NEW YORK — Whatever it takes — that pretty much sums up how specialty stores are being proactive about competing with major retailers.
That was the consensus among some buyers shopping at the Fame and Moda trade shows at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here. At Moda, Leeann Cerrito, owner of Love Leeann, said she will be scouting a pop-up location in Los Angeles, redesigning her web site and will work with the co-op company The Hudson Edit on other pop-ups. Even though Cerrito has a by-appointment store in Irvington, N.Y., she had great success hosting a pop-up in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Thursdays through Sundays in December.
“It’s the way people shop now. That day of ‘going shopping’ doesn’t exist any more. It’s more a matter of you need something so you go or you have an hour to spare so you run in somewhere,” she said.
A former stylist for retailers and magazines, Cerrito offers stylist services to her core base of 350 shoppers. On the search for immediate items from brands like Z & L Europe, Élan, Patrizia Luca and Donna Morgan, Cerrito said, “People want clothes they can wear on vacation, out to dinner, during the day — wearable, transitional pieces.”
Talking about retail’s changing landscape, she said, “When I worked for Bergdorf Goodman and The Limited in the Nineties, people were really merchants. You bought for who your customer was and how you wanted your store to look. Now so much of the department store business is done based on property, profitability and making deals with each other as opposed to what your customer really wants. Online has really taken over. There are some amazing web sites like Net-a-porter. You don’t have to leave your house.”
Noting how manufacturers are so worried about taking a loss that they overprice products and then try to make deals with people, she aims to excel at service to set Love Leeann apart. Gesturing towards Sailor Sailor, Cerrito said, “Even though that’s much preppier, very Lilly Pulitzer, Martha’s Vineyard or The Hamptons, I could go through there and probably find one or two styles that would be good for my customer. That’s what I do — I cherry-pick lines. I don’t buy any specific lines. I just buy what looks good to me.”
Lea Harvey and her husband, Robert, were buying from anchor lines like Chalet, Color Me Cotton and Bryn Walker, but their store Lea’s in Chatham, N.Y., is more focused on service. Advertising at the arty movie theater The Spectrumin Albany and on a local news channel on Direct TV, developing an e-commerce site and helping shoppers via text or Facebook Live are some of the ways they are seeing gains. Price remains the biggest factor but Made in the USA has increasingly become a request from shoppers since the recession. To that end, 90 percent of its offerings are domestic made labels and price points have been lowered to be more competitive with chains and online stores. Open seven days a week, Lea’s also hosts Ladies’ Nights, trunk shows, garden side fashion shows, charity raffles and “Ina Garten-esque” shopping parties that are catered by Robert Harvey, who is also a chef.
Having relocated from a beach location to Shrewsbury, N.J., Shop, Pray, Love owner Catherine Garruto has been partnering with area businesses. The store currently has a pop-up at a high-end health club and will team with a consignment shop for a clean-out-your-closet event Thursday. An image consultant who is also certified in color analysis, she offers closet consultations. While many female professionals see the value in these services, some are hesitant to invest in such an intangible purchase, but Garruto said, “It gives you credibility in the industry. It sets you apart from another boutique owner.”
Finding items that are not offered in major stores is also essential, Garruto said, mentioning Analili, Julian Chang and Skemo as proven brands. Dresses under $200 and tops under $150 were holiday bestsellers.”Things are different. Retail has changed a lot. But you have to stay special. Why would you come into my store if Macy’s has the same thing on sale and you can go in with a Friends and Family coupon?” she said. “Last year was a rocky year. I feel good about ’17 but last year was a roller coaster.”
Adrie Mendonez, founder of Froufrouly, an e-tailer that only features emerging designers, was featured in a curated marketplace in November, and she has subsequently curated collections for select SoHo stores. She is also adding pop-up shops and fashion shows, including one to benefit The Nylon Project later this month. Pop-up events that include makeovers and other experiential features are appealing, Mendonez said.
Looking at dresses at AMT at Fame, Geisha House owner Cortney Cohen was seeking items for immediate delivery, especially dresses in the $150 to $250 range and tops, which are easier to fit than some separates. Stores on her street are teaming up for block parties or to coordinate sales. Events, whether that be birthday parties or any other special gathering, are generally what makes people spend, she said. Last year’s sales were 10 percent up due partially to that.
Standing in the Best Mountain booth at Fame, Adam Suchin, co-owner of the Adam Showroom, said, “With people’s buying habits having changed so drastically, there’s more of a supermarket approach. They’re thinking, ‘What am I going to have for dinner tomorrow? I will choose today. I’m not going to choose months in advance.'”
In keeping with that mind-set, exhibitors were seeing interest in spring and summer from specialty stores that were eager to get back on the trade show circuit after the reprieve of the holidays. “They’re still here, they’re still in business so this is a good time for them to come out,” Suchin said.
“There’s no question you have to be flexible and fluid. There is a small return to specialty store shopping,” Suchin said. “We have some stores in Boston on Newbury or Charles Street, or in Southie [South Boston] and they’ve carved out an identity. They’re not competing with the department store or discounters. They’re doing a lot of meet-and-greets, and things they have to do with social media.”
Zoe Zen owner Josie Almonte closed one store in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn in November and relocated to a location half the size nearby. “I went smaller because of the neighborhood changing so much. The rents went up, commercial and residential, that affected my business. My customers had to move out. So I had to take a loss and close that store and go smaller.”
Lucy Paris and Blue Pepper are two of the labels she carries. “These big chains like Century 21, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx are absolutely eating into sales,” she said, noting that prices have been lowered to $150 or less to appeal to cost-conscious shoppers. “You can find a dress with me for under $80.”
Trunk shows and more accessories are being added, Almonte said. “People do shop a lot online for clothing but when it comes to reading glasses, sunglasses and accessories, people want to see it, feel it and try them on. That market is more enticing.”