Manhattan Still Home to Independent Retailers

Discussion
Jan 04, 2010
Bernice Hurst

By
Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

The
tradition of small, independent retailers on Manhattan’s Lower east
side is apparently thriving in spite
of the recession. Unlike pop-up shops, The New
York Times
explains
these niche retailers intend to become permanent fixtures. The determined
entrepreneurs cited have experience supplying larger retailers but
decided that supplying themselves would be more interesting and satisfying.
Each has a passion for what they sell and to whom; quality for both
is a priority.

Andrew
Chen of Self Edge sells replicas of vintage American clothes from Japanese
designers and says the recession hasn’t hurt business. “It helps to
carry a product that nobody else has, and it helps to be knowledgeable
about it.” He has a ten-year lease on Orchard Street.

Katie
King of JF & Son echoed his sentiments, selling clothes made by
a studio she and partners own in India. According to the newspaper,
the studio was a result of “frustration with the demands of middlemen,
including buyers and showroom owners.”

“Once
we started the studio, it made a world of difference,” Ms. King explained. “We
were able to make things we’d never be able to do in New York. …
I’ve forgotten about the recession.”

Their
neighbors are a mixed bunch but with a certain common theme. Victor
Osborne, whose hat store was rented for “only slightly more” than his
Brooklyn workroom, said “the recession has changed his approach to
design” and enabled him to merchandise his designs the way he wants
to rather than “designing for what the department stores wanted.”

Denise
Carbonell transferred her knowledge and experience in the fashion industry
to a new business, Metal and Thread, that specializes in “jewelry and
wood and metal objects, like forged baskets and beautiful old jackknives.” She
doesn’t expect to make a great deal of money, she said. Customers tend
to be “people who are drawn to this kind of thing and love the feeling
of it, but it’s not the majority.”

Similarly,
Jake Mueser of Against Nature doesn’t know the size
of the market for his clothes. He knows “it’s limited to privileged
people who want something a little different. … Right now any amount
of money that keeps this place open and keeps me fed and living is
more than enough money to make what I do worthwhile.” His partner, Amber Doyle, agrees,
describing the business as “so much fun.”

“There are no boundaries
to these things,” said Ms. Doyle.

Discussion
Questions: What is the opportunity for hip independent stores in the
current market in New York City and other places around the country?
Are independents benefitting from the problems at major high-end stores?
What are they offering that consumers can’t find anywhere else?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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14 Comments on "Manhattan Still Home to Independent Retailers"


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Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
11 years 4 months ago

Increased growth and success by independents should be a significant trend in 2010. The large boxes continue to focus primarily on price promotion. As we’ve discussed many times before, this creates a negative spiral as retailers scramble to lower costs to offset the reduction in margins. Over time, this leads to lower service levels in the store, less choice as the smaller suppliers are unable to operate profitably, and, ultimately, a reduction in the quality of the merchandise being offered. Not exactly a formula for success.

If (and it’s a big if) the independents can find 1) bankers with a brain and 2)smaller or startup suppliers to provide unique, quality merchandise, my opinion is that they will flourish, regardless of the category. There hasn’t been as opportunistic environment like this in a long time. The consumer is looking for something new and there are some great real estate deals out there.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Is there a profitable market, is the question. We have too many places but too much of the same thing. If these entrepreneurs can take $75K out of their business after expenses each year, than yes, there is a market.

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
11 years 4 months ago

The ability to offer more individual attention is important to create more loyal and engaged customers, but their ability to compete on price is going to be hampered.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

I think there’s a significant opportunity for retailers selling high-end product. Otherwise, the rents are still a bit prohibitive.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
11 years 4 months ago

Give me a small store by the side of the road
And I’ll serve a specific neighborhood’s goad.
I won’t try to be all thing to all people
I’ll just satisfy consumers under my steeple.
Being an independent I’m free to think fast
And do “special things” that make customers last.

Stacey Silliman
Guest
Stacey Silliman
11 years 4 months ago

This article contradicts the fact that many long-time vintage shops are closing in Manhattan. Fashionistas, stylists and celebrities are not frequenting these stores as they did pre-recession. Some of these stores have been in business for 30 years or more (see yesterday’s NY Post). If these boutiques can’t make it, then how can new, unestablished boutiques thrive? H&M, Mango, and TopShop will continue to pull people in because of low price points but unfortunately, it’s not the same quality, and it puts the small boutique owner at a huge disadvantage.

