Wearing a paisley shirt in the same trio of colors, Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, enthuses "Philly is glam, Philly is hip, Philly is now, Philly is happening. If you aren't going to Philly regularly then you aren't groovy." Even though he's holding a dismembered and quite blue mannequin arm, he appears to be serious in an ironic meta-glam, hip, now, happening, and very groovy way.
It's true that Safran and Turney have done terrific things on 13th Street, and that Barneys is just one of several cachet-laden brands that have recently made their way into Center City or, as in the case of Apple, will do so shortly. But looking around at the state of retail downtown and in the city's other shopping districts, it still can be tempting to ask: can't anyone here play this game?
Of course, the economic downturn bears some of the blame. For years, Philadelphia's retail districts have issued a desperate rallying cry: pay attention to us! Then, just as they were finally winning recognition as worthy alternatives or companions to Cherry Hill and King of Prussia, wham! came the recession. In the last few months, national retailers like Banana Republic and Borders have retrenched, leaving behind huge gaps — in Manayunk and Chestnut Hill, respectively — that seem particularly painful.
Faced with such moves, local business districts are fighting back. The message: things are not as bad as they seem, they're getting better, and we're thinking outside of the (big) box.Selling Retail in New Ways
Enter the pitchmen (and women) — appearing in email blasts, on glossy handouts and on the web at www.philadelphiaretail.com
— as part of one such effort, an ad campaign called "BE IN ON IT" is ongoing. The ads, unveiled last Fall, are a calling card of the Philadelphia Retail Marketing Alliance — a two-year-old program, helmed by the Center City District in partnership with the city's Commerce Department, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, and the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau — that also includes outreach to national brands, a database of available retail spaces, and relationship-building with real estate brokers.
Besides directly contacting tenant reps who work on behalf of some 300 national retailers, the Alliance stands ready to assist in grand openings and generate buzz, according to Michelle Shannon, vice president of marketing for the Center City District. "Lululemon and Juicy Couture both opened way too quietly on Walnut Street, and they shouldn't have," Shannon says. "We want to stay ahead of the curve. With enough notice, we can get the Mayor out there."
The web site and its searchable database of available properties is the core of the Alliance, though. So far, philadelphiaretail.com receives about five inquiries a week, Shannon says. "We had a tenant rep call us the other day from New York," she adds. "Within ten minutes of him sending us his requirements, we were able to generate a list of a half-dozen appropriate properties. We're pretty sure this will result in a deal."
While national retailers remain a focus of this effort — and of other retail strategies in town — there's a new picture beginning to emerge. As overly-extended mall staples shutter hundreds and hundreds of outlets, business districts are beginning to re-consider their idea of the perfect retail mix. They'd more than welcome the interest of top brands, of course, they say, but maybe the time has come to look in other directions, too.
"We need to take better advantage of the fact that we have all of these colleges with young buyers and young entrepreneurs," says Howard Moseley, deputy director of the Manayunk Development Corp. "We've got this idea of reaching out to the emerging fashion designers, the emerging video gamers, to offer them space so they can learn to run their own retail operations. We want to put together a program that will help plant the seeds of a young creative design community here in Manayunk. We're having conversations," he says. "Nothing's been formally put into place. But we want to engage the Commerce Department, the property owners, the educational institutions."
With 25 or so vacancies on Main Street (the same as last year), Manayunk is also eager to become a part of philadelphiaretail.com, which so far is limited to Center City neighborhoods, says Moseley. And, he adds, the business improvement district is also exploring the feasibility of hiring its own retail recruiter.
In Chestnut Hill, local residents Eileen Reilly and Rob Lamb came up with the idea of "Project Sketchbook" — which turns over nine empty storefronts owned by Bowman Properties to the artwork of students from local schools like Germantown Friends and St. Joseph's Academy — after a community meeting addressed the issue of vacancies. "I wish I could singlehandedly enact a commercial change," says Reilly, who works as a marketer for a law firm, "but I thought a visual change would at least be a catalyst for movement."
Reilly, while demurring that she doesn't speak for the Hill merchants, also thinks that catering to the college set makes sense. "A college pocketbook won't change an avenue, but it can create an energy," she says. Meanwhile, another marketing effort — one that includes the requisite acronym "SOHA" (South of Hartwell Lane) — continues as Germantown Avenue merchants work on extending traffic down the Hill and better linking it to the more popular top half.Keeping South Street Relevant
David Hammond, executive director of the South Street Headhouse District says that his territory has a similar continuity problem. Even though, he reports, vacancies have slightly declined on South Street, from more than 40 last Spring to about 35, the street appears to be floundering. "That's simply because there's something like ten vacancies on the 600 block and 16 more from there to the end of the district at 11th Street," Hammond says. "Those blocks read as the end of the retail strip because of, first, the firehouse, then, the condos," he adds. "It's always been a significant problem, even when South Street was going crazy and everyone was able to get whatever rents they wanted."