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Liapela: Right Place, Right Time

Retailer focuses on modern, clean looking products

Alejandra JamesAlejandra James, here with her family, used a combination of her daughters’ names to come up with Liapela.
Liapela is everything Miami is: cool, modern, sleek, beautiful.
     Owner Alejandra James, once an industrial engineer in Colombia, was inspired to open the store after she searched high and low for unique baby and children's products, resorting in the end to buying online. Her friends loved her style, and soon she was referring them to the sites she shopped.
     "And I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this; I can open a store for babies that sells all this cool little stuff,'" she said. "There wasn't a store like that in Miami."
     She named her store Liapela, a combination of her three daughters' names: Natalia, Penelope and Isabela, and began selling online while she looked for the perfect retail space.
     While she first looked on her home turf of Brickell Key, where there were plenty of young, upscale parents, she found the perfect spot in the Village of Merrick Park Mall in Miami's tony suburb of Coral Gables.
     The mall features three floors, with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus as anchors, and brands like Jimmy Choo, Tiffany & Co. and Gucci. On the third floor, the mall created a children's corner, and that is where James opened her first physical store in August 2008.
     Sandwiched between a Gymboree and a prominent pediatrician's office, and just across from Nordstrom's 3rd floor children's department, the location couldn't be more perfect for attracting new customers.
     "We couldn't believe it," said James. "We were really lucky."Perego
     The original store is just 1,000 square feet, but James keeps it looking fresh and modern with lots of clean, white walls, birch floors and a striking orange wall in back.
     James likes to keep the store open, with products displayed at waist-height, but she admits that she's grown so much in the past four years that things are getting full.
     So she's expanding to the store next door in November, and will soon have 6,000 square feet in which to spread out. But that doesn't mean she's adding too much more to the mix.
     "I'm really, really, really picky buying the stuff for the store," she said. "...There are lots of people who have beautiful stuff, but it doesn't go in my store. It has to be really modern, really clean looking. It's really hard to open a line for me - it has to be really fantastic."
     With furniture from brands like Oeuf, Bloom and Stokke; bedding from Dwell and Skip Hop; gear from Quinny, Maxi-Cosi, Orbit, Maclaren, Peg Perego, Baby Jogger, Baby Björn and Clek; and toys from Plan Toys, Green Toys, Bla Bla, and Ugly Dolls, Liapela has at once both a varied and cohesive merchandise mix.
     James shops not only the ABC Expo, but also the New York International Gift Fair and Toy Fair, and she follows a great deal of designer blogs to get ideas.
     In 2010, Liapela had grown enough that James was ready to look at another store. When the Village at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach came courting, she decided to take a look at the space.
     What she found surprised her; it was a brand new mall in the Aventura area, with stores like West Elm, Pottery Barn and the Container Store, and the space she looked at was right next door to Crate & Barrel, which shares a similar clean, modern aesthetic.
     "We just thought it was the right move for us," said James. "...There was nothing like our store in this area."
     She opened the 4,000-square-foot Hallandale Beach store in May 2010, less than two years after the Coral Gables location.
Liapela is expandingLiapela is expanding its fl agship store this fall, which will bring the square footage to 6,000.

     She attributes her quick success to several things, but perhaps key is that she keeps furniture in stock and ready for delivery - each location has its own warehouse.
     This is particularly important in the Miami market, where many of her clients are South American customers who travel to the States to furnish an entire home - then ship it via container back home.
     And while James delivers, she only delivers locally, but that does include the Port of Miami, where she does a lot of freight forwarding to places like Brazil.
     From the beginning, she has advertised in the airline magazines that fly to South America, and it has paid off.
     "The South Americans, they all come to Miami," she said. "They want to bring something they don't have in their country. They come with a mission, and that mission is to buy."
     James also credits her choice of location for growing her business.
     "The locations we've chosen are really nice, really high end," she said. Things like covered parking and security are also important.
     So when her husband recently spotted a perfect location while on business in Orlando, James was interested.
     The space was an empty storefront right next to a Destination Maternity, and after her successes with stores next to relevant businesses - Gymboree, a pediatrician's office, Nordstrom's children's department, Crate & Barrel - James knew that this was something she should look into.
     "You start with something instead of starting in the middle of nowhere and hoping that people go there," she said.
And as she began to research Orlando, she realized it was full of untapped potential, with most of her competition coming from Babies ‘R' Us.
     "There's not one store like mine," said James. "All the vendors were really excited."
     James plans to open the 4,000-square-foot store in September or October, which means by November, when she completes the Coral Gables expansion, she will have a combined selling space of 14,000 square feet in three Florida cities.
     James is still reeling from the lightning-fast growth of her business.
     "I never thought I'd be where I am right now," she said, especially since she opened her first store in 2007, just at the beginning of the tough economic times. "...If this is the recession, I can't wait till the economy gets better!"

Alejandra James, here with her family, used a combination of her daughters' names to come up with Liapela.Alejandra James, here with her family, used a combination of her daughters

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