Philly’s Boutique Wars

For local independent business owners, the business of making us beautiful can get pretty ugly.

MOST OF THE TIME, THE BIG STORES aren’t concerned with what the indies are doing. They plow through, striking down tiny boutiques with crazy sales and seemingly relentless online presences. They want shiny and new for their marbled sales floors—what good would a bunch of rustic, iron-branded wooden hangers be to Neiman Marcus? Then again, those hangers would look great in, say, the mecca of the mass-produced handmade look, Anthropologie. …

This past May, the Huffington Post reported that Philly-based Urban Outfitters had ripped off a jewelry design by an artist selling her own pieces on Etsy, the expansive e-commerce site hawking handmade and vintage items. The story hit the blogosphere, and scores of angry consumers vowed never to shop at Urban again. In an embarrassing twist, though, it turned out that while Urban may have knocked off the necklace design (store reps refute this), several other Etsy sellers had listed a similar piece before the Etsy artist who called foul on Urban. All of which begs the question: Is there such a thing as a truly original idea? And if there is, how the heck are you supposed to compete with a behemoth who can see your idea, mass-produce it, and then sell it for $9.99?

“It’s a free country,” says Buratto, who was once an assistant buyer in the vintage department of Urban Outfitters. “But I definitely know when buyers come in and they’re out for ‘inspiration day.’ I had that job. I don’t know if you want to call them spies or whatever, but they’re out for inspiration. They’ve gotta get it, too, you know.”

“Urban has a bad reputation, and they know it,” says Erin Waxman, one of the perky owners of NoLibs’s Art Star, a quirky shop selling art and crafted goods by independent artists. “But they’ve been working­ to change it. They’re at least not looking at the artwork and completely copying it; they’re getting in touch with the artist. We’ve had a handful of artists who have done projects with Urban and have had decent experiences.” She pauses. “But I go back and forth. I want our artists to be successful, but at the same time, I don’t want people coming into our shop and being like, ‘This is at Urban for $10. Why do you have it for $30?’”

But the next great hurdle for shops like Art Star will probably fall outside the hulking shadow of Urban Outfitters, and instead come courtesy of the very instinct that for so long helped them, that propelled people to shop small and find special. Enter those Etsy-ites: Not only do these one-man retailers sell special and unique, but they do it online. And since many hobbyists can charge far less for their crafts than professional artists do, says Waxman, consumers balk at higher prices in brick and mortar stores—then flick on their iPhones to buy that handmade tea cozy from a stay-at-home mom in Minnesota.

In 2010, the New York Times wrote that Etsy was on track to handle about $400 million in transactions for the year—twice as much as the year before. On Cyber Monday of 2011, the paper reported that Etsy sales were up a walloping 80 percent from the previous year. It would seem that as vendors whittle themselves down smaller and still smaller, for Philly’s indie retailers, the littlest competitors might be the biggest threat.