Keep Your Competition Close

When the chains move in, it’s not always bad for boutiques.

Chain store
Photo by Caitlin Abram

It’s tough to be optimistic about the state of local retail when you walk through Galleria and see the shiny, sprawling new North Face directly across the hall from Trail Mark, a locally owned outdoor apparel boutique that has sold North Face jackets for the past 15 years.

This is not a new scenario, of course, but the age-old tug of war of national vs. local retail is particularly acute right now at Galleria, which long distinguished itself from most interchangeable regional shopping centers by maintaining a nearly 50/50 split between independent boutiques and carefully selected chains. In the past year, the locally owned Galleria was sold to an international real estate firm, and the last several stores to open have been national chains that pose some direct threat to the center’s boutiques: Blue Mercury carries beauty lines sold by Ampersand, and Kate Spade was a top-selling brand at Melly before opening a store of its own down the corridor—the very same day that North Face opened at Galleria.

Trail Mark owner Mark Thompson took the high road. He sent a plant across the hall as a welcome.

And here’s the real surprise: Thompson actually had a hand in North Face opening at Galleria. “I’d rather have them near me than across the street at Southdale or even at the other end of the center,” says Thompson, who owned men’s store Juster’s for more than 20 years—until the rise of casual Friday, when he decided to swap suits for ski jackets.

“North Face is one of the best brands out there,” Thompson says. “It’s good for Galleria—brings in younger customers.”

But as big brands become so readily available—North Face now has three stores in the Twin Cities, plus a major department store presence—Trail Mark has been shifting to luxury lines such as Bogner. The coats are about five times as expensive as North Face—$1,700 is no longer shocking (to some, apparently) for a waterproof puffer—and they’re selling. Thompson thanks North Face for that.

“My customers don’t want to look like little cookie cutters,” Thompson says. “The more I offer them product that is the unique and different, the more they seem to appreciate it.”

Appealing to consumers who don’t need to wait for sales or compare prices online seems to be a sweet spot for small boutiques, but it’s not the only way to triumph these days. The key is connecting, whether that’s seeking new lines to stay ahead of customer desire, the way Trail Mark has, or providing a dynamic and one-of-a-kind in-store experience, like martinpatrick3 in Minneapolis, or creating unique product, as price-conscious Twin Cities boutiques such as Primp and Parc Boutique have successfully done. Thanks to them, and to the Twin Cities’ many other local boutiques, for saving us from a sea of sameness.

As you plan your gift buying this month, resolve, as I have, to check out at least a few of our local gems. You’ll find the shopping feels more festive. Plus, your city will benefit, and so will the recipients of your holiday presents.