Three Sirens Boutique Is Closing

Owner Emma Carpenter tells us why, when, and what’s really hurting Philly’s independent boutiques.

store-closedSad news arrived in my inbox over the weekend: Old City’s Three Sirens Boutique is closing its doors on January 12th. I chatted with owner Emma Carpenter about why she’s closing, the difficulties she faced as an independent boutique owner in Philly, and what she thinks Old City needs to be a thriving retail destination. Her answers might surprise you, and they’ll certainly give you an interesting look at what it’s like to be on the other side of the counter.

“Everyone keeps saying that,” Emma says with a not-so-slight hint of exasperation when I tell her I’m disappointed to hear of the store’s closing. “But no one comes to shop, so you can’t have a great store and [sell] great things without a consistent customer base.” She took over Three Sirens (which has been an Old City staple since 2005) in 2011, after being in the corporate world in New York. Her merchandise is trendy, and far less expensive than what you’ll find at other Old City boutiques like Third Street Habit, Sugarcube and Vagabond (most of her stock is priced well under $100). The main issue she noticed? Philly shoppers won’t hike their damn butts down to Old City.

“It seems that people don’t really travel outside of their neighborhoods that often, and they stay comfortable in where they are. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, ‘Oh, I meant to come down there,’ and it’s not until eight months later that they actually come,” Emma says. “A lot of people told me they moved away. I find it really strange that when I’d ask them where, they’d say, ‘Center City.’ Really? Center City is too far to walk on a weekend? People here just don’t seem to take public transportation as much [as they do in New York]. They get stuck in their five-block radius.”

I wanted to balk, to cry: No! That’s not true! You’ve read us all wrong! But then I thought about my own shopping habits, and the shopping habits of my friends and co-workers. Our offices are at 18th and Market, a mere 15 blocks away from Old City, which is a do-able walk (well, for some), a short cab ride or an even shorter subway ride. Still, bring up the possibility of heading to Old City for a quick lunch-break shopping trip to a co-worker, and she’ll look at you like you’ve asked her to go to Alaska for a cup of coffee. And I don’t totally blame her. Up here on the 36th floor, with new emails constantly dinging their arrival and phone ringings and deadlines looming, Old City can seem like it’s on the other side of the moon. And Barneys is just so much closer.

Thankfully, my job forces me to shop outside the box. But it’s easy to get lazy, to shop the retail corridors closest to you, or—better yet—to shop online. So before you balk about tired Philly/New York comparisons, think about it: Where’s the furthest you’ll go to shop? And when you do go out, are you “just looking” or do you actually plunk down your plastic? How often do you really shop at brick-and-mortars as opposed to shopping online? “There will always be people who want that tactile experience of the store, but I think a lot of consumers have gotten numb to that personal experience,” says Emma. “[The boutique] is a small space, and I want to say hello and be friendly, but some people would almost act annoyed and say, ‘Oh, I’m just looking.’ I’d think, okay, I’m not Macy’s. It seems people don’t appreciate customer service anymore.”

Another factor she sees as an impediment to retail success in Old City? Actually getting people to realize it’s there.  To me, this sounds crazy. When I think of shopping in Philly, Old City’s strip of boutiques along North 3rd is one of the first places that comes to mind. But according to Emma, I’m in the minority: “The one thing I’ve heard consistently is, ‘I didn’t know there were so many great stores here. How long have they been here?’ Some are new, yes, but for a lot of them, you’re talking eight to 20 years. I was always surprised. It’s not like this popped up two or three years ago,” she says. “There needs to be better promotion about retail down here.” And lunch spots, too, she notes, in order to grab people from local businesses during the lunchtime rush, and pull them off of Market Street to shop.

“As a consumer, know that just because somebody’s doors are open doesn’t mean they’re necessarily doing well. Don’t assume everyone else is buying something when they come in here,” she says. That will certainly change in the next two weeks, as everything in the store is discounted at 60 percent off.  In the meantime, shop outside your box. And if you have a particular favorite local boutique? Buy things there. Even if they’re in Old City and you live all the way in Center City.

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  • FishtownYo

    You cant get to Old City on the subway, maybe that’s why you never made it there. Next time try the EL.

    That being said, sorry to hear the stores closing although I’m not one of those people who get stuck in the stay in your own hood thing, I know plenty who are.

    • phlhui

      Your post was stupid.

    • DTurner

      To be fair, the original name for the underground section of the El is the “Market Street Subway”. But using subway to describe the El, might show how little the writer and her ilk actually use SEPTA.

      SEPTA is really underutilized on weekends. The El should be much busier than it is, given that it quickly links many of the city’s most popular neighborhoods. Maybe the death of tokens later this year will compel more non-pass holders to become more regular straphangers?

  • styleprdiva

    Being in retail/ cut & sew roots .indeed it is very hard and it is mindset by the public I worked on north 3 running a cut & sew factory and saw the street change to incredible shoppes but it is all about perception … The City ebbs & flows with new resurgance daily however it is the neighborhoods that offer the most seem to be labled differently old city to most is #tourist … Sad sad sad

  • Becca

    Very sad… Three Sirens, along with the other boutiques along 3rd Street are what really makes Old City feel like, well, an Old City. Although the retail world is a difficult one, I do agree that the marketing to tourists and such to come to Old City consists of cheesy ghost tours and double decker tours. Old City business owners need to push all the “Old Heads” out and stop making it a “gallery” destination. Retail should remain priority, as it’s driving people who want to buy, to come down and shop (and hopefully) return shop. I dont know if it’s to blame public transportation or not, but I’d sure be pointing fingers towards those associations that are in charge of “building” Old City, b/c I think they are doing a terrible job at it.

