The first thing to learn about retailing is that it can get in your blood. Take Margo Herrera, the 19-year-old manager of Orange Coast College’s on-campus clothing store, Windjammer Fashions.
When Herrera sees a well-dressed guy on campus, she doesn’t think romance right off. She thinks sales. “I ask the guys what they like,” says Herrera, the men’s clothing buyer for the student-run store. “Guys are tough to buy for; they’re pretty particular, but they like to be able to just throw it on.”
Herrera filled the men’s aisles of the store this semester after a trip to the California Apparel Mart, the collection of clothing wholesalers’ showrooms in downtown Los Angeles. She and four other student buyers were given between $3,000 and $10,000 each, the size of their budgets depending on how well their choices sold the season before.
Windjammer Fashions is believed to be the only store of its kind in the country, college advisers say. The store allows students to negotiate with vendors, balance the books, draw up advertising budgets, and handle delivery and billing snafus.
A Los Angeles manufacturers’ representative for several clothing lines sold at the California Apparel Mart said the learning is mutual. “They know what their fellow student cares about,” said Jackie Goldberg, who specializes in contemporary junior fashions. “They give us ideas that I pass on to my manufacturers--a particular neckline, a particular look that is coming into fad.”
Anita Smith, faculty adviser for the Windjammer store, said that marketing and management instructors from as far afield as the University of Maryland and New Zealand have visited the store to check out the unique approach to learning.
Students work up to 10 hours a week in the store for two to three units of college credit and meet once a week as a class. Smith said the program has attracted students whose interests range from fashion merchandising to accounting and marketing. About two-thirds of the store’s 15-student staff is female.
Often, Smith said, students find the experience so interesting that they transfer to a four-year business program after earning the two-year degree offered by Orange Coast College.
“It’s a very good program; it teaches them all the aspects of running a small retail business,” said Robert Jones, a marketing professor at Cal State Fullerton, who has taught some Windjammer graduates. “Also, many are interacting with customers for the first time.”
The store’s strategy is to offer lower prices than its competitors at the malls, which it can do because the store pays no rent. Herrera has priced a pair of heavy cotton Quiksilver pants at $25, where mall retailers might sell them for $30 to $35.
Windjammer caters to the college-age crowd. But its selection must also be versatile enough to appeal to older, returning students and faculty, whom Smith calls “our bread and butter.”
Besides clothing, the store also sells jewelry and accessories. But it carries only one or two items with the college insignia--a market left to the campus bookstore.
Windjammer rings up annual sales of about $80,000 and usually breaks even each year, Smith said.
The store opened in 1965, when former marketing professor Eugene Overholt proposed it as a more realistic experience for students interested in marketing careers. The student council liked the proposal and gave Windjammer free space in a corner of the cafeteria and $7,000 in funding.
With so many fashion institutes teaching merchandising from a textbook, the store helps set the Costa Mesa community college’s program apart, Smith said.
Smith actually got her start as a student at the store. Although she had some retailing experience and a business degree, she enrolled in classes at the college to learn more about fashion because she wanted to open her own boutique. Open and friendly, the 42-year-old adviser watches her students to discover what excites them about the business.
“I try to guide them into that,” she said. “I give them all the responsibility they can handle.”
Students who want to apply for one of the three paid manager’s jobs must work for one semester in sales, then apply with a cover letter and resume.
After seven years at Windjammer, Smith can walk into a mall and spot former students working at such stories as Gymboree, Larry Douglas and Bullock’s.
Weekly class meetings take up topics such as shoplifting and sales strategy. Windjammer, like other retailers, has been hurt this season by the slack economy. Reluctantly, the store has held more sales--one in the fall, another at Halloween and a third for the store’s 25th-anniversary celebration in November.
Smith said the store’s profits are kept on account, so they can cushion a slow year like this one.
Another of the store’s managers, Gretchen Garcia, 19, was taping large, white sheets of paper at the back of the display window on a recent morning. A former art major, Garcia was planning to draw a Christmas scene as a backdrop for the store’s winter line.
She started working at Windjammer because she was interested in display. But since working as the junior sportswear buyer, she said she now wants to design clothes for that market.
The single mother of a 4-month-old girl, Garcia said, “I want to finish here and get a good job, so I’ll be able to support her.”
Like Herrera, Garcia said she works for a fickle public. “For junior women, you’ve got to buy a lot of different looks--dressy, revealing, casual,” she said. “You have to stay on top of things; you have to go out and see what everyone’s wearing.”