in the middle of the mall, parking old chairs and couches where people can lounge around. Loitering is encouraged.

"For people in this age group, entertainment is meeting other people," Sadeghi says. "We're not putting in a bowling alley or virtual reality [center]. It's a very comfortable and relaxed environment. The entertainment is to go to the Lab and hang out. They come here to people-watch."

The Lab provides the kind of social entertainment found at clubs and coffeehouses. Free black-and-white movies are shown, and bands such as Sublime perform in the Living Room. There's even a bingo night.

"We want to bring that feeling of community," Sadeghi says. "We've had people get married at the Lab because they met there."

Sadeghi looks for stores such as Urban Outfitters and Spanish Fly as well as the Gypsy Den coffeehouse that offer entertaining environments. When Tower Records signed on as a tenant, Sadeghi stipulated that there be no neon and that the interior have the Lab's look.

"Here it's much more casual, much more raw," Sadeghi says. "Each store has its own culture."

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