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Curtain Coming Down on Boutique Chic

Even high-end L.A. retailers look for survival online.

Earlier this month, John Ransom placed brown paper over the windows of his clothing boutique, and placed a sign on the door: "relocating to jransomla.com."

 

J.Ransom, which sold pricey lines like Les Hommes, had once boasted celebrity shoppers like teen heartthrob Zac Efron and had its clothing featured in aspirational fashion magazine spreads.

 

But by the time last year’s writers strike was over, the La Brea storefront had lost many of its prime consumers from the film business.

 

"We first started feeling the effects from our customers and studio services during the strike," Ransom told TheWrap. "Our neighborhood is full of actors that were strapped during this time. The declining economy was the last nail in the coffin for a lot of stores."

 

And as brick-and-mortar stores are forced to close their doors, many — like Ransom — are opting to continue their presence online, where their client base is not limited to geography and there’s a much smaller overhead. 

 

"With a store, you can only reach a limited amount of people, but the web opens our doors to customers throughout the whole country, even around the world," said Devon Leigh, a jewelry designer whose boutique opened on Third Street in 2003 but closed last March. "Our online business is growing every month, so I believe it will eventually surpass what we were selling in the store."

 

Her website, Leigh says, now enables potential shoppers to immediately locate and purchase pieces from her collection they might see in magazines like Elle or on celebrities like Jessica Simpson, who was wearing a pair of Leigh’s hammered-gold earrings during a concert after which the media criticized her weight.  
 

All over Los Angeles, stores are feeling the pinch. On the elite strip of Melrose Place in West Hollywood, Mulberry, Sergio Rossi and Lambertson Truex are no more.

 

On Santa Monica’s luxe Montana Avenue, roughly 30 stores including Jane Smith and Il Primo Passo shoes have closed, and longtime street favorite Shabby Chic is finishing up a going-out-of-business sale after two decades.

 

A little farther south, on Santa Monica’s Main Street — a bourgeois bohemian’s dream, flanked by the ocean and offering up 180 retail and restaurant outlets — some 35 stores have shuttered within the last 18 months. Most of the stores on the street are high-end, and the few chain retailers are considered "friendly" or noncorporate, like Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s.

 

The problem is that with less money to spare, consumers are starting to think of many of the products lining the stores on these type of streets — organic scented bars of soap, pricey tie-dyed sundresses and overstuffed, hand-embroidered pillows — as unneccesary luxuries.

"Everybody’s making choices with their money, and for most rent, medication, food and taking care of the kids doesn’t leave enough income where they can shop and buy new clothing," said Gary Gordon, executive director of the Main Street Business Improvement Assocation.

 

"Every time a store closes, everybody feels it," said Mark Wain, chairman of the Montana Avenue Merchants Association. "During the last couple of years, retail was booming and rents on the street went up, and now our rents are the same but our sales are less."

 

Mid-town, store owners on West Third Street — once a bustling hub for up-and-coming fashion designers — say they see more spaces being vacated every month.

"When I was first looking for space on West Third, it wasn’t easy — and right now it seems like every block you go through there’s a bunch of ‘for lease’ signs," said Nony Tochterman, owner of clothing boutique House of Petro Zillia.   

"When you have a block where more than half the stores are for lease, you are suddenly faced with the reality that people will not likely be doing a lot of shopping there, so that in turn affects the stores that are still standing," echoed jewelry designer Leigh.  

Others blame the street’s slow foot traffic on the city, which some say hasn’t supported Third as a viable shopping area.  

"They could have developed free parking on the street or a parking lot. They could have planted trees and made it a pedestrian mall on the weekends or just created a nice place to park and stroll," said Wendy Mullin, designer and owner of Built by Wendy, adding that many of her shoppers complained that a lack of parking that led them to forgo shopping.   

To combat the slowdown, many retailers are being forced to employ more creativity in the tactics they use to get shoppers in the door. This Memorial Day Weekend, Montana Avenue will launch its new "All American Summer" campaign.

"We’re going back to the basics," said the Merchant Association’s Wain. "We want to make Montana feel like that hometown community with red, white and blue splashed all over the place. We want to reconnect the merchants with the local community."  

Over on Main Street, merchants will soon be briefed on text-message marketing, which will allow shoppers to receive coupons on their phone as an incentive to come into the shop. The street also has a reputation for its variety of happy hours, and some store owners are considering changing their hours to capitalize on the restaurant crowds.  

"Everybody’s trying to be sharper than they have been before," said Gordon from the street’s association. "Exactly how much stock should they have; what should they order for the summer season?"  

"I think store owners are wising up and trying to find ways to differentiate their products," said Erin Magner, a blogger for Racked LA, which covers shopping, neighborhood stores and the retail scene in the city. "Stores are opening in cheaper parts of town like Echo Park or Los Feliz and boasting exclusivity and lower prices because the clothes are vintage."  

Others are taking the most straightforward approach — simply charging less.  "We’re lowering our price point and are more flexible with discounts," said Petro Zillia’s Tochterman. "People ask for discounts who would never have asked for them before. There’s no shame."

 

Still, some see their future online — regardless of what happens with the economy.

 

"People will stop in my [New York stores] to quickly see the merchandise or try it on and then will follow up by ordering online where they aren’t rushed," said Built by Wendy’s Mullin, who was forced to close her L.A. outpost last December. "A lot of times my stores seem like a showroom for the website."