Nov. 5, 2008, was a hectic day for Abiri Ward and his wife, Nina Wolff, co-owners of the East Village clothing boutique Cry Wolf. At 8 a.m. that morning, Cry Wolf launched an online store. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Wolff went into labor.
For most of the afternoon, Mr. Ward sat in front of his computer fielding phone calls and email inquiries about shipping and sizes in between timing Ms. Wolff’s contractions. “It was pretty wild,” he said. (She gave birth to a healthy baby girl at 9:33 p.m.)
Even without a newborn child in the mix, launching an online store—though arguably a necessary brand extension in this grim economy—is a daunting task for small, modestly staffed boutiques. Gotta build the site and make it look perfect. Get the inventory up. Then, all these outfits to photograph! And who’s going to write the descriptions? Deal with annoying returns? Package each order with that “you can tell we put A LOT of effort into this” level of care? It’s like opening a second business, said several exhausted boutique owners.
Nonetheless, extending themselves to e-commerce feels necessary to many right now—despite the fact that shopping online is hardly the hip, exclusive “downtown” experience that has been their calling card for years. For the consumer masses, habituated as they now are to services like Amazon and iTunes, e-commerce is a wholly mundane concept. But for the indie boutique, in which so much emphasis is placed on physical layout, personality and the tactile experience of discovering edgy, hard-to-find clothing, online shopping is a new realm.
“Everyone is trying to figure it out,” said Philippe von Borries, co-founder and creative director of Refinery29.com, a Tribeca-based online fashion magazine that also builds and aggregates Web stores for indie boutiques and designers. “Everyone feels pressure to start their own e-commerce store because everyone sees that their neighbor has one.”
Refinery29 Shops “opened” in January 2007 and there are now 18 New York boutiques that sell through it (to do so requires a $75 monthly maintenance fee and the willingness to relinquish a commission fee: 20 percent of one’s online profits). Almost all of them had no prior e-commerce representation, and some, like Mick Margo and Bird, have gone on to launch successful online stores of their own in addition to the Web real estate they lease from Refinery29, Mr. von Borries said.
The question, as Mr. Ward put it, is, “once you go online and your audience is worldwide, how do you keep things unique?”
FOR CRY WOLF, which opened in April 2008 and carries obscure European brands like Wood Wood (Denmark) and Denim Demon (Sweden), that means carefully personalizing every customer’s package to make it seem as if he or she were receiving a gift in the mail, and tailoring the online selection so that there are certain pieces that can only be purchased by going into the store, Mr. Ward said.
Odin, a much-loved East Village and Soho men’s boutique that launched an online store a few weeks after Cry Wolf did, has a similar approach. Depending on the season, Odin offers only a handful of the roughly 30 designers it carries through its online store. (The current roster includes New York labels Robert Geller, Engineered Garments and Obedient Sons.) Most of the collections are featured in head-to-toe looks rather than individual garments, and they’re accompanied by interviews with the designers. Shoppers can click on the models and move them around like virtual paper dolls to examine the details of a particular outfit.
“You really have to be focused on what you’re putting out there as opposed to being just a catalog,” said Eddie Chai, Odin’s co-owner.
Opening Ceremony, which counts downtown hipsters like Chloë Sevigny and Kirsten Dunst among its patrons, plans to launch an online store by the end of February. Humberto Leon, the store’s co-owner, said it will include almost every item carried in the boutique’s Soho and Los Angeles locations.
“Part of the inspiration behind Opening Ceremony is that [co-owner] Carol [Lim] and I were huge vintage and Salvation Army shoppers, so we wanted to capture that feeling of when you go to a vintage store and find that one perfect item, and you scream over to your friends, ‘Oh my God, look what I got!’” said Mr. Leon, who called The Observer from a Goodwill in Brooklyn.
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.”