January 23, 2021
The Boston Globe
For brick and mortar retailers in the Boston area, it’s boom or bust, depending on where you look
Legions of Boston’s office workers left town when the pandemic broke out. When they return, they’ll find its streetscapes profoundly transformed.
Wander the city’s corridors of commerce and you’ll witness darkened storefronts and shuttered restaurants. These are the casualties of a pandemic that has hit the retail world unevenly. A tour of the region’s shopping hubs offers a complex look at street life now that holiday shoppers have retreated, with one new reality starkly clear: Urban shopping districts are in dire shape right now, while the situation is more nuanced in the suburbs.
Yes, the pandemic has hastened the demise of traditional malls. But at open-air shopping complexes — those suburban “lifestyle centers” where the word “mall” is verboten — commerce has not only carried on, it’s booming. Parking lots are full. Lines snake out of stores.
“The traffic at our Lynnfield location has been phenomenal,” said Gary Bergeron, who opened the Mill 77 Exchange home goods store at the MarketStreet center in November. He’s watched, and benefited, as cooped-up suburbanites visit to walk their dogs and exercise. “Business has been good right out of the gate. It’s a totally different climate than your standard mall or retailer. I think that it’s the mall of the future.”
Shifting consumer habits and the lack of commutes is driving more foot traffic to these suburban storefronts, said Ted Chryssicas, executive managing director of retail for the real estate group Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. The “industry is morphing” as a result, he said. “Even before COVID, things were hurting in retail. Brands were going bankrupt and so many concepts were hanging on that shouldn’t exist.”
All that is contributing to a pileup of closures in urban districts that can make a window shopper despondent.
Earlier this week along Charles Street in Beacon Hill, Patricia Daoust sighed audibly as she peered at a sign announcing the temporary closure of Toscano. Before the pandemic, she’d pass the Italian restaurant on her commute down Charles Street to her job as director of nursing at Mass General Hospital’s Center for Global Health. Daoust retired in December, but was just called back to run the hospital’s vaccine clinic. She had been feeling optimistic about the easing of the pandemic — until she reached this distinctively Bostonian block, the commercial artery of one the city’s most affluent sections.
“This was my first day walking around in months, and I’m kind of down about it,” she said. “Artu — my favorite little place — and The Red Wagon, and Toscano…” she said, rattling off just a few of the darkened storefronts, each an example of the city’s retail crisis. Artu has closed its Beacon Hill location permanently. The Red Wagon children’s boutique is relocating to Belmont. Toscano is “hibernating” until the spring.
“The pandemic broke a lot of backs,” said Jim Kilroy, owner of Danish Country, who shuttered his Charles Street antiques store in December after 37 years. Unable to travel abroad to make purchases, Kilroy promoted his existing stock in store windows that he kept lit 24/7.
“It was one of the best windows on the street,” he said. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
The street lamps of Beacon Hill reflect off empty windows these days and, for once, parking is easy to find. Over 20 storefronts are now vacant in Beacon Hill, said Jack Gurnon, owner of Charles Street Supply. “It’s really bad. The people that are here are really trying hard.”
Over on Boylston Street, the husk of Lord & Taylor sits empty, its clothing racks huddled in mourning. Across the street, the windows of the chocolate cafe Max Brenner are papered over. Even crying into your beer is harder: once popular taverns Whiskey’s, The Pour House, Lir, and McGreevy’s are all closed.
If the past year has exposed and exacerbated longstanding health disparities in society, it’s had a similar impact on retail businesses. Stores that were struggling before COVID-19 have had their knees taken out. “COVID just accelerated the inevitable,” said Chryssicas. “Lord and Taylor was selling shlock at the end.”
Those closures are also leaving holes in some of the region’s largest shopping centers: The Macy’s at the CambridgeSide mall is closed. The Natick Mall has lost its Lord & Taylor, and Neiman Marcus will soon depart. Its owner, Brookfield Properties, may look to have an Amazon warehouse or biotech office help fill the void.
