But how does one translate that feeling to the cold, solitary experience of pointing and clicking on a screen? “The best way I can describe it,” Mr. Leon said of his forthcoming e-commerce store, “is that what we try to represent in the boutique is something that isn’t so pristine, so there will be some nerdy elements to it, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. We’re going about it in the sense that it will be the type of Web site we remember when Web sites first started.”
REGARDLESS OF WHETHER a boutique can faithfully represent itself online, isn’t it just flat-out risky to brave the recessionary torrents and stick one’s neck onto the Web while panicked shoppers are cutting up their Visas?
Sure it is! But perhaps it would be riskier not to. U.S. online sales grew 21 percent from 2006 to $175 billion in 2007, according to the National Retail Federation’s most recent report on the state of online retailing. (Apparel, accessories and footwear comprised 10 percent of that figure.) And a recent study by the marketing research company comScore found that even during the weak 2008 holiday shopping season, online apparel and accessories sales increased 4 percent, compared to a 19-to-21-percent decline in overall sales for that category. (Perhaps because shopping in the comfort of one’s living room can feel like it doesn’t really “count.”) Even snooty luxury brands, like Yves St. Laurent, Emilio Pucci and Fred Segal, are jumping on the e-commerce bandwagon.
In New York, boutiques that have ventured online have been thus far pleased with the experience.
“When we first started, we’d maybe do one sale a week for the first six months,” said Joseph Quartana, head buyer and co-owner of Seven, which launched its online store back in March 2005. “Now we’re doing anywhere from three to six sales a day, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you consider that our average price is $350.”
Oak, which went e-commerce in June 2004, has enjoyed similar results. “It keeps growing exponentially every month and probably has surpassed brick-and-mortar sales,” said Stephanie Draves, Oak’s online manager, of the boutique’s Web revenue, which she declined to specify.
And Mr. Ward said that since launching Cry Wolf’s e-commerce site in November, the ratio of online to in-store sales has shifted to 60-40.
But some boutique owners insist that the sociability enabled by a brick-and-mortar building cannot be replaced. “We do better in the store, and I think it’s because people come in here and they get to meet everyone,” said Brooke Backman, manager of In God We Trust, which has locations in Brooklyn, Soho and the Lower East Side. “Personally, I don’t shop online. I would rather go someplace.”
“The stores here in New York do such an amazing job of creating an environment that people will want to go into,” remarked Randy Goldberg, brand manager of the online lifestyle resource urbandaddy.com. “I think the draw of these stores, what makes them so popular, is the experience of going there, touching the fabric you’re buying. Online, it’s not the same.”
Andrew Pick, a 25-year-old Williamsburg resident shopping at Odin on a recent Friday evening with a chunky black scarf draped around his neck, agreed. With the assistance of one of the several skinny sales associates who were hovering about to the dull hum of electro music, Mr. Pick found the perfect pair of jeans. They were a tight fit by Cheap Monday, a brand he’d never heard of before, and they were on sale for $29. Sold!
“There’s definitely an appeal to shopping on the Web, but at a place like this, I’d prefer to come in and see the clothes,” Mr. Pick said. “There’s only so much you can show online.”