5 Store Owners Get Honest About the Future of Philly Retail

The fascinating – and sometimes scary – truths about where Philly's shopping scene is headed.

Store-Owners

From left: Maureen Doron, Erik Honesty, Ann Gitter, Tung To and January Bartle. | Photo by Claudia Gavin.

For our first-ever roundup of the 50 best shops in Philly (didn’t check it out yet? See who made the list here), we wanted to do more than just call out the top spots to shop. We wanted to dig a little further into exactly what makes our city’s retail scene tick, what keeps it running, and what challenges lie ahead.

Who better to talk about the changing state of Philly retail than the store owners who live it every day? We rounded up five of the city’s top tastemakers who have paved the way for independent retail in Philly, and who are shaping—and shaking up—the way we shop. And then we picked their brains. What they had to say about our retail landscape is fascinating (no one buys pants!), scary (you won’t believe how much it costs to open a store on Chestnut Street) and – in the end – totally exciting. 

THE TRIPLE THREAT: Maureen Doron
Owner, Skirt, Bryn Mawr, Rittenhouse and Stone Harbor

In business for: Fifteen years in Bryn Mawr; seven years in Stone Harbor; six months in Rittenhouse.
On changing wardrobe needs: “No one’s buying pants anymore. They’re wearing jeans or leather, but not trousers. They’re going from Lululemon to their cocktail dress.”
On online shopping: “Shopping in a boutique is a luxury now. People are craving an experience. Online shopping weeded out the mediocre business owners. The ones who survived are really bringing the best of the best, the highest customer service.”
On opening in the city: “I’ve never felt so welcome. You’d think going from a small town to a big city, it would be the opposite. Joan Shepp, someone I really admire, sent flowers to welcome me to town.”
The weirdest thing about owning a shop at the Shore: “We get a lot of fall shoppers in August. That was a surprise. So in August, we have cashmere sweaters and cords. Each year we seem to bring it in a little earlier, and it seems to be working.”


THE NEW BLOOD: Erik Honesty
Owner, Cultured Couture Vintage, North Philly

In business for: Five years.
On fostering local talent: “We need to tap into the young designers and give them places to outlet their designs in the retail scene. There’s tons of talent in Philadelphia, but it can be difficult in terms of opportunities here. We need to plant more seeds from the ground up.”
On North Philly shopping: “The retail climate is really dynamic. You get all walks of life that come through, especially on Girard Avenue—people passing through or who have lived there for years.”
What Philly’s retail scene needs: “More entrepreneurs, small businesses and boutiques, to help retail flourish. We need more energy and some more edgy styles. Bring some things here that you can only get in Philly, not us getting the watered-down version of a bigger brand.”
Words of wisdom: “It gets to a point where you get past the excitement of having a business. Every day you have to reinvent yourself in some small way to keep it thriving.”


THE OLD GUARD: Ann Gitter
Co-owner, Knit Wit, Bryn Mawr, Rittenhouse and Margate

In business for: Fifty-one years.
On the evolution of the Rittenhouse retail scene: “I was one of the first to move from Walnut to Chestnut. I thought it was going to become the creative, independent street. But in the past few years, the rent on Chestnut has gone up too much for most independents, and we’re getting stores like Nordstrom Rack and Bloomie’s Outlet. To open here now, you probably have to have $500,000.”
What Rittenhouse needs: “A great gift shop or home store.” On going online: “I sell online through [international shopping site] Farfetch. They can afford to pay for millions and millions of dollars’ worth of optimization. I’m not going to get ahead of Shopbop or Net-a-Porter. I have to play in somebody else’s platform.”
On what’s next: “Skinny-leg jeans have trended for 10 years, and I think I see the first crack that we’re getting out of it. Stores are going to push novelty black pants. It’s going to energize fashion.”


THE MEN’S EXPERT: Tung To
Owner, Tobox Shoes, Rittenhouse

In business for: Two and a half years.
On the state of men’s luxury retail in Philly: “It’s quite good, but it’s not there yet. We have a lot of middle-of-the-road shops. But we are 10 times better than we were five, 10 years ago.”
On standing out: “Shoe shines are my point of difference. When I opened up the shop, I didn’t see anyone doing that. My thought was to just draw people in the shop, and eventually they would buy something. That’s my hook.”
On men’s fashion: “Philadelphia has come a long way, for sure. People are definitely paying more attention to the way they dress. They want something unique to go with their custom suit. They want shoes that stand out.”
On what’s next: “There’s been an insurgence—from national chains to local companies—of made-to-measure. They’re popping up everywhere. There are no samples. They show you swatches, take your measurements, and send your order out to manufacturers. There are over 100 in the city.”


THE OLD CITY PIONEER: January Bartle
Owner, Third Street Habit, Old City

In business for: Twelve years.
On changing wardrobe needs: “My customers buy a lot less now than they did when I first opened. Most people used to dress for a lot of different categories, but now people wear the same outfit day to night.”
On the evolution of the Old City retail scene: “Old City is on an upswing. More people are working here now, with North 3rd being a tech hub. Foot traffic here got siphoned off between 2006 and 2010 as other areas of the city developed. Now we’re starting to see an uptick in new faces. I can feel the energy around here building up again.”
On savvy shoppers: “They like to know where things are made. We see a strong preference for things that are made in the U.S. and fair trade in both production and manufacturing of materials.”
On changing shopping habits: “People used to explore neighborhoods in the city much more. Shopping was more of a social event. You don’t need to do that anymore—you can explore from your couch on Pinterest.”


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