- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Melissa M. Fulton is taking her airport retail business to new heights.

The president and chief executive officer of Regional Retail Concepts Inc., the Columbia, Md., parent company of Celebrate Maryland, Just Plane Kids and Discover D.C., is expanding with a new airport store called Women Rock — a funky gift shop focusing on women.

That’s just the beginning as the company takes its best-selling Chesapeake-flavored products and gives them their own airport stores under the names Chesapeake Market and Chesapeake Bath & Body.

“If you put things [in an airport] that are in a mall — that’s boring,” Ms. Fulton said. “It’s far more interesting to arrive in a city and find a great presentation of specialty retail.”

That’s what Ms. Fulton plans to showcase as she prepares to open the company’s first new concept in five years. Women Rock will take flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in October and travel farther south to Orlando (Fla.) International Airport later in the fall.

Women Rock, a concept three years in the making, is full of edgy merchandise from funky handbags, lip-shaped soaps and heart-shaped pasta, to “Girlfriend Cookies” in the shapes of nail polish and cell phones, T-shirts with sassy sayings and books like “A Bad Girl’s Guide to the Open Road.” There are even products for men, like boxer shorts and ties.

“The more outrageous it is, the more fun we have with it,” Ms. Fulton said. “It’s refreshing. It energizes the whole business.”

In addition to Women Rock, Regional Retail Concepts will debut Best of America, which is currently called Discover D.C. at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Best of America, which sells patriotic products, will open at Orlando International in spring 2004 and Ms. Fulton said she hopes it will expand to other airports.

The 16-year-old company started as a single Celebrate Maryland shop in Ellicott City and expanded to St. Michael’s on the Eastern Shore before turning its focus to airport retail in 1994. The non-airport stores were not bringing in as many sales as the BWI locations. As a result, Ms. Fulton revisited her small company’s business plan and closed the non-airport locations.

“As a business if you’re not changing something every day, you’re falling behind,” she said.

She wanted to add more concepts but was willing to wait until the right time and opportunity. Now she is expanding as more airports look for sophisticated concepts to differentiate themselves and drive retail sales.

“Airports like to offer passengers something different,” said Pauline Armbrust, publisher of Airport Revenue News. “They want to define their airport by their stores —offering unique and upscale retail.”

Regional Retail Concepts has four Celebrate Maryland stores, a Celebrate Maryland Express kiosk, one Discover D.C. store and one Just Plane Kids store at BWI. One Celebrate Maryland store is at its Columbia headquarters.

The company has developed two additional concepts based on the success of some products sold at its Celebrate Maryland stores.

“Many people want to see regional [retail] in airports,” Ms. Fulton said.

Chesapeake Bath & Body, which is designed to fit in kiosks, will offer fragrances, creams, oils, powders, and massage and spa treatment kits — some of the top-selling products at the company’s existing stores.

Chesapeake Market, which will be both full stores and kiosks, will be a “real market” with regional foods, local wines and kitchen accessories.

The store has a partnership with Baltimore’s Classic Catering People, which will provide hot and cold carry-on food for passengers. Chesapeake Market also will have a candy counter offering chocolates from Naron’s Chocolates in Baltimore.

There are no Chesapeake Market or Chesapeake Bath & Body openings scheduled.

“In the airports I’ve visited [specialty retail] is already there,” Ms. Fulton said. “It’s just not in Baltimore yet.”

That is about to change. The Maryland Aviation Administration is seeking new developers to change the retail landscape at BWI.

The future of Regional Retail Concepts’ BWI locations is uncertain until a new developer is chosen. But the company is in a strong position considering the airport authority wants a significant representation of regional and local retailers regardless of the developer.

Ms. Fulton isn’t taking any chances and plans to sell her store concepts to all the bidders and prove her $4.2 million company knows how to do business in an airport.

She has her sights on expansion and says many airports can carry the Chesapeake Market concept by changing it to local foods common to that area or changing the Celebrate Maryland concept to offer another state’s souvenirs. But Ms. Fulton has no intention of letting her 75-person company grow too large.

“We’ll always be entrepreneurial — thinking small, which I think benefits the business,” Ms. Fulton said. “I don’t want to lose that flavor.”

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