If you're over the age of 18, don't live in a small town, and aren't in the market for studded T-shirts emblazoned with the titles of Whitney Houston songs, chances are you've never heard of teen clothing and accessory retailer rue21
You probably have come across the company's competitors, however. These include better-known and more visible companies, from Wet Seal to dELiA*s and Charlotte Russe to Forever 21 (a separate company not affiliated with rue21).
While rue21 operates over 750 stores at present -- and management believes the market would support opening to at least 1,000 total -- the stores are located primarily in small towns and rural areas, out of view of big-city dwellers. A 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal summarized this strategy: "Rue21 is one of a handful of retailers aggressively targeting secondary markets and rural areas -- cities and towns with populations smaller than 250,000 that offer plenty of shoppers and few competitors."
Rural areas and a "fast fashion" business model
Another component of rue21's retailing strategy is the company's "fast fashion" business model. The company sources merchandise from a diverse network of domestic vendors, moving low-priced products into stores at lightning speed to meet the cravings of trend-conscious teens. So even though the consumer lives in a small community far from a major city, he or she is still able to buy the stylish clothes and accessories glimpsed on TV.
Fear the big boxes' big ad budgets
What may be a much more serious threat to rue21 is these larger companies' outsize marketing and advertising budgets, including their ability to partner with celebrities and famous high-fashion designers to promote exclusive clothing and accessory lines. For instance, teen pop star Miley Cyrus has a clothing line in Wal-Mart, while Target has partnered with designers with significant youth appeal, such as Rodarte and Missoni.
Rue21 doesn't use traditional advertising, instead relying on viral and word-of-mouth efforts. And because the company doesn't stamp its own name on tank tops and hoodies, it can't benefit from the subtle product placement that American Eagle
So what's the investment case here?
It's super-cheap to open a new rue21 store. In the latest 10-K, management affixes a $160K price tag to a new store. That's the retail-sector equivalent of a $10 leopard-print pashmina -- except the returns on a rue21 store are much more attractive.
According to the company's latest 10-K: "Our typical new store investment is approximately $160,000, which includes build-out costs. ... New stores generate on average between $900,000 and $1.1 million in net sales per store in the first twelve months."
Companywide, in fiscal 2010 net sales increased 21% to $635 million, driven by new store openings, and net income grew 37% to $30 million. Couple this with a debt-free balance sheet and strong management in the form of president and CEO Robert Fisch, who owns about 5% of the shares and has more than 30 years' experience in retail.
Why not follow this trend? Despite its seeming obscurity, rue21 may be a retailer well worth keeping an eye on.
If you're not sold on the idea of investing in a teen-retail-focused company, why not take a look at a growing broad-line retailer that isn't so focused on a niche market. You can learn more about this emerging market opportunity in the Motley Fool's special free report: "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012." You can click here to access it now.