By  on October 19, 2011

Independent apparel and footwear retailers have enjoyed a quiet resurgence in the last decade, wresting market share from national and multiregional chains.

With chains in many cases “right-sizing” their store fleets, privately held clothing stores that do their business in a single market have seen growth in share since 2001 after falling throughout most of the Nineties. For all U.S. independent retailers, shares fell to 48.4 percent of sales in 2009, the most recent year for which data were available, from 50.4 percent in 2001 and 58.8 percent in 1990, according to the American Express OPEN Independent Retail Index, compiled for the company by Civic Economics from government and D&B data and independent research.

Independents in the apparel and footwear markets historically have enjoyed higher-than-average penetration. On a scale in which 100 represents the national mean, apparel and footwear merchants improved their index number to 129.6 in 2009, meaning their share was 29.6 percent greater than the standing of all independents. That was the highest figure since 1995, when it stood at 132.5, but well below the 148.3 figure registered in 1990.

However, it marked a strong comeback from the 119.9 low registered in 2001.

The figures hardly constitute a threat to the dominance of publicly held, multimarket chains. Plugging them into the share for all independent merchants, clothing and shoe stores contracted from 87.2 percent of purchases in 1990 to 62.7 percent in 2009, but the most recent figure marked a rise from the 56.4 percent of 2001.

Matt Cunningham, who co-authored the study at Civic Economics, told WWD, “Basically, clothing stores bottomed out in 2001 and have been growing steadily since, with fairly strong growth since 2007. Looking at apparel and other industries, there’s no question that there is a move back to smaller, neighborhood stores.”

He noted that much of the improvement could be traced to the reduction of store numbers and square footage undertaken by major retailers in the past decade and particularly since the onset of the recession.

The category of food and beverage stores — essentially neighborhood groceries — went from 107 in 1990 down to 97 in 2000, before rebounding to 110 in 2009. Independent hardware stores have fared poorly, beginning in the Nineties with a figure comparable to apparel stores, at 148.9, and declining below average penetration to 92.6 in 2009 during the era of The Home Depot and Lowe’s predominance.

“Everything dropped in the 10 years leading up to 2000, but some areas really have had a resurgence,” Cunningham noted.

Susan Sobbott, president of OPEN, pointed out that small businesses accounted for 64 percent of net new job creation in the past 15 years, according to the Small Business Administration, “and more business in our local communities will drive more hiring in the neighborhoods where we live.”

American Express’ OPEN program, which supports the efforts of small businesses, also studied the vitality of independent retail, food and drinking establishments in major U.S. markets. With 200 representing the national average, New York topped the list at 287, followed by San Francisco (250), Washington (238), Boston (233), Philadelphia (224), Miami (223) and Los Angeles (213). Finishing below the mean were Seattle (199), Atlanta (192), Chicago (191), Detroit (185) and San Diego and Minneapolis (both at 184). The final two spots were occupied by Dallas at 171 and Phoenix at 159.

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