Was Pope Weekend as Bad For Boutiques as It Was For Restaurants?

The short answer? Yes.

Pope Shopping

Pope Francis’s visit raised spirits, but not profits for small shops. | Open House photo: C. Gabello for Visit Philadelphia™; Pope Francis photo: neneo / Shutterstock.com.

As I watched the Pope climb the stairs of the plane that would take him back to Italy last night, I felt like it was the day after Christmas. Just like that, the suspended reality of Philly’s Pope Weekend — all car-less roads, walkable bridges, impossibly friendly crowds, roving bands of nuns — was over. With the Pope’s departure, so began the less festive work of cleaning everything up, loading the barricades and Porta-potties up and taking them back to wherever they came from, slowly reopening roads and rails. If you’re a small-business owner, it also meant doggedly returning to your store today and resuming Business As Usual, but after waking up from a week-long hibernation.

Because that’s what it turned out to be, really. Despite blog posts about where to shop for Pope memorabilia and what restaurants were still going to be #OpenInPHL, everyone really just came for Pope Francis and cared little about shopping in our local shops or eating at our local restaurants. Maybe we all knew this, deep-down — Of course no one will be making reservations at Vernick or buying Rick Owens jackets. It’s THE POPE — but I think everyone wanted to believe that maybe some of the hundreds of thousands of people would do a little bit of exploring while they were here. But the people who came to town weren’t tourists. They were pilgrims. And the plain truth is this: Pilgrims weren’t here for the shopping.

“It was pretty bad. I’m sure we lost a lot of money,” says Bob Myaing, the manager of Art In The Age boutique in Old City. “We were situated between two security checkpoints and entrances to Independence Hall on Saturday, so it was largely slow. But the whole week really hurt us rather than the weekend itself. I think the last time we had a week so slow was when there was ten-degree weather last January.”

Center City stores like Knit Wit, Intermix, South Moon Under, Club Monaco and Vince didn’t fare much better. “Horrible,” says Stephanie Carballada, the assistant manager of Club Monaco at 15th and Walnut. “We had shorter hours and we were closed on Sunday. Friday was completely dead. Saturday there were a little more people out, but the people who were shopping were either our clients who stayed in town or locals who just wanted to get out of the house. It affected our business tremendously. I’ve been talking to my friends at Calypso, Theory — which was closed over the weekend, I think — Vince, and everywhere was dead. It was sad. No one did well.”

Traffic was also light in Queen Village. “It was like a ghost town on 4th Street,” says Bus Stop boutique manager Aubrie Costello. “People coming in for the Pope weren’t here to shop. They were just here to gather, camp out … I don’t think people were in town to explore Philly. They stayed in the box and went to the events, and that was that.”

But isn’t one or two days of poor sales a small price to pay for such an incredible weekend, you ask? Yes and no. When Philadelphia is on such a world stage, it’s hard to not be disappointed that our smallest and coolest nooks and crannies were overlooked. (Hey, guys! Don’t leave! Stay and get to know us!) And when you’re a small business, well, every weekend counts.

This time of year, mid- to late-September, is really crucial for small businesses because people are buying things for the change of season. We expect a lot of sales on weekends this time of year, but there weren’t a lot of people out because most people left the city,” says Costello. 

Most small business owners don’t blame the crowds that came in for not shopping; after all, it was a religious event, not a shop-’til-you-drop extravaganza. No, they’re frustrated that so many locals got scared and skipped town. “I think that [the city’s retail] was really hurting this weekend just from talking with other business owners. Everyone was really prepared but no one showed up to the extent that we thought,” says Cortney Cohen-Sze, owner of the Geisha House boutique in Old City. “I blame the media a bit. They really talked up plans outside the city to do, and people listened. I thought it was a similar thing to a snowstorm approach, with everyone freaking and then it winds up being not that bad.”

Starbucks was offering two-for-one drinks, walking the streets handing out free samples because they had bulked up on food and cups. You know it’s bad when Starbucks is handing out free samples,” says Ashley Peel Pinkham, owner of Philadelphia Independents boutique, also in Old City. But she was lucky: She’s one of the few boutique owners who can say they actually had a not-so-crappy weekend in terms of sales. This might be thanks to her gift-centric selection, most of it easy-to-buy smalls with a heavy Pope focus. “We sell handmade items by local artists, and a few made Pope merchandise like t-shirts, tote bags, ceramic mugs and prints. Pope products were the hot commodity for sure. It was all about tees and totes,” she says.

In fact, Pope tees saved the day for many shops, including Scout Salvage. “The sales exceeded my expectations, especially seeing how empty things were,” says owner Betsy Cassel. “But we did better than a normal weekend, and I feel really fortunate hearing that other stores had very low sales. I think we did well especially because that Pope t-shirt was so popular.”

But for those who didn’t have Pope tees or bobbleheads to sling, it was a rough few days for store owners hoping to show off their goods to thousands of out-of-towners, all of whom were more interested in healing prayer than retail therapy.

“It’s disappointing that when we get this opportunity to really show our better side, everyone kinda freaked out a little bit. I’m disappointed that a lot of people left [the city],” says Cohen-Sze. But she feels like she did catch one break, in that she sells clothing, not food:

“My husband has a restaurant outside the city. I know what it takes for restaurants to prepare for a ton of traffic, so for no one to show up, that’s a lot of inventory. I’m lucky because mine at the store doesn’t go bad.”