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Such a Deal

Going off the beaten track for an off-price store

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Route 15, where it runs through Johnson, is not exactly Rodeo Drive. You're more likely to travel this section of the bumpy, two-lane road to shop for antiques or farm machinery than the latest in designer jeans. Unless you're headed to the Forget Me Not Shop: Like T.J. Maxx, the off-price store sells discounted new, brand-name clothes that, for whatever reason, never made it off the rack.

Nestled in a nook between Foot Brook and Hog Back roads just west of town, the Forget Me Not Shop is made to look like a countrified log cabin. As I pull into the muddy parking lot on a chilly March morning, a few summer-season clothes are dangling on hangers from the beams above the porch. A short-sleeve men's dress shirt, a denim mini-skirt and a pair of aqua capri pants sway wildly in the biting wind and freezing rain.

Inside the store, which is pretty busy for a Thursday morning, I'm overwhelmed by the volume of merchandise. Dozens of packed clothes racks cover the floor, surrounded by thousands of off-price jewelry items and knick-knacks such as metal lunch-box purses, packets of incense and NASCAR dish sets. Non-clothing items now account for about 25 percent of the store's business, and they go cheap -- $3.25, $5.50, $6.75.

I find store owner Barbara Burmeister sitting on the floor near the register, sorting clothes from a cardboard box. Tall and thin, with neat, shoulder-length blond hair, she strikes me as a shrewd businesswoman, her jeans and long-sleeve, purple thermal shirt notwithstanding. We talk while seated in heavy Adirondack chairs beneath the mounted head of a nine-point buck.

Burmeister freely admits that she hates to shop. The 58-year-old Elmore resident entered the clothing business for one reason: poverty. In 1981, she was a single mother, selling crafts and doing odd jobs to support her son. "I couldn't afford to buy clothes new," she says, "so I was always searching for recycled... I would be finding things for other people. I'd come home from rummage sales with bags with other people's names on them. That made me think, 'Oh, I should be a finder.'"

Burmeister began selling used clothes in June of that year, from a small room in downtown Johnson. In the nearly 23 years since, her business has undergone a few major changes. She dropped used clothing in 1987 and, in 1996, bought land and built a new home for the store; it moved to its current 4000-square-foot location in 2000.

But some things haven't changed. "I still enjoy finding things for people," Burmeister explains. "I love going to trade shows and finding things and saying, 'Oh, they're going to love this, and they're not going to believe they can get it for $20!'"

When I comment on the seemingly cluttered, random nature of her store, Burmeister explains that the volume is part of her strategy. She isn't interested in running a fancy fashion boutique with a lounge and sofas. "I'd rather 'stack it deep and sell it cheap,'" she says, quoting a marketing maxim.

The strategy will be familiar to thrift-store shoppers. Off-price stores sell new merchandise, so they're a little different, but customers can expect similar discounts. "We try to be 40 percent off normal retail," says Burmeister, "but most of our things are 50 [percent] or more... I sell some clothes for less than it costs to make them."

Price breaks at discount stores such as Wal-Mart or K-Mart may appear similar, but the clothes they sell are designed to sell cheaply. Low prices at Burmeister's store accompany higher quality -- if sometimes less trendy -- merchandise. "Customers are buying something for $10 that was made to be sold at the quality of a $25 item," she notes. "That's a big difference for shoppers."

Later, browsing the aisles looking for deals, I find a surprisingly hip women's one-piece swimsuit for $20 -- marked down from $78 -- an insulated men's flannel shirt for $8.50 and a stylish, floor-length, sleeveless purple dress for $16. I also find a cream-colored, 100-percent silk men's short-sleeve dress shirt for $24, marked down from $72.

There are a number of major-label items, but I can't say what they are. Apparently, companies that sell to off-price stores are extremely protective of their trademarks. During our interview, Burmeister makes it clear that she isn't allowed to advertise, or even publicly reveal, the labels on the clothes she sells. Stores have been cut off from their sources for naming names, so she swears me to secrecy. Hint: You can find similar items in a mall.

That Burmeister is able to offer high-quality new clothes so cheaply and still make a profit says something about the volatility of the fashion industry. The clothes she sells reach her through a variety of paths. "We get cancellations, overruns, excess inventory," she says. Store buyers order and purchase clothes from manufacturers, and sometimes they make mistakes. The manufacturer might send the right item but in the wrong color. Or a buyer might get canned, and all her orders will be cancelled. The post-9/11 customs crackdown has also worked in Burmeister's favor: Clothes designed for one season might not get through in time to make it overseas. "In the fashion industry, goods get cold," Burmeister says. "What's hot this year is not hot next year."

Buyers and manufacturers, looking to unload their cooling cargo, turn to the off-price industry. Sources sometimes refer to them jokingly as "vultures," Burmeister notes.

But getting connected to these sources isn't easy. "It takes a lot of years, and a lot of time and money," she explains. Burmeister typically spends 10 weeks a year traveling to trade shows and meeting fashion-industry representatives, many from New York and Los Angeles. When she's not traveling, she depends on these people to call her when they have something that might interest her customers. The clothes offered in these phone transactions can disappear quickly if she doesn't act right away. "It's an up-to-the-minute business," she says.

Owning a thrift store was different: Burmeister would drive her cargo van to "rag" venues in Boston or New York. "I'd be at these recycling centers until midnight," she recalls, "going through bins of 1600 sweaters, picking up every one, looking at the style, the quality." The effort might yield 200 to 300 sweaters, which she then trucked back to Johnson to clean -- she spent upwards of $350 a week at a laundromat.

The sorting and cleaning process for off-price clothes isn't nearly as rigorous, and Burmei-ster now has six full-time and two part-time employees to help. Though she still toils 12 hours a day at least six days a week, she likes her work, which she suggests is a kind of community service. "Bringing good stuff cheap to people feels good," Burmeister says. "You can look people in the eye because you know they're giving you less than what it's worth."

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