Business Profiles

Local Store Owners Weigh in on the So-Called Death of Brick-and-Mortar

August 31, 2018

Owners of SHE, The Peacock Room, LeConte Men’s Clothiers and Carl Sterr by Design share their secrets to retail success.

By Eden Lichterman

Photography by Sylvia Jarrus

In an age where stylists curate wardrobes through cyberspace and food delivery services make grocery shopping seem passe, it’s hard to picture a future for local brick-and-mortar stores. But no matter how easy online shopping becomes, nothing compares to the thrill of finding the perfect dress off a rack or bonding with a local store owner.

For many Metro Detroit businesses and shops nationwide, conventional shopping isn’t going anywhere.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, e-commerce purchases averaged around 9 percent of total U.S. retail sales last year. Statewide, according to a report by the Michigan Retailers Association, over 13 percent of total retail sales in 2017 were made outside of brick-and-mortar stores, such as through e-commerce and catalog sales.

E-commerce sales are surprisingly low, says Meegan Holland, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Retailers Association. “Brick-and-mortar really is doing much better than people perceive it to be,” she says.

Retail consumers still value in-store experiences, as 75 percent of customers want to see products in store, according to a 2017 Alliance Data report.

“I think a lot of people are realizing that when you order things online, it’s a roulette game,” says Rachel Lutz, owner of Detroit clothing stores The Peacock Room, Yama and Frida. There’s no guarantee that merchandise purchased online will look, feel and fit as expected, she adds.

brick-and-mortarSylvia Jarrus/SEEN

Rachel Lutz, owner of The Peacock Room, poses for a portrait at the Fisher Building in Detroit.

But the desire to shop in-store isn’t just because people can touch the products. At the core of brick-and-mortar lies one important factor — relationships.

“The relationships with your customers are everything. People don’t want to feel like transactions,” says Lutz, as she thanks a few customers for stopping by The Peacock Room.

Lutz greets customers warmly and provides full service regardless of their budgets. Just as she would wrap up a $300 dress, she puts $3.95 hair pins in a box with a bow because, as she says, “kindness is free.”

Sharon Eisenshtadt, owner of SHE in Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe, adopts a similar mentality. With a background in personal shopping, Eisenshtadt models her store around the customers’ needs, ensuring each person leaves feeling fashionably and emotionally complete.

“The fashion is out there at people’s disposal, but who’s putting that fashion together for you? For your individual needs? For your individual lifestyle? That matters, and the only way you’re going to get that is to walk into a store,” Eisenshtadt says.

brick-and-mortarCourtesy Sharon Eisenshtadt

SHE owner Sharon Eisenshtadt poses for a photo inside her Bloomfield Hills store.

Many shops also expand their service beyond just merchandise, offering customers snacks and an opportunity to unwind. At SHE, Eisenshtadt provides beverages such as coffee and wine, fostering a relaxed shopping environment.

brick-and-mortarSylvia Jarrus/SEEN

Barn doors at SHE in Bloomfield Hills open to reveal a coffee station.

Carl Sterr, owner of Carl Sterr by Design in Birmingham and Bay Harbor, embraces similar practices. “You get to share a glass of whiskey with me, sit out on the back balcony and smoke a cigar. We develop relationships, we develop friendships, we develop family ties,” the Orchard Lake resident says.

These local store owners say it’s up to them to create an experience customers can’t find online. That’s what keeps shoppers coming back.

“It’s not just a need for things; it’s a need for connection, it’s a need for community. And I think that that’s really what entices people to spend their money and support a business,” Lutz says.

Lutz and Eisenshtadt say it’s also imperative to understand the communities in which stores exist.

“I live in the community, I attend the charity events, I socialize here, I go to the restaurants, I know what people are wearing … I always say I’m the ‘concierge of clothing,’ ” Eisenshtadt says.

The success that accompanies great products and personal service allows stores to create beautiful spaces. Located in the Fisher Building, The Peacock Room flagship store takes customers back in time. The light blue and white walls with ornate gold detailing and sparkling chandeliers give the room a grand touch.

brick-and-mortarSylvia Jarrus/SEEN

A view inside the Peacock Room at the Fisher Building in Detroit.

brick-and-mortarSylvia Jarrus/SEEN

A much different vibe, SHE opened a grand space of its own in August in Bloomfield Hills, with concrete floors, industrial ceilings and colorful Jonathan Adler furnishings, which customers can purchase. The 3,000-square-foot space feels like an upscale New York boutique, while maintaining the store’s intimate service.

brick-and-mortarSylvia Jarrus/SEEN

Racks of clothing and Jonathan Adler furniture in SHE in Bloomfield Hills.

These store owners demonstrate why retail continues to survive, Holland says. Customers want to feel special; customers want informed service; customers want trusting relationships with shopkeepers, she adds. Online shopping just doesn’t cut it.

“Young, old, doesn’t matter. If they see that there’s a passion for what you’re doing and you’re good at what you do, you always have the referrals and you always have the business,” says Michael Browe, owner of LeConte Men’s Clothiers in Rochester.

brick-and-mortarCourtesy LeConte's Mens Clothiers

LeConte Men’s Clothiers owner Michael Browe poses for a photo inside the Rochester store.

According to the Michigan Retailers Association, convenience plays a major role in the growth of e-commerce. But the local stores SEEN talked to are making it so easy for shoppers to find what they need that the commute becomes worth it.

Eisenshtadt understands her customers may have only five minutes to shop, so she has fitting rooms ready to go as soon as they arrive. Similarly, Lutz and Browe frequently have customers request formal outfits the day before an event. These store owners make the impossible happen.

Online shopping will inevitably continue to rise in popularity. According to a report by BigCommerce, a technology company that develops e-commerce software for businesses, 80 percent of Americans with internet access have made an online purchase in the past month. The Michigan Retailers Association reports that Michigan residents spent $18.5 billion on out-of-state retail in 2017. But the accessibility and service of a brick-and-mortar store can’t be replaced by devices.

brick-and-mortarCourtesy Michigan Retailers Association

Michigan spending graphic.

“People want that one-on-one. They want the eye contact. They want my team or myself to see them in the clothing, in the look. Share in the vision,” Eisenshtadt says. “And I think that that’s not an experience that you’re going to get online.”

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