What’s the Future of Boston’s Retail Storefronts?

Boston’s high-end boutiques are striving to come up with creative ways to get customers back in the store. (Hint: It’s about more than just hand sanitizer.)

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

It was early March BC (Before COVID-19) when I found myself with the sudden urge to buy a certain Bottega Veneta square-toe pump that had started to appear on fashion influencer feeds. I didn’t want to order it online, because obviously I needed it immediately, so I spent the morning scouring the Back Bay, letting my eyes wander to the new spring displays adding a splash of color to a cold, gray day—a Marni floral shift dress here, a bold Mira Mikati bowling shirt there.

With no luck on Newbury, I crossed over to Clarendon Street on my way to the Prudential Center. The mall was jam-packed, with lines outside Eataly and gaggles of students looking like they were ready to shoot a TikTok video. I waited 20 minutes for coffee at Blue Bottle, tried (unsuccessfully) to snag a pair of camouflage leggings from Lululemon, and finally found an eager sales assistant at Saks to track down my coveted shoe. Mission accomplished but not finished with my shopping spree yet, I headed west to crash a Chrome Hearts trunk show at Lunette Optic in Chestnut Hill before falling in love with “the shacket,” a relaxed shirt/jacket hybrid, at LuxCouture in Newton Highlands.

Looking back now, it was all a bit like dancing, or fiddling, while Rome burned—with the virus percolating, there I was, jammed shoulder to shoulder with my fellow shoppers.

For a brief fashion minute, things on the global style stage were looking pretty, pretty good. Spring deliveries were by and large on time, specialty stores were making a comeback, and the fashion cognoscenti were already planning for fall 2020, sifting through the trends coming out of New York, London, Milan, and Paris and making wish lists. But within a week of the Danish model and actress Klara Kristin taking her last step down the Louis Vuitton catwalk, we were locked down and dressed down, WFH, self-isolating. My most-wanted list as a retail industry executive and consultant went from feathers, dramatic capes, and velvet to hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and paper towels.

For retailers not selling essentials, of course, the news was, and still is, grim. Distribution centers closed and full of merchandise. Boutiques closed and full of merchandise. Department stores such as Neiman Marcus filing for Chapter 11, with smaller stores not far behind: Research from the advisory firm Next Street found that 25 percent of small businesses cannot make it past 30 days, and another 25 percent do not have enough cash on hand to get past 90 days.

The situation is even more dire in Boston, where independently owned shops, already hindered by astronomically high rents and a small, fickle fashion community, depend on an influx of tourists and students to keep the lights on. For these retailers, the next few months will be game-changing—no family and friends in town for graduations, no wedding guests to splurge on a new clutch, no international coeds around to designer binge-shop. Even if these stores do open their doors this summer, will enough people actually come through them to make it worth their while?

The truth is, despite the webinars, the podcasts, the influencers, and the forecasters—retail’s version of the coronavirus task force—nobody knows exactly what consumers are going to do when they decide to finally come out of hibernation. For those of us who worked in fashion through 9/11 and the recession of 2008, the coronavirus pandemic has brought back painful memories. What we learned then was that these things do not come back quickly—and that was a period when stores were open and people were still buying.

Fashion, and luxury fashion in particular, is mostly about brands and stores trying to sell us things we don’t really need but really, really want (case in point: a certain pair of Bottega Veneta pumps). But this summer, as retailers big and small reassess their business strategies, reforecast sales, and—most important—try to reconnect with consumers, I’m not sure we’re going to take the bait as easily. So what does the future of retail in Boston look like in a time when the trendy thing to do is stay home in sweats? Nothing short of a revolution.

When I first landed at Logan Airport 30 years ago as a transplant from Australia, the local fashion scene was more pearls, twin sets, and college sweatshirts than couture, Louboutins, and logos. Of course, there were the outliers to serve the small tribe of local fashionistas—a splinter group of internationally revered retailers such as Alan Bilzerian, Serenella, Riccardi, and Louis Boston. But it wasn’t until the influx of international students, the tech boom of the late ’90s, and the advent of social media that the city’s fashion scene finally blossomed.

Boston native Gretta Monahan was among the first people to take advantage of the growing fashion and beauty community in the suburbs. I first met her 25 years ago, when I arrived at her new Wellesley spa and salon, Grettacole, for the complete works: mani/pedi, haircut, blowout, and waxing. The bright, modern space was a refreshing departure from the stuffy atmosphere of other beauty destinations at the time, and it was such a success that Monahan eventually added several more outposts as well as a high-end fashion boutique, Gretta Luxe. National recognition followed in the form of TV appearances on programs like The View and the Rachael Ray Show.

The entrepreneur was in the process of refurbishing and refitting her store and salons in the first week of March when she first heard whispers from friends in the medical community about the spread of the virus in Boston. Within 48 hours, Monahan had voluntarily shuttered the business she’d spent decades building and furloughed all 130 of her employees. The decision was “collaborative,” she says. “We shut down four locations and opted to close before we were asked to, deciding to put the team and their families first. As much as that hurt, we all felt it needed to be done.”

When I spoke with Monahan in late March, she was struggling to figure out how to run a “high-touch, not high-tech” business virtually. “I can’t cut hair from 6 feet away,” she quipped with a hint of frustration in her voice. By the end of March, she and her team had figured out a few ways to get by, at least temporarily. First, Monahan encouraged clients to purchase gift cards for future goods and services, adding a 20 percent “Together Apart” discount as incentive. Then she added porch drop-offs, telestyling, and Instagram Live shopping segments with celebrities. On the beauty side, meanwhile, Monahan began offering “quarantine color kits” so women could touch up their roots without visiting the salon.

