It’s all about the experience. When you walk into Jen’s store it starts with a delightful, “Hi. Welcome, I’m Jen.” Already you are feeling good. Jen’s store, a 650 s/f emporium, is called Legit and is located on the parking lot side of The Street in Chestnut Hill. There are not many independent, non-chain stores in Boston or, for that matter in other places either, that succeed in this turbulent day and age. But Legit is doing just that. It is especially noteworthy that Legit is part of a shopping center, typically out of reach rent-wise for most independent retailers.
These days it seems everyone from Boomers to Millennials is talking about how much they relish small-batch products, small independent stores, and creative new concepts. Consumers want convenience, personalized service, and selected merchandise. It is no easy task to produce such a store. There is no formula and more than science and technology it is a labor of art infused with much TLC.
The story of a successful retail operation begins with the owner’s ability to tailor the merchandise for the customer. Legit is a specialty store. It is one of a handful of independent stores selling multi-brands of athleisure attire. This highly specific merchandise category features clothes for fitness, sports, and weekend leisure and has been in a growth mode for several years. Legit customers find a colorful array of tights, leggings, tops, tees and sweats, along with seasonal sneakers and bags. It is fun to be in the store. Jen is a real pro with her own retail experience. She helps customers until they find what makes them feel good. It’s retail therapy at its best.
What are the challenges of an independent retailer? First and foremost is the rent. Independent retailers need to be in high-traffic areas where rents are also always high. Retail rents are based on sales and if sales per s/f meet projections then the agreed upon rent can work. This scenario is easier for a national chain with considerable support from corporate headquarters but far more challenging for a sole proprietor.
Second is tenant mix. Small stores need to be next to other stores with similar customers so they can feed off each other. Independents benefit when they are next to any business where customers return often. A coffee shop, ice cream store, and a gym are considered highly desirable neighbors.
Third is visibility. A small tenant can go unnoticed off the beaten path in a shopping center or on a side street in a neighborhood commercial center. Strategic signage and placement near parking are helpful; however, nothing beats a space on the main drag.
Why independent retailers? These retailers are closely in tune with their customers and can switch gears to fulfill customer needs in a shorter turn around than corporate stores. The stores are unique thus attracting customers from a wide area. Their presence makes any center more interesting than those with just national chains. Thoughtful landlords are critical for their oversight in all matters of management and independent retailers need them. The best shopping experience needs it all.
Carol Todreas is a principal at Todreas Hanley Associates, Cambridge, Mass.