Specialty stores are on the rise in order to create a meaningful in-person shopping experience.

By Marissa Lee.

A romp down Rodeo Drive or a stroll through Soho might look a little different now that the world is over a year into the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, shoppers have largely said goodbye to in-person retail and have taken their business online. In 2020 alone, the U.S. e-commerce industry cited a growth of 44 percent, with consumers spending upwards of $861 billion with online merchants–a win for the e-comm sector which unfortunately casts a question mark over the state of brick-and-mortar shops.

Retailers have thus leveled-up their spaces to create an experience that gives shoppers a reason to venture outside their domicile. For the safest (or most time-crunched) of shoppers, a boring excursion to a carbon-copy box store or boutique simply may not be worth it. The new frontier in retail is the specialty store; once a novelty with favorites such as Opening Ceremony and the RRL Mansion, the mode is now becoming the standard for staying afloat in the shopping sphere.

In the small boutique sector, honing in on the store’s concept can be the key to capturing shoppers’ attention. One store to have done this is Fireplace 409 in New York City’s West Village, a retail store-cum-gallery space and self-proclaimed “Functional Art Hub” which opened in January of this year. “We’re a locally owned boutique featuring a rotating selection of small brands, designers, and artists,” explains Emily Bogner, who co-founded the shop alongside business partner Alex Adams. “Our aim is to support small businesses and artists by giving them the opportunity to present their goods in a retail space where, otherwise, bigger brands would dominate.”

In addition to the varied array of products that they carry–accessories, artwork, clothing, home goods–Fireplace 409 makes it their mission to act in equal parts as a retail store and a gallery space. “Rather than display a single brand on a seasonal basis, we use our platform to display an array of independent artists and designers,” Bogner explains. “Every month, we’ve committed to sponsoring a display of performative or interactive art, and that performance bookends our art displays, and many of the brands we highlight.” This approach proves fitting for their surroundings: “The people who live in the West Village–at least the ones I meet–seem to be real patrons and supporters of the arts.”

However, the price of renting a commercial space in New York (and the West Village of all places) which Bogner calls “prohibitively high-priced,” is a harsh factor in running a business, especially amid a financial crisis. In an interesting turn of events, that hasn’t stopped some businesses from opening, and even expanding their already-existent spaces into new ventures. Brooklyn vintage staple The Break announced in February that they would be expanding their already-sprawling business into a store, studio, event space and bar and café, set to reopen in the fall.

These stores, while having had the confidence to open and expand during a time of economic hardship, understand what they’re asking of consumers when they operate an in-person space. “It’s almost as if your life is on the line when you go to do something these days, so that something better be pretty important,” explains Bogner. “By doing everything in our power to be safe, and provide the most interesting experience we can, we do our best to live up to the gravity of that.”

While the future of retail may be uncertain, there’s a beauty in being able to question the purpose of things, a welcome state of reflection that helps these business owners remember why they do what they do.

“There is a really great silver lining in all of this, as far as retail is concerned, and that is the re-examination of peoples’ values,” says Bogner of the state of retail post COVID-19.

“The pandemic has been a social hiatus for all of us, especially in densely populated places like New York City. Nearly everyone I know has found they have more time to themself, whether it’s because of work, or just from the lack of social events to attend,” she adds. “And that gives space for people to think about what really matters to them.”

Image credit: Fireplace 409