Five Below brings discount good to Columbia heights


Kelly Martinez, from left, Marilyn Hamas and Adriana Martinez check out colorful wrist watches at Five Below in Columbia Heights. The store, which opened Nov. 2, is the discount chain’s first in the District. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)
November 10, 2013

Celina Gaston was at Five Below on opening day. She bought a fitness ball, some T-shirts and a pair of headphones.

Three days later, she was back again.

“It’s a cool store,” Gaston, 23, said. “There’s music playing. It’s bright. It just makes you feel happy.”

The Philadelphia-based discount chain, where all items cost $5 or less, opened its first city-street store Nov. 2 in Columbia Heights. In doing so, it has become one of the first teenager-centric national retail chains to set up shop in Washington.

On Tuesday afternoon, there were two dozen customers — many of them local high school students — scattered throughout the shop. It was, an employee said “the quietest this store has been since we opened.”

The location, sandwiched between Target and Petco, is the company’s 300th and the first in the District. Its shelves are lined with $5 yoga mats, $4 sunglasses and $3 dog sweaters. There are also skateboards, pilates DVDs and T-shirts with slogans such as “This is what awesome looks like,” all $5 each.

The downturn has been particularly good to discount retailers such as Five Below, which have reached record-high profits in recent months.

In its most recent quarter, Five Below’s profits more than tripled to $4.1 million compared to the year before. Sales, meanwhile, rose 34.9 percent to $117.1 million.

“Once the recession hit, we found that there were even more customers looking for great prices,” said David Schlessinger, Five Below’s co-founder.

Five Below, founded in 2002, has been on the hunt for a District location for nearly eight years, Schlessinger said. But finding the right location — at the right price — was tricky.

“We have stores around D.C., but finding the right real estate has very been challenging,” he said.

Schlessinger, executive chairman, got his beginnings in retail with Encore Books, a Philadelphia-based company he started in 1973 and eventually sold to Rite Aid. After that, he co-founded Zany Brainy, a toy store for children, with Tom Vellios in the early 1990s. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

Shortly thereafter, the duo came up with the idea for Five Below.

“We just started thinking, ‘What would be a cool thing for kids as they got older, when they can spend their own money?,’” Schlessinger said. “We said, ‘Let’s keep the prices low but make sure it’s trend-right, with the things pre-teens and teens want.”

In the 11 years since, the company has shifted its offerings, adding more beauty items such as nail polish (seven glittery bottles for $5) and electronic accessories such as phone chargers, laptop covers and PlayStation 2 games ($5 a piece).

Five Below opened 60 stores in 2013 and has plans to open at least that many — including a handful in the Washington suburbs — next year, Schlessinger said.

Five Below shops are typically in the suburbs, including locations in Alexandria, Fairfax, Rockville and Elkridge. But as the company shifts its focus into urban markets, Schlessinger says he has had to find ways to bring customers from the sidewalk into the store.

During opening weekend in Columbia Heights, for example, the company offered 5-cent hot dogs.

“The line, it was so crazy that day,” said Alexis Carpenter, 18. “I just came around here and looked but didn’t buy anything.”

On Tuesday, she was back, though, looking for a case for her phone.

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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