Retail in Paradise

Hawaii is home to all of the fashion superstars, one super convenience store and several homegrown treasures
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Posted January 14, 2019

The surf embraced my soul as palm trees swayed in the balmy breeze above; it was 80 degrees and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Surely this must have been paradise. If not, it must have been Hawaii. It was truly a treat spending the better part of December on these spectacular Pacific islands, our 50th state. That of course meant no Jack Frost nipping at my nose, and no chestnuts roasting on an open fire. What it did offer, however, were palm trees decked in holiday cheer, and the mellifluous melody of Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas) being strummed on ukuleles along the beaches, and on Kalakaua Avenue, the main thoroughfare and retail corridor on Waikiki. 

All of the retail superstars that we’ve come to know on the mainland put their best foot forward in the shadows of Diamond Head, Oahu’s most recognized natural landmark. Every high-end boutique and fashion house has strategically positioned itself along this tourist magnet that draws travelers from all over the world, particularly from Japan, Australia and, of course, the contiguous United States. The impressive roster of luxury retailers includes Valentino, Cartier, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès, to name a few. Each retail venue on the Avenue is as spectacular as any one might see on Fifth Avenue or The Champs-Élysées.

Joining the mix is the new International Market Place, anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue, and featuring other high-street mainstays like Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin, Rolex and Burberry. Tesla even makes a statement in its multi-level car showroom front and forward in the upscale mall. Juxtaposed among the sleek and sophisticated retail venues is an open sky and a specimen banyan tree. Clearly a community icon, the massive tree was preserved as a major focal point in the Market Place, serving as a nod to the heritage of Hawaii.

While this island paradise is bustling with great retail shops, one of the most impressive are the homegrown ABC stores. While this chain of convenient stores doesn’t wow its customers with elegance, pizzazz and sophistication, it’s key to success is a thorough understanding of their needs and a flawlessly merchandised store. With a total of 73 stores (57 in Hawaii and the rest in the Mariana Islands and Las Vegas), a customer will never see an empty shelf, a sparsely merchandised clothing rack or a speck of dust.

Based in Honolulu, this impressive chain of convenience stores owned by MNS Ltd., enjoys in excess of $230 million in annual profits while employing more than 1500 staff members. Sidney Kosasa, the son of a first generation Japanese immigrant, started the chain in 1964 when he opened his first “Mr. K” store on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. Although several theories abound as to the origins of the name, Kosasa changed to ABC simply to make it easier to remember.

While mainland and internationally driven retail brands on these paradise islands are exciting, it’s the locally grown shops that piqued my interest. Indulging on an almost daily basis in the offerings at ABC, with everything ranging from soup to nuts, candies, souvenirs, beach supplies, over the counter medicines, sandwiches and salads (delivered fresh twice a day), fruit and wine, this was my one-stop shopping destination for all the necessities a tourist could possibly need.

After stocking up early one morning on everything from sun tan lotion to Maui-style potato chips and chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies, I loaded into my Zipcar and headed along the coast on the windward side of Oahu. The first stop on the way was Keneke’s, a local favorite off the tourist radar, for a plate of succulent Kalua Pig over rice with the requisite macaroni salad: the island’s best. White-washed cinder block walls, hand-painted palm trees and a weathered front door spoke to the authenticity of this rustically charming roadside eatery. The journey continued past Hanauma Bay (the best snorkeling on the island, often frequented by former President Obama), where one can literally swim with the fishes and live to tell about it.

As the morning dew gave way to afternoon sunshine, I passed the Halona Blowhole and its spectacular panoramic views along Route 72, and then pulled into the town of Waimanalo where I parked the four-wheel-drive Ford Escape in front of the East Honolulu Clothing Company. There were no mass produced T-shirts here; everything is designed and silk-screened on the premises. Sustainability paired with tried and true visual merchandising is the order of the day with recycled/repurposed fixtures and charming lifestyle presentations of merchandise. In this gem of a shop one can purchase a low-G koa wood ukulele, a colorful Hawaiian sarong or a framed photograph of a lone sea turtle.

Before jumping back into the car to continue along to Lanikai, one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, a stop at Dave’s was almost mandatory for the island’s famous “shave ice” (only tourists call it shaved ice).

Hawaii is everything the travelogues say it is and more. It truly is paradise, an oasis of calm in a frenetic world. And while Joni Mitchell cautioned in 1970 about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, we must maintain the island’s natural beauty and somehow find the balance between progress and preservation. Mahalo!

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.