Business

La Epoca store updates itself for a new downtown

If you had told Tony Alonso five or 10 years ago that his store La Epoca would be selling $250 T-shirts, he would never have believed it.

But this is a far cry from the La Epoca that Alonso's father opened in 1965 in downtown Miami after Fidel Castro confiscated his store in Cuba. Once a destination largely appealing to Latin American tourists, Miami's La Epoca is in the midst of a transformation that hopes to parallel where downtown Miami is heading.

"People want something different, " said Alonso, who now runs the store with his two sons: Brian, 27, and Randy, 23. "We have to be an alternative to the shopping center."

The three-level store with its dramatic red accents aims to get shoppers' attention and create the feel of a designer boutique. The target customer: the urban professional or young hipster.

The merchandise runs the gamut from an Ed Hardy printed T-shirt with crystals for $250 to a Ted Baker men's blazer for $395 and a Laundry by Design silk evening dress for $340. The store also carries many of hottest names in denim from Diesel, 7 for All Mankind and Paige. Coming soon: Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren. Where Nike and Levi's were once the store's highest-end brand names, now they are the most moderately priced.

"I like to keep pushing the envelope higher and higher to see how far we can go, " said Randy Alonso, who handles most of the buying for the store. "Eventually, I would like to get rid of Levi's."

This is definitely no longer the La Epoca where abuelita used to shop. All that remains from the past are a small rack of polyester women's blouses and two-piece suits.

SIMPLE TRANSITION

The changeover started after La Epoca moved in 2005 from the Alfred I. Dupont Building on Northeast Second Avenue to 200 E. Flagler St., where Tony Alonso had purchased the former Walgreens store. When The Sports Authority moved out after renting from Alonso for about five years, he decided it was time to go after the dream he envisioned when he first bought the Walgreens building in 1992.

Alonso could never have imagined the difference a one block move would make.

During the first week in the new location, business was better than it had been in 20 years, even with the same merchandise. When Alonso and his sons examined the sales, they discovered that in the new location customers were gravitating to the more expensive merchandise.

"These were not the same clients who used to shop with us a block away, " Alonso said. "We were able to start attracting the local workers. These customers are here. They just haven't been well-serviced."

But La Epoca's new fortunes almost didn't happen. Business plummeted by half after Hurricane Andrew and never recovered. The Latin American tourists started taking their dollars to more traditional malls or big-box retailers, then many stopped coming due to economic issues in their countries.

TOUGH TIMES

Alonso twice came close to closing the store in the 1990s. Instead, he survived by cutting the size of the store in half to reduce costs.

Now, even though sales have doubled since moving into the new store, Alonso knows there is still a long road to travel. It helps that he owns the building and has only a small mortgage.

"We have a very patient and forgiving landlord, " Alonso said. "I can't charge my store what I used to charge Sports Authority. We're in a position to ride it out. I understand it's a long-term process. As long as we're going in the right direction, we're happy."

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