Democrats’ Party Delivers Little Boost for Boston Retailers

In a week in which police often outnumbered shoppers, sales plunged for all but the best-located and flashiest names in Boston retail.

Boston — On Tuesday afternoon, shortly before his flight out, former President Bill Clinton made a swing into jeweler Alpha Omega’s Harvard Square flagship, mugging for a crowd chanting “We love Bill,” and leaving with several shiny shopping bags prominently in hand.

It was a photo op par excellence. All it took to pull it off was many frenzied phone calls, the gift of a $12,000 timepiece donated by Swiss maker Carl F. Bucherer and, according to sources, a watch for one of Clinton’s handlers.

In the end, as Alpha Omega demonstrated, the week the Democratic National Convention dominated this city was all about grabbing attention whenever and however possible.

But it was a time when attention didn’t always translate into business. In a week when police often outnumbered commuters on local highways and chairs stayed atop café tables, sales plunged for all but the best-located and flashiest names in local retail.

The Boston press spent months detailing apocalyptic scenarios involving road closures and subway searches, while Mayor Thomas M. Menino urged commuters to just plain leave town. It essentially left the city as one big vacant playground.

Among those retailers that fared well were Chanel, which ferried outfits upstairs to Larry King’s suite and other party-going guests staying at the Ritz Carlton, Lilly Pulitzer’s In the Pink on Newbury Street and legendary off-pricer Filene’s Basement downtown. Delegates couldn’t pronounce the name, but warmed to the bargains. Elizabeth Edwards purchased three outfits, according to a Filene’s Basement spokeswoman.

Everyone else found easy parking spots on Newbury Street, the city’s main shopping boulevard that usually functions at one lane because of double-parked cars. Kerry ally and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who addressed the convention Thursday night, disembarked from one of the chauffeured black town cars waiting on the sidewalk in front of Ralph Lauren.

Generally this week, though, bored sales staff in silent stores grew tired of making conversation with each other. The retail doldrums in Boston were a worrisome harbinger for what might be the impact of the Republican National Convention on New York in late August, when much of Midtown is expected to be shut down or disrupted by security around the convention and massive protests are planned by anti-Bush demonstrators.

This story first appeared in the July 30, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As a Boston cab driver quipped of the DNC’s impact: “The last time it was this quiet in this town, they were driving horse-and-buggies.”

“Democrats are for small business, but unfortunately the small businesses got crushed,” said chef Michael Schlow, whose restaurant group hosted everything from the Dakota states’ reception to a CNBC luncheon for Hillary Clinton.

“We worked a year ahead, really cultivating a relationship with the DNC,” added a restaurant spokeswoman.

The sales staff at Sigrid Olsen on Newbury Street waited patiently for the few wardrobe queries that came their way. “No one seems to know what to wear to Louis,” said staffer Lindy Backus, referring to a Hollywood-heavy fete the iconic retailer hosted Wednesday evening. By then, Backus had sold evening bags and a few quilted silk jackets to be tossed over little black dresses.

“It’s been a lot quieter than we thought it would be,” she added. “I feel bad for the retailers who brought in extra merchandise. Some of the national chains drew inventory from their other stores in the region.”

Lost luggage was a boon to Brooks Brothers, which has inhabited its stately three-level Newbury Street store since the 1920s.

“We’re having a good week, but it could have gone either way,” said manager Kevin Moriarty. “We’ve done a lot with men who packed brown shoes with a black suit or had lost luggage.”

Overbooked hotels couldn’t launder shirts in time and thus, the legendary men’s wear store also delivered emergency replacements to hotels. “We have a good relationship with concierges and I think that also played in,” Moriarty said.

Lilly Pulitzer’s In the Pink held its own, particularly among pink-and-green-obsessed visitors whose cities don’t have the concept, said store manager Chris Roy. “I think we’re doing a little better than average, but there is no huge spike,” she said.

The store did get a couple of big names. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Maryland delegate and member of the Kennedy clan, brought her two daughters into Lilly.

“They both wore Lilly dresses to the [Rose Kennedy Greenway] dedication,” Townsend said. “We thought it would be fun to take a stroll down Newbury.”

The trio then moved on to Starbucks, with nary a shopping bag in sight.

Mother-and-daughter or girlfriend shopping teams seemed to be the most lucrative bets for shopkeepers.

At Intermix, New York-based Democratic fund-raiser Sunny Brownstein plunked down her credit card for Seven corduroys and several feminine tops from Stella McCartney for her daughter Callae. The older Brownstein also treated herself to shoes at Neiman Marcus.

The Sonia Rykiel store had a banner week, said manager Jay Brasili. The store’s status as one of the brand’s three units in the U.S., plus its location at upscale development Heritage on the Garden, adjacent to the Four Seasons hotel, meant affluent visitors from California and elsewhere flocked in.

“We were much better off with the DNC in town,” Brasili said.

Mary Alice Palacios, a Texas delegate, dropped $800 at Filene’s Basement, scooping up BCBG, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein merchandise. Her girlfriend and fellow delegate Otilia Gonzales dropped $200 on hats and lingerie.

They were the delegates the city had long dreamed about — planning a whole week’s worth of seafood tasting, harbor cruises and yet more shopping. Unfortunately, there were just too few of them to go around.

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