  • Jess

    Sadly, not surprised… Everytime I see an Old City advertisement, its toward galleries and art or $10,000 hand made chairs/tables.. No offense but bringing people down tbuy a wooden table or chair will not make for a good returning customer base to build Old City. The boutiques down there are amazing!

  • Margaret J.

    Although I sense a small amount of bitterness in Emma’s statement, I definitely agree, people in philly would rather shop at the crap hole H&M or cookie-cutter JCrew than shop in old city. So sad, b/c the boutiques are so amazing down there. FIRE THE MARKETING PEOPLE OR BUSINESS ORG’s! I was recently down for a few first fridays ago and u think there would be lights up and holiday music?!? Nothing. A bone dry town with no shopping/ holiday appeal. Those owners must be frustrated with who ever is running the show down there.

  • Jonathan

    The business organizations suck in Old City. There was NOTHING pretty about Old City, besides the boutique windows, during the holidays. My wife and I went down to shop, and the streets were pretty drab, but the stores were beautiful inside.

  • The Truth

    Old City is marketed terribly. I sense a group of stagnant old people running the joint down there… Missed the hip “piazza”esk movement, missing the reason Fishtown (with Barely any public transportation) is doing fine. Old City = Old ways…

  • John A Petty II

    My Wife and I shop Old City quite frequently…Pinot, the men’s shops, (Briar, Shirt Corner), Sazz & Sioux, and Harry’s…the challenge as I see it (in addition to the marketing, as it IS poorly marketed!) is that …yes it is drab (it seems there ALWAYS trash out to be picked up!)…the mix of stores could be improved…and a nice cafe restaurant (versus bars that serve food) on the north side of market would good too…and by the way, I come down from West Philly…which brings another issue, parking…the turnover seems adequeate BUT there just far too little spaces to be had due to PPA’s goofy parking restrictions…if not for such, I would come more often…

  • DTurner

    Old City has really done a disservice to itself by not addressing the persistent problem of weekend clubbing in the district. The club scene has done little to help the neighborhood south of Market and the community’s attempt to keep most bars and restaurants south of Market has made the northern section of the neighborhood a lot less vibrant.

    Add in the cheesy tourist stores on Market and the continued problems with vacant and blighted properties and it is small wonder that the neighborhood has been under-performing.

    The Shirt Corner redevelopment is a good start, but the neighborhood still needs to find a way to bring in people. Maybe more sponsored events by the Old City BID would be a good way to renew the neighborhood’s credentials as a cultural hot spot The city is ripe for a jazz festival or the like.

  • Kris

    I’ve gone into the shops in old city before, but honestly, they’re priced way above what I can afford to pay. They’re meant for the wealthy people in the neighborhood who can afford $300 sweaters and have money to blow on expensive furniture. It’s not even worth it for me to window shop because I know there’s nothing I can buy. Plus, there isn’t much a draw to old city anymore. On the weekends the neighborhood fills with people from outside the city wanting to go clubbing and be loud and obnoxious and it’s difficult to find parking without paying $20. Add to that the blighted properties that the city does nothing to fix and you have a neighborhood way past its prime. There are great boutiques popping up in NoLibs, Fishtown and East Passyunk where the rents are considerably lower, which means the products can be sold more reasonably.

  • Marketing Matters

    Maybe if more businesses advertise that they are there and just not rely on walking traffic they would be more successful. The saying goes if you are not visible you are invisible. Promote! That doesn’t just mean FaceBook & Twitter! There are plenty of marketing and advertising opportunities in this city that can promote their brands- if people do not know they exist it’s highly unlikely that they are going to get the traffic they need to succeed… A Marketing Game Plan should be the first thing they consider before inventory is purchased… The most successful retail are highly visible these days…

  • Tina

    I have been in the retail/wholesale sector of the gift/accessory industry for just about all of my life. What is happening in Old City is no different than what is being experienced in most independent stores throughout the city. I have witnessed over 60 small store closings in the time span of the last 7 years. Small businesses cannot succeed right now in Philadelphia due to a number of factors: business privilege + other taxes, high rents(more suited to chain stores), online shopping, the mentality that Center City is not safe–this persists-especially in certain neighborhoods, and the overall mentality that people have acquired within the last 10 years-that if it does not come from a known “chain” store that it is not any good &/or return policies will not be very liberal. Just about everyone I know still flocks to the Mall (Cherry Hill or KOP) when they need to get their serious shopping done. Moreover, t he ones who want to save money see stores like Target & H&M as their godsend. People will not change their shopping habits until they change their attitudes about where it is hip to buy, where they can save the most money, where they won’t have problems exchanging items, and where they are most likely to get satisfied. I am embarrassed that Philadelphia is the 5th most populated city and our retail sector basically sucks. I am sorry for stores like Three Sirens who strive to be different and offer affordable prices–but, our customers fail to appreciate this! Brick and Mortar stores cannot survive without an online presence-that seems to be the trend. Perhaps, these sales can help small stores to survive when their customers are too lazy to go shopping beyond their particular neighborhoods.
    I have experienced retail sales in shopping districts outside of Center City and I can tell you that brick and mortar stores are surviving in the right locations–especially where there is an affluent tourist base. As Center City rises in its notoriety and as a destination place, then, it is my hope that our stores and shopping experiences will also be elevated. If we can do it with our restaurants, then, maybe it can be done with our retail establishments too!!!