Not so long ago retail merchants in downtowns from Princeton to Plainsboro to Princeton Junction — not to mention hundreds of other cities — were bemoaning the competition from malls and the dreaded big box stores. More recently the retail talk is even more dire: The competition is the online world, and even the big box stores are at risk.

That talk has picked up in central New Jersey in recent months as several downtown Princeton stores announced in quick succession that they were going out of business. Hulit’s Shoes, the oldest store on Nassau Street, announced it was closing. Lisa Jones, a Witherspoon Street boutique, is shutting down in the wake of a 33 percent rent increase. “I was not willing to sign up for a multi-year lease that included an enormous rent hike while continually trying to compete with the escalating world of online shopping,” said Jones. “The brick and mortar retail climate has drastically changed and so has the retail scene in downtown Princeton.”

Three adjacent stores on Spring Street announced their closings. Jane, the consignment store, will go out of business next week — it’s having a farewell celebration Thursday, January 25, from 5 to 8 p.m. Savory Spice is already closed. Mark Censits of CoolVines, the wine store, said he would concentrate his efforts on another store he owned in Jersey City.

“Our little shop in Princeton was discovered by a prominent developer in Jersey City who wooed us to build a store in his planned building in a rising neighborhood in that once beleaguered city. Within a year the Jersey City store was outselling our Princeton store 3 to 1,” Censits wrote in a letter to the community. “We connected well with the market of young urban millennials” and that has led to planning for a second store in Jersey City and a new one in Newark.

Up on Palmer Square, the large J. Crew store appeared to be staying, even though the parent company has announced the closing of 39 stores by the end of January — double the number it had previously said it would close. The firm’s COO said the company is being transformed from a “traditional brick-and-mortar specialty retailer” to a “digital-first” business.

Out in the suburban sprawl of the mega-malls there was more bad news: Sam’s Club in Nassau Park, shown above, will close Friday, January 26.

But while the headlines are currently depressing, the retail community is finding some bright spots. Late last year Palmer Square announced the arrival of Nic+Zoe, a women’s clothing store. Princeton Floral Designs and Rouge will soon join the tenant list. Perhaps equally important, Palmer Square will continue to offer something the online stores cannot: Real life experiences. The square is hosting a “mind, body, and soul” series that features wellness workshops at various stores.

An ice carving event is scheduled for Saturday, February 10, part of a Valentine weekend celebration. On Sunday, March 11, the Nassau Inn will host its third annual wedding show, with many Palmer Square shops participating. On Saturday, March 24, the green will be the site of its inaugural Easter egg hunt. Palmer Square’s outdoor summer music series has been extended into the spring and autumn.

The Princeton Merchants Association will discuss ways to improve the physical and online shopping experience at a members’ event on Tuesday, February 20, at the Nassau Inn. In an article written for the February issue of the Princeton Echo, architect Joshua Zinder and designer Donald Strum of Michael Graves compare successful retail stores to successful restaurants. “The best restaurant owners know that you’re there only partly for the food. You’re also there for the experience.

“Sharp retailers have caught on to this dynamic. Maybe the best example is a store in Chelsea, New York, called Story. Customers are always lined up outside waiting to get in. Why? Because Story literally changes its story every so many weeks. The entire space is regularly redesigned around a new theme. The decor changes, the atmosphere changes, but the appeal does not, for the same reason that museums host special exhibitions ‒‒ to provide something new to discover.”

Some Princeton merchants are creating their own stories. Landau’s clothing store has stories to tell inside its store — the miniature Einstein museum tucked in the back was recently referenced on the television quiz show, Jeopardy. It also has merchandise to “pet” on the sidewalk outside the store.

The retail community is adjusting to the brave new world. Paco Underhill, the New York-based retail consultant who wrote the 2014 bestseller, “Why We Buy — the Science of Shopping,” describes the transformation. “Commodity pro­ducts have no business being sold on Main Street. You need to go elsewhere for kitty litter or laundry soap,” Underhill says. While residents may draw dire conclusions from the closing of their favorite shop, that closing may be more a reflection of “supply chain management,” he says. What continues to work “is a mix of local products or services, entertainment, and eating. Stores need to sell things that you can’t get online or things that you have to see and interact with.”

Zinder and Strum write in their article for the Princeton Merchants Association that shoppers “love finding new things, love being part of a one-of-a-kind, even fleeting experience that not everyone will get to have. As a retailer, unless you can provide something new and unique, customers will simply go online to find the lowest price.”

As they also note, retailers can sometimes fight fire with fire. Bricks and mortar businesses should not ignore their online presence. “If there’s one other lesson Princeton retailers can learn from Story ‒‒ or, more locally, from the Princeton Record Exchange ‒‒ it’s that you don’t need to sell merchandise online to make your website a compelling component of your business. These two businesses don’t sell a thing online, but their websites go a long way towards crafting and continuing the personalities and presence of the stores themselves. And both stores are incredibly good at getting people in the door, thanks to some smart website work.”

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