September 18, 2019
Reporter’s Notebook: Is Boston’s Seaport the new SoHo?
A cluster of DTC brands found homes in the vibrant district, while the city’s famous Newbury Street sees its prominence dim.
When I asked for tips about where to shop in Boston, I was almost unanimously told: “Anything outside of Newbury Street.””
Newbury was built in the 19th century and has been a go-to shopping district for decades, but walking down the famous street, one gets the feeling Newbury faces the same conundrum New York’s Fifth Avenue does: locals desperately avoid it and tourists flock to it.
I admit that, as a tourist, I had been to Newbury Street on past trips to visit friends or family. I was even looking forward to going back, reminiscing about a Black Friday several years ago where I stocked up on Christmas presents and discovered British clothing brand Jack Wills for the first time.
But in the same way I now walk somewhat half-heartedly down Fifth Avenue, I found Newbury Street a bit dimmer than my memories of it — and discovered a new shopping district on the rise.
A fading landmark?
I should start by saying that I explored Newbury Street on a Wednesday evening in August — hardly a peak shopping time. Still, while the street was packed with cars making painstakingly slow progress, there were surprisingly few people milling around.
Especially compared to Boston’s younger Seaport district, where I spent Tuesday evening. I visited both shopping streets on a weeknight around the same time. Newbury was fairly deserted by 7 p.m. and the Seaport looked like it was just getting started.
A large group was doing yoga on a grassy patch, while down the street a live musician played Jack Johnson at a pop-up brewery filled with people. In another area, close to a movie theater and some restaurants, a group of small tables was mostly filled, either with groups socializing or what looked like working professionals taking a break after the workday.
There’s simply no other word for it — the Seaport was happening.
There were people playing ping pong, there was music streaming out of speakers on the street, and there were an awful lot of direct-to-consumer brand stores. Away, Bonobos and Warby Parker were all a matter of feet from each other, with Outdoor Voices just down an alley in between them.
There was also a store I’d never heard of before: For Now, which hosted a rotating selection of small e-commerce brands with (strategically?) difficult-to-locate price tags, including Uashmama, Covry and a rug brand called Boundless. A store associate told me the selection rotates every three months. When I was there, the assortment included everything from fashion to underwear to bags to baby clothes.
The more tested retailers in the Seaport were companies like Sephora, Lululemon and Bluemercury — retailers frequently viewed as innovative compared to the rest of traditional retail. Amazon even made an appearance through one of its treasure trucks, which was just packing up as I passed by, but seemed to fit in well with the vibe of the shopping district.
That isn’t to say Newbury doesn’t have some flare of its own. There’s a Bonobos just off the main street, which looked closed when I peered through the window, an Allbirds, which seemed out of place with its hip, modern aesthetic, and some unique shops and restaurants like Fjällräven, Trident Booksellers and Cafe, Anime Zakka and Dirty Water Dough Company.
There were also plenty of stores recognizable to retail aficionados: Frye, Lucky Brand, Indochino, Sephora Studio and a Lululemon scheduled to open in the fall. Not a bad lineup for a street that feels like it’s ceding its popularity to hipper areas.
Then again, there was also a dentist, a CVS, a European Wax Center, some nail salons and a CBD store, which gave the street more of a strip mall aesthetic compared to the young and trendy atmosphere exuded by the Seaport.
Shipping off to the Seaport
What really set the Seaport district apart was the sense of local color and community. It’s the same reason walking around in SoHo is so much more fun than walking down the main drag in New York: You feel like you’re where the cool kids are.
In Seaport, an Outdoor Voices store associate said her location had hardly been there a year and the area had already changed immensely, from mostly restaurants to a healthy mix of retail and entertainment.
Restaurants, bars and a movie theater with $5 Tuesdays across the street is just the beginning of a long list of desirable qualities the Seaport holds for a brand like Outdoor Voices. No doubt aware of the local vibe the area has, several of the stores featured Boston-inspired artwork and store associates were often spending one-on-one time helping customers pick out a product or explaining the differences between two items.
In the Seaport, it was hard to avoid the store associates, who seemed eager to talk to anyone who walked in the store, whereas in Newbury, I probably could have gotten away without speaking to a single employee had I not gone into Allbirds to check out the brand’s physical digs. Newbury was a commercial, almost isolated experience, while Seaport was a community.
Outside, there were colorful sculptures on the main street, mirrored by some of the district’s colorful food options (I regret nothing more than not buying one of those ice cream fish cones) and otherwise appropriate to the general feeling of fun that seemed to pervade the district.
Walking down Newbury, meanwhile, what little environment there was seemed isolated to the stores themselves. True, there were some restaurants that opened to the outdoors, allowing the voices of patrons to carry through to passersby, but it felt more like a cacophony of indistinguishable words than the bubble of background noise Seaport supplied.
The yoga class I passed by in the Seaport (Vinyasa Yoga with Aly Raymer) was also just one small part of a full outdoor fitness series.
In addition to giving customers a reason to regularly come back to Seaport, the entertainment options and scheduled events also provided ample opportunity for brands to get involved with both current or potential customers. Lululemon sponsored a Lulu Run Club with Chris Cappozzi on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m, and both Lululemon and Outdoor Voices hosted multiple Saturday events as part of the outdoor fitness series.
Not everyone milling around Seaport was there for an exercise class or a movie, though. DTC beauty brand Glossier had a series of pop-up shops lined up in a row that were absolutely packed with (mostly) young adult women. Almost like tiny cabins or spacious outhouses, the Glossier stores were focused on different product categories, including makeup, brows, the brand’s “You” fragrance and a couple labeled “Shop all.”
A separate pick-up booth was stationed in the middle of the lineup, where store associates stood calling out girls’ names and orders. Walking through each individual shop, I was struck by the sheer number of people who had not only come to take a peek, but were talking to each other animatedly as they browsed or listened as a store associate gave advice on product application.
Maybe it was the convergence of several nighttime attractions that made the area so busy on my weeknight visit — or maybe it’s always like that. Either way, I was struck by the immediate impression that this was the ideal place to be for a DTC brand, even though it was Newbury Street that had first jumped into my mind when I thought of shopping in Boston.
There’s a reason so many DTC brands are flocking to Seaport, while many of their sister stores can be found in SoHo. And there’s a reason I almost walked right by the Allbirds on Newbury Street, without even thinking to look for it.
All over the country, new shopping districts are rising (and to some extent, replacing) main streets of the past — and they’re bringing DTC brands with them.