Shop Talk: Shopper’s Delight

So how good is Philly’s shopping scene really? A transplanted New Yorker says we’re better than we think — and poised for something big. Credit cards ready?

“All of the fundamentals are in place,” says Laurence Steinberg, Center City director at Michael Salove Real Estate Company. When Steinberg and his team court retailers — or, as has been happening over the past few years, retailers come to him — the four factors everyone in the room sits down to assess are downtown’s residential population, daytime occupancy, business travel and tourism. Steinberg says all four are thriving. Sales per square foot along Walnut Street exceed those of Newbury Street in Boston, and by some measures, we even surpass Chicago in terms of downtown residential populations. (New York will always rank first above both.) So why aren’t the Pradas and Apples and Chanels of the world here? It’s just a matter of time — “Somewhere between one and five years,” Steinberg predicts — until leases expire and higher-end chains move in along Walnut and, increasingly, Chestnut. Already, trendier stores are starting to come (in no small part because of brokers buying out leases before they expire): In the past couple of years, Philly scored Club Monaco and West Elm; Sephora is finally on its way, in July.

Frank Gunion, the CEO at South Moon Under, which sells of-the-minute jeans and housewares and shoes, says his company had its eye on Philly for years. But it wasn’t until this past February that he debuted a South Moon Under outpost in Center City, at 1731 Chestnut. “We’ve always loved Philly’s creativity and urbanism. But even five years ago, Chestnut Street just would’ve been too high-risk,” he says. “Since then, though, Philly — the people in Philly — have done a great job turning downtown around. Organically. They’ve said ‘We want to live here, and we’ll make it great’ — and they have.” Brandi Halls of Lush, the Canadian-based beauty chain with stores in 33 other cities, says her company set up shop at 1428 Walnut in September 2006 not just because of Walnut’s high foot traffic, but for Philly’s “great reputation” and “excellent demographics,” and the chance to be positioned with other “top brands.” She hasn’t been disappointed: Sales have exceeded the company’s expectations and projections.

Still, Center City decision-makers — real estate brokers, Rittenhouse Square’s guardians, nearby residents — need to make sure their prized stretches of real estate don’t become any old wing of any old mainstream mall; they need to nurture the wonderfully eclectic boutiques and complement them by attracting truly high-end luxury retailers. “People need retail, and retail needs people,” says William Cody, managing director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at Wharton. Look at Northern Liberties, where an influx of young creative types has fueled the need for similarly young, creative boutiques along North 2nd and 3rd streets and within Liberties Walk. There’s an entire mini-industry here in Philly centered on young designers whose stuff is sold through the network of boutiques in their neighborhoods, like Art Star in Northern Liberties and Mew Gallery in South Philly. You’d think the influx of older, wealthy, worldly types to Rittenhouse Square would foster a need for the kinds of stores said older, wealthy, worldly types keep in business in every other major city. Because when you consider that our Neiman’s ranks third in the whole country in terms of the chain’s men’s shoe sales, and that its best-selling men’s lines are Lora Piana and Brioni, it’s obvious there are men left in town who still care about dressing well. And the mall shouldn’t be the only destination for them, or their families. Gucci and Louis Vuitton may have left Center City years ago due to weak sales, but Philly is a different city now. It’s ready for the Big Leagues.