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Center City business weathers tough forecast

David White winced yesterday as he remembered Dec. 14. His hip new Center City shop ran out of its most popular item that day: wooden signs with saucy slogans like Unattended Children Will be Given an Espresso and a Free Puppy.

David White winced yesterday as he remembered Dec. 14. His hip new Center City shop ran out of its most popular item that day: wooden signs with saucy slogans like

Unattended Children Will be Given an Espresso and a Free Puppy.

"We sold out of them just after the deadline when I could order more," said White, who with his partner, James McManaman, opened the Absolute Pop decorative-sign shop back in October at the start of the holiday shopping season.

The amateur inventory gaffe was no small thing. This year's holiday shopping forecast had been meager to begin with nationwide, and sales figures this week confirmed decidedly lower spending growth by consumers than in previous years. There would be no room for inventory mistakes.

But Absolute Pop would have even less margin for error. It sells just three products: wooden signs, small art blocks and tin signs, each for under $40.

Running out of one item 10 days before Christmas was akin to a street vendor running out of hot dog buns on parade day.

"It was tough," said White, 42, a novice at running his own shop, "because I saw money not being made."

The holidays are fraught with particular risk for new and independent retailers as they feel their way through an unknown world of purchasing patterns and consumer tastes. Mistakes can be costly.

But White and McManaman, who planted roots on Philadelphia's up-and-coming 13th Street corridor less than two years ago with their first store, say the decisions made all year long are as important as the ones made during the holidays.

"I learned in the hotel business that every concept . . . has to have 10 'signature items,' " said McManaman, 48, a former luxury-hotel manager who believes hospitality principles apply to retail.

That means free hot apple cider on cold days; free rubber ducky key chains dangling from every take-home bag; fresh-popped popcorn every day at 3 p.m.; and follow-up phone calls at home after every purchase - for starters.

"Things that you don't advertise," he explained, "but that happen at the store that [customers] will remember and they'll talk about."

McManaman and White moved to Philadelphia three years ago, shortly after McManaman had completed a stint managing banquets at the Sofitel in Center City.

They opened their first shop near 13th and Walnut Streets in March 2006. That store, Absolute Abstract, sells large-scale pieces known as "loft art" - famous images digitally reprinted onto unframed linen canvas.

White, who had dabbled in many different jobs, has an eye and flair for the visual. He said he believed loft art had not yet developed its full potential in the retail marketplace.

McManaman, whose father was an artist, had a soft spot for art if not a talent for it. He also sensed opportunity in the city's residential building boom.

"Warehouses bearing loft apartments need artwork," he said. "We want to become known as the go-to place for affordable art."

"Our whole goal," he said, "is to keep it simple."

Store traffic, at first, was sluggish. So McManaman began knocking on fellow merchants' doors and networked with the neighborhood's biggest developers. He wanted merchants to form their own association and began marketing the formerly seedy 13th Street strip as an up-and-coming destination.

By June 2006, the group had a name and held its first meeting. "Midtown Village" is now a fully incorporated merchants' association. It will elect a board early next year.

"I wanted to be a successful business," McManaman said, "And I knew I needed to get the foot traffic."

In April 2007, at the urging of their landlord, the partners expanded into an adjacent store that had gone vacant. They expanded their display of loft art.

That same landlord beseeched them to expand when yet another store - on the other side - went vacant. They decided to open a new store offering a spin on pop art - something they already were doing fairly well.

"Really, there was a need for a lower price-point option," McManaman said.

They had realized that many customers didn't want to spend hundreds of dollars on prints. Those customers had been snapping up Absolute Abstract's block art - smaller versions of classic works by masters such as Warhol and da Vinci.

The pair opened Absolute Pop on Halloween, again at the urging of their landlord, who gave them a good deal.

"This year, December has been fantastic," said McManaman. Both stores have done well.

At Absolute Pop, the prices run no higher than $39, and the wall colors are Crayola-bright as a kindergarten classroom.

Even with the inventory snafu, customers seemed happy - mostly, White said, because of the low prices for replicas of high art.

"People say '$15 - that's it?' " White said, before adding with a smile: "If I hear that one more time, I'm going to raise the price to $20."