Even the region’s high-end shopping destinations are feeling the pinch.
At the Prudential Center, the long passageway that linked to Lord & Taylor is mostly empty, save for Lululemon, which was doing a brisk business in yoga pants. (“Six feet of space looks good on you,” a floor sticker coaxes. “So do these pants.”) The company is one of the pandemic’s “winners”: Athleisure is now our national wardrobe, and the brand spent half a billion dollars to acquire a tech company that looked at mirrors and said “yup, we could stream a fitness class onto that.”
Next door, however, the Magic Beans toy store has closed, and the MiniLuxe nail salon is on hiatus. A homeless woman, clad in rags, sorted through her possessions in the stillness of the passageway. Across from her, a gossamer bridal gown floated in the window of the Mandarin Oriental, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
The flagship Microsoft store, positioned at a high-profile spot in the center of the Prudential mall, is shuttered.
“It’s weird, definitely weird,” said Anthony DeYoung, a UMass student who works part time at the Moleskine kiosk just outside the papered-over storefront.
It’s even quieter along Newbury Street, where the stretch between Gloucester and Hereford streets alone has nearly a dozen empty storefronts — a combination of permanent closures, restaurant hibernations, and optional shutdowns such as Ministry of Supply, whose window signs encourage customers to shop online.
E-commerce has been a saving grace for brick and mortar storefronts that were able to pivot to online. The National Retail Federation reported sales during the holiday season were unexpectedly high, up 8.3 percent over 2019. But that uptick was bolstered mainly by online orders — which were up 23.9 percent — while electronics and apparel stores saw nearly 15 percent declines.
“Clearly consumers are spending; it’s simply a question of where they are purchasing today versus a year ago,” said Jon Hurst, the president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
Not all brick and mortar businesses are struggling, of course. Porsha Wilkins, a receptionist at SkinMD, said business at the Newbury Street medical spa has been steady.
“Everybody’s doing Botox,” she said, and this is peak laser hair-removal season.
Meanwhile, outside the city, quite a different story unfolds. At Legacy Place in Dedham one recent Sunday, the parking lot of the outdoor mall was packed. The sidewalks teemed with people and the line for Shake Shack stretched nearly out the door.
At Assembly Row in Somerville, translucent igloo domes — outdoor dining pods for restaurants — dot the walkways and new stores are slated to open this year, while at MarketStreet Lynnfield, shoppers cozy up at fire pits.
A similar scene played out at the Derby Street Shops in Hingham, where shoppers queued outside the Apple store and weaved strollers along walkways, shopping bags swinging on their arms. The only evidence of the ongoing pandemic were the face masks and social distancing measures.
Chryssicas, the Newmark Grubb retail specialist, works with brands whose business has flip-flopped between urban and suburban locations. All hotels are suffering, but he cited one chain that has just 12 percent occupancy at its urban location, but 30 percent in the suburbs, he said. Same, too, for restaurant chains.
“The number-one performing Davio’s is in Lynnfield now; typically it was always the Back Bay.”
That’s prompted urban businesses to scout locations outside Boston, while suburban spots are now eyeing downtown. “They’re balancing their game,” Chryssicas said.
But the pull of the suburbs won’t be the death knell for the city, brokers and retailers say.
“Retail in the suburbs is going to get strong, but I don’t think it’s at the expense of the city. The city will return,” said Whitney Gallivan, a broker with Boston Realty Advisors. Large retailers are still scouting out new locations, and smaller ones are negotiating better terms on their leases. The reshuffling could provide new opportunities for upstarts who have recently been forced out of neighborhoods like the South End, she said.
And while Jim Kilroy may not be retailing in Beacon Hill anymore, he believes the neighborhood will recover.
“Charles Street has been Charles Street for 100 years,” he said. “It’s one of the best streets in the country.” And that street life can’t be replicated in the “bloody fancy” ‘burbs, he said.
“They call the Chestnut Hill mall ‘The Street.’ It’s not a street,” Kilroy said. “It’s a parking lot surrounding a mall.”