For Monahan, scaling up and growing her digital presence, developing relationships with social media influencers, and curating brands specifically for online customers has already paid off. “We’ve learned the importance of influencer marketing, and that the impact of the proper marketing channels can be exponential,” she says. “It’s likely that things will never be back to ‘normal,’ so we are planning to continue to invest online.” Given that a recent report from Bain & Company said it expects e-commerce to represent 30 percent of luxury purchases by 2025—a 5 percentage point increase on its pre-COVID forecast—that seems like a wise choice.

Other stores are rethinking their relationship to what analysts call “omnichannel retail” as well. Sari Brown’s Newton Highlands boutique LuxCouture, a carefully curated jewel box of hard-to-find designer brands, has been using Instagram as a tool to connect with its customers. Brown has found that people react best when she is the model styling and wearing outfits she put together. “You have to have fun with it,” she explains. “Our customers prefer to communicate directly with us and get real-time information, so we’re just continuing to approach them in a very gentle, kind way.”

Another lesson she’s learned? “I don’t think this is the time for any kind of ask,” she says. “We just put out things that we love. I don’t want anyone to feel any pressure—pressure is not what people need right now.”

Of course, embracing the digital realm doesn’t mean Boston’s specialty-store owners are ready to give up on brick-and-mortar completely. Pre-pandemic, Boston-based streetwear boutique Bodega had already started to shift its business model online, but relied on the physical shop to create connections with customers—an experience where culture was “passed in person,” explains cofounder Oliver Mak. Even though Mak anticipates a future in which Bodega’s website will generate the majority of sales, he still believes in the power of shopping IRL. “It’s what feeds the soul,” he says.

As restrictions begin to loosen and stores reopen, retailers such as Monahan, Brown, and Mak will need to rethink their business strategies yet again. How will small-boutique owners dispose of old inventory and generate cash when they are competing with widespread discounting across the industry? What will the additional costs of personal protective equipment, disinfecting services, and fewer people allowed inside do to their already-strapped bottom lines? And, perhaps most important: Will customers be willing to gamble on their health to indulge in some retail therapy again?

The truth is, I’ve never been very good at keeping it casual. My stint in the fashion trenches—first as a magazine editor and then as a communications executive for a luxury department store and fashion brands—has left me with more clothes and shoes than I can possibly fit into my closet. While skipping makeup and wearing yoga pants all day initially felt liberating, it’s quickly losing its appeal: I like people, and I like dressing up and going out.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. After all, what we choose to wear is inextricably tied to our identity. But if you ask some of Boston’s most fashionable when they’ll be ready to start shopping again, you’ll get the same answer: when they feel it’s safe.

Boston’s Red Carpet host Tonya Mezrich has spent the past three months isolating at her second home in rural Vermont with her husband, Ben, and two children, working from home and chillaxing in thermals and flannels. “Fashion kind of left my mind for a bit,” she admits. “We had our minds on other things, like making sure we had food, making sure the kids’ schooling was set up.” It’s a long way from her weekends in Boston spent gala-hopping in couture gowns, and she says she’s currently yearning for an opportunity—any opportunity—to put on a pair of heels.

A recent webinar with one of Boston’s literary charities forced Mezrich to rethink her dressing strategy. “I rush-ordered from one of my favorite shopping sites a bunch of shirts and a couple of dresses, but I mainly focused on tops,” she says. When it comes to getting back to in-person shopping, though, Mezrich is taking it slowly, preferring to err on the side of caution. “We may wait longer than most,” she says.

Local entrepreneur and style maven Rodrigo Martinez, meanwhile, tells me he has no plans to hit the boutiques until the fall, convinced there will be a spike in COVID-19 cases after the first wave of people go shopping. I’m talking to him via Zoom, his only sartorial outlet for the past three months. Behind him is a carefully curated midcentury-modern bar featuring a collection of ephemera, a photo of his grandfather, and his favorite cocktail shaker, a burnt-orange Blendo-style design from the ’60s with a great backstory. Rather than focus on his clothes right now, Martinez is channeling his creative energy into making his home look chic, especially during weekend Zoom cocktails with friends. Right now, he says, “The story of the space you are in is far more interesting than where your blazer is from and what you are wearing.”

In no rush to add to his closet, Martinez is, however, interested in which marketing strategies stores will implement to lure him back in their doors, beyond hand-sanitizing stations and required mask-wearing. “Basically,” he says, “how will they make it less painful and start offering new experiences that they didn’t before?” On Martinez’s wish list is exclusive invitations to curated experiences at night for a small number of people. “Stores should partner with a local artist, or a chef,” he says. He’d also love to see some of the more-personalized, thoughtful shopping opportunities hatched during the initial stages of the pandemic continue in the post-COVID world.

Indeed, there has been a lot of recent chatter in the fashion-verse about a return to more-meaningful, sustainable production—a slow-food-type movement in which designers produce less and there is more time to connect with consumers. With the initial allure of sloppy dressing running its course—I mean, how many pairs of leggings does a girl need?—the retail reset does feel a lot to me like a return to creativity, craftsmanship, and quality, a world in which a few really well-made pieces hold more appeal than fast fashion. And that could ultimately be a very good thing for the independent boutique owners who make up Boston’s small but mighty fashion scene—entrepreneurs who have always offered person-to-person service and invested money back into their communities.

To be sure, I’m not looking to suit up for work anytime soon, and I don’t think I could get through a day in the office in heels again. But I know what I am craving at this time is human contact, the touch and feel of beautiful fabrics and social interaction in real time, not screen time. My retail store of the future will hopefully be a place where I can social-distance but find curated, one-of-a-kind pieces from a mix of brands and price points, ask my favorite designer questions, have a personal styling session, and see my digital shopping cart displayed in a private dressing room or dropped off at my home. Places where I can recycle those Bottega Veneta pumps because I was over them before I wore them, and then trade up to something else.