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Breakout Retailer Awards


Four dynamic retail concepts — Fabletics, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, Marbles: The Brain Store and PizzaRev — were honored at Chain Store Age’s annual SPECS conference as the winners of CSA’s first-ever Breakout Retailer Awards.

Chosen by the editorial board of CSA, the Breakout Retailer Awards recognizes emerging and innovative retail/restaurant concepts that have crossed the “newbie” line and are on track for growth.

Executives from the four breakout brands were on hand at SPECS not only to accept their awards, but to share insights into their companies founding and what lies ahead at a special Q&A session. Representing their firms were: Dustin Netral, VP retail operations, Fabletics; Tracy Lindsey, VP construction, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market; Scott Brown, co-founder and chief merchant, Marbles: The Brain Store; and Robert Baek, VP business development and real estate, PizzaRev.

Here is a look at each of the winning concepts:


Co-founded by actress Kate Hudson, Fabletics is positioned in the white-hot “athleisure” market, with stylish activewear that works in the gym, yoga studio — and beyond.

After building its brand online via a subscription-based e-commerce model, the retailer has expanded to the physical space with stores that blend the best of both worlds. It’s also added men’s workout gear to its mix.

Unlike some other popular activewear brands, Fabletics’ offerings tend to have a higher fashion quotient and a lower price point, making it more accessible to a wider audience. Plus, it has the advantage of having a high-profile spokesperson with a huge social media following in its celebrity co-founder.

“We believe we are the first true fashion athletic wear brand in the market today,” said Netral during the Q&A at SPECS. >

Fabletics opened its first store in fall 2015, with six locations to date. The company is testing the physical space with stores that range from 1,400 sq. ft. to 2,200 sq. ft. While its store of the future model is apt to be around 2,200 sq. ft., the newly hatched brick-and-mortar retailer is not done experimenting.

“We will soon be testing a few locations that range in size from 2,500 sq. ft. to 2,700 sq. ft. as we continue to perfect the overall experience,” Netral explained.

With an upbeat vibe and a modern, contemporary look, Fabletics stores combine the best of the online and physical worlds, with mobile points of sale, free shipping from warehouses for out-of-stock items, in-store fitting appointments, and a buy-online and pick-up in store service.

In May, Fabletics will open its seventh store, at Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota. More are in the works.

“Our year-end store count will be approximately 18 locations, with many, many more opportunities over the next several years,” Netral said.

“Finding the right location, in the right shopping area, with the right landlords is the cornerstone of our expansion.”

Fresh Thyme Farmers Market

A small grocer with big ambitions, Fresh Thyme combines the spirit of a farmers market with the convenience of a neighborhood store. The fast-growing chain specializes in fresh and organic foods at value prices in a fun, easy-to-shop environment.

Just two years out of the gate, the Chicago-based company now has 32 locations throughout the Midwest. Its aggressive growth strategy calls for at least 60 stores by 2019. Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio are among the states targeted for growth.

Fresh Thyme combines the spirit of a weekend farmers market and the convenience of a neighborhood grocery store with the nutritious offerings of a natural food marketplace. Value prices distinguished the concept from the start.

The company says it is bringing the natural organic lifestyle to the masses by offering attainable prices.

With an average footprint of 30,000 sq. ft., Fresh Thyme stores are colorful and inviting. In a twist on the traditional supermarket model, center store space is devoted to produce.

“Our stores don’t follow traditional grocery store design or have tall aisles or fancy fixtures,” said Lindsey.

Fresh Thyme stores are simple and easy to navigate — so easy that it doesn’t number its aisles. Fresh produce, much of it locally grown and organic, weighs heavily in the mix, along with other perishables. Indeed, more than half of the store’s real estate is dedicated to produce, meats (hormone free) and seafood.

“Our target demographic is really anyone who is active and healthy and wants to eat healthy while remaining cost-conscious,” Lindsey said.

Marbles: The Brain Store

Brain fitness might seem an unusual specialty for a retailer, but it’s proved a sweet spot for Marbles: The Brain Store. The Chicago-based company sells games, puzzles, books and software that stimulate the brain and challenge all ages.

Marbles offers a dynamic, hands-on shopping experience that allows customers to try out product and watch how-to-play videos. The company made its debut in 2008, opening a kiosk in a local mall.

“It really wasn’t successful,” said co-founder Brown. “People wanted a more engaging shopping experience and we needed more room to display our product.”

The retailer went back to the drawing board. It opened its first store, in downtown Chicago, putting all its merchandise out in the open so that customers could test-drive the products. It named its associates “BrainCoaches,” and required them to test out the inventory so they could better help customers.

The formula proved a hit. Today, Marbles operates 35 locations stores and also sells via its e-commerce site and catalog. The shopping experience is very hands-on, with all the merchandise out for play. Friendly associates demonstrate products and make personalized recommendations.

The merchandise lineup includes games, puzzles, books, gadgets and software, all designed to boost brain power. The premise is one gathering worldwide attention. Research firm SharpBrains predicts the global brain-fitness industry will surpass $6 billion in revenue by 2020.

Marbles carries some 250 SKUs, with products for toddlers, teens and adults. Approximately 30% of the mix is exclusive to the retailer, created by an in-house team, called Marbles Brain Workshop and headed up by Brown, that is dedicated to the development of the branded product line.

Marbles has been prudent in its brick-and-mortar growth. It will open five stores this year. As to the long-term outlook, Brown said the company will continue to grow as long as the opportunity continues to present itself. The real estate strategy includes malls, lifestyle centers, tourist destinations and neighborhood shopping centers.


Fast-casual eatery PizzaRev is bringing food customization to a new level, with a “build-your-own” approach that allows customers to customize their pizza from start to finish.

Founded in 2012, PizzaRev now has 31 locations up and running. But it’s gone on the fast track and plans to double its footprint by the end of 2016.

“We’re entering a total of five new states this year, including Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Ohio and Tennessee,” Baek said.

The growth strategy calls for both corporate- and franchised-owned locations. The company primarily seeks out endcap sites with high visibility in power centers. But it is exploring other viable, alternative sites. It will open its first food

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