Mark Baum
Guest
Mark Baum
11 years 4 months ago

Let this be the “Declaration of Independents.” Uniqueness, differentiation, experience, authenticity, etc, will preeminently characterize the Independent Retailer regardless of channel or marketplace. As shoppers, consumers will seek out these attributes, which, if executed properly will almost always favor independent retailers over big-box chains. That said, having spent considerable time (recently) on the lower east side (Tribeca, SoHo, et al), it is NYC, after all, with a shopping, tourist dynamic unlike any other. However, NYC/hipness aside, the rumors of the “death of independent retailers” are not only greatly exaggerated but overlook the sensibilities, and interests of what consumers really want.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

In the US, NYC is the best place for independents. There are many similar cities around the world with similar opportunities. In Columbus Circle, you can find Mxyplyzyk, Tourneau and Stuart Weitzman all in the Time Warner Center Mall. Michale K in SoHo and countless others. Remember, an independent doesn’t have to mean a single store operator. Modell’s Sporting Goods has thrived since 1889 with a few key locations. Still today, no national food retailer or even a local grocer really has a significant market share of NYC.

Devangshu Dutta
Guest
Devangshu Dutta
11 years 4 months ago

Imagination may have no boundaries, markets always do (“There are no boundaries to these things”). When you’re small fry the pond seems limitless. And if all is in harmony (no tuna to gobble you, all fry remaining small, enough algae to feed off, forever), then the market is a good and boundless place. If only.

Personally, I hope there will always be some ponds with room in them to let such small fry bubble up their innovations: they keep the fashion business alive.

They also serve to remind us that there are reasons for running business that are not based on the race-to-scale.

Dave Wendland
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Thought I’d offer my two cents.

If independents continue to showcase their independence and their suppliers don’t cut off this group’s dependence and patrons support their existence and make these stores their preference, they will survive.

I personally believe the absence of independents would lead to consequences and their mere existence and very essence gives shoppers a point of difference.

Here’s to their continued resilience.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 4 months ago

The key to any independent retailer is to be able to identify an underserved segment and serve it with passion, flair and distinctiveness. The retailers profiled in NYC all serving distinctive, urban-chic niches. There are many more opportunities.

That said, it’s important to emphasize that these are niches. They exist at the upper end of the pricing spectrum, where price is not a significant driver in the purchase decision, and they exist around very specific, non mass-market categories. Many are exclusive to urban centers like those retailers that were profiled. Just about all need to be self-financed.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 4 months ago

These guys mostly have one thing in common, they have successfully differentiated themselves from their bigger competition. Unique products and deeper customer connections is what sets independents apart in the retail world. From the sounds of this article, these merchants are doing well at servicing niche markets. 2010 will be the Year of the Independent Merchant!

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
11 years 4 months ago
One of the biggest traditional barriers to entry for niche independent retail has been obscurity. It took years in some cases to build enough awareness to make such businesses viable within their markets. I see that changing rapidly. There are several social and technological trends that I foresee supporting the growth of small, niche retail brands and making it easier for them to build awareness and following quickly: – Enhanced local search: Programs like Google’s “Favorite Places” will make finding these businesses easier than ever before and offer reviews and other information to prospective shoppers. – Geo-Social Sites: Sites like Foursquare and Gowalla will enable loyal customers to spread the word to others, while identifying the precise location of their favorite small stores. – Blogs, Microblogs and Facebook: Will allow niche retailers to develop awareness and following more quickly and cost effectively than ever before. – Gen Y: Will very capably seek out new and unique products and will willingly pay the premium for something that’s recognizably differentiated. Mass-produced goods will be acceptable for commodity… Read more »
Rick Boretsky
Guest
Rick Boretsky
11 years 4 months ago

I liken the independent store to the independent restaurant. Would you prefer to eat at some massive chain restaurant or a local independent diner? It always amazes me how restaurants like Olive Garden, Applebee’s, Chili’s, TGIF, and so many other popular chains remain so constantly busy. I guess most people prefer the familiarity, comfort, low prices, large portions and good value with these establishments. But if you want to try something different, made at one local restaurant, freshly handmade, with loving care of an entrepreneurial restaurant owner, you will likely have a better experience.

But there is a risk involved. Large chain stores provide less risk and better value, but if you are interested in experience and finding something unique, then an independent retailer is where you will have to go.

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