This article was originally published in the November 2017 Princeton Echo.
If any town should be immune from the tidal wave of Internet retail, it’s Princeton. The town has an iconic main street, Nassau Street; a well planned mixed-use center, Palmer Square, complete with a hotel; both an arts center and a public library that offer diverse programming; and — last but not least — a captive audience across the street of 5,000 undergraduates attending one of the most prestigious and wealthiest colleges in the world.
On a Saturday or Sunday in downtown Princeton the sidewalks are not paved with gold, but for retailers the next best thing: people. People strolling up and down Nassau Street, exploring the side streets, enjoying dining al fresco, watching other people in a setting like Hinds Plaza next to the public library, and, yes, occasionally shopping.
The largest mall on Route 1 can’t offer the same kind of creativity and spontaneity as downtown Princeton. It ought to be a retail paradise, and for some it is. But not for all. At the corner of Hulfish and Witherspoon Street, the building that suffered from the mid-summer flood in 2016 now stands entirely empty. The space on Nassau Street that used to house the Sperry shoe store now stands empty. On the block of Hulfish Street on either side of Mediterra Restaurant empty storefronts house promotional notices from the management company. Some of the news is good: Nic + Zoe, a women’s clothing store with an emphasis on knitwear, is scheduled to open soon on Palmer Square West. Every once in a while an art gallery pops up, a temporary burst of retail energy for a month or so.
But just this fall Hulit’s Shoes at 142 Nassau Street announced it was going out of business after 88 years in town. “The online shopping is a huge factor,” owner Ryan Simone told the Princeton Packet’s Pam Hersh, who has bought shoes there for her kids and grandkids.
People have come into our store, gotten fitted, copied the serial numbers of what they liked, and in some cases sat in the store and ordered the shoes online for maybe less money, but minimally less. People also today want immediate gratification. Although we can order anything you want, people want it overnight — and we can’t do that.”
So what’s working, what’s not working, and what can be done to keep downtown Princeton a vibrant retail center, and not just a trail for power walks and social strolls?
To find out what’s working we gather some anecdotal information by walking into some stores on the busiest section of Nassau Street. At Landau’s at 102 Nassau Street, brothers Robert and Henry Landau run the store that has been in business more than 100 years and on Nassau Street for more than 60 years. That longevity comes with no guarantees. Nor does the steady stream of people on the sidewalk in front of Landau assure the store of continued success.
“The people who walk up and down Nassau Street on a weekend, or who come in from out of town on a tour bus,” says Robert Landau, “have no idea what a Landau is.” It’s a sharp contrast to the days when the people on Nassau Street were local families, shopping at a store owned by another local family. Now it’s a parade of strangers, and Landau cannot assume they will walk in. Instead he needs to meet them out on the sidewalk.
Landau points to the sidewalk surface outside his store. From the curb to a space about six feet away from his storefront the sidewalk is paved with concrete. But the six-foot section closest to his store is a darker macadam. That’s the space where the town permits outdoor displays, tables, sandwich signs, etc. that show pedestrians what’s being offered inside. Landau uses every inch of it.
“If you never have been here before Landau means nothing to you. You can look into the window and get some idea. Or you can walk in. Now we have added a third choice,” says Landau. “The sidewalk display shows people what we have inside the store. On days we can’t put merchandise outside, for whatever reason, our sales are down. There’s a direct correlation.
Consider it a chance to pet the merchandise — a fitting metaphor for Landau, since for many years the shop had a stuffed bighorn sheep outside the store that people literally did pet. When it was stolen it became a major news story. The merchandise outside slows people down. “If there’s hats out there people put them on, play with them,” says Landau. “If they come into the store we don’t ask if we can help you. We just say hi. If they have a hat we suggest they might want to try it on and see how it looks. The mirror is in the back of the store,” Landau says, which means that the potential customer gets a view of all sorts of other merchandise that’s available.
What might not be available is merchandise that can be readily purchased online. Says Landau: “Before we stock something we ask, ‘Can you buy this online?’ If so we won’t stock it.”
A few doors down the sidewalk in front of Labyrinth Books is chock full of carts loaded with books. “The sidewalk is our most valuable retail space,” says proprietor Dorothea von Moltke. “We put out the best of our discounted books and arrange them thematically by table. We move many tables full of high quality sale books in and out of the store every day. They make people stop and browse and draw them into the store from there. They also allow us to represent a very important aspect of Labyrinth, which is that we work hard to source quality discounted books for scholars and general readers alike. Customers discover on the sidewalk that we carry books that can be hard to find elsewhere often at great prices.”
The sidewalk displays introduce potential customers to parts of the inventory they might not expect at Labyrinth, which — as the official distributor of Princeton University textbooks — has an academic air to it. “For instance, we have two tables worth of kids’ sale books — our kids’ section is in the back of the store and the tables help advertise the fact that we carry children’s books. We have fiction tables, a history table, a philosophy table, a cook book table… you name it,” von Moltke says. “We also have a bargain book table with even steeper discounts, which people like to rummage through.”
The bargain books are “displayed spine-up, flea-market style,” she says. “All other books are stacked on the tables to make it easier to see at a glance what’s there.”
Around town you see other enterprising uses of spaces and engaging signs of retail life. While some may complain about sandwich boards and tables with diners sharing sidewalk space with pedestrians, such interactions are the hallmark of success in today’s retail environment. The harsh reality is that, if you want a retail center that can survive e-commerce, you will have a retail center that doesn’t look or feel like yesteryear’s.
“Commodity products have no business being sold on Main Street. You need to go elsewhere for kitty litter or laundry soap,” says Paco Underhill, a New York-based retail consultant who wrote the 2014 bestseller “Why We Buy — The Science of Shopping,” and who has used the term “petting the merchandise.” All those commodities are sold more efficiently online — even the big suburban shopping malls are hurting as a result. As Underhill says, residents may bemoan the loss of a favorite store and conclude that it means the death of their downtown, but the closing of a single store may not be a reflection of the viability of the downtown. “Even that favorite clothing store that left is probably a move related to supply chain management,” he says.
“What works,” Underhill says, “is a mix of local products or services, entertainment, and eating. Stores need to sell you things that you can’t get online or things that you have to see and interact with.”
By that measure lots of Princeton retailers are doing the right thing. Both running stores in town have sandwich boards outside announcing group runs that begin at the stores at various times during the week. Kathleen Morolda’s Cranbury Station Gallery at 39 Palmer Square West offers a “paint party” one Sunday afternoon. Inside a dozen budding artists (of all ages) apply acrylics to canvas.
A pop-up store at 69 Palmer Square West, Handcrafted Studio, was open through the end of October and will reopen November 20 through December 20. At that time Colombia-based artisan leathermaker Cesar Giraldo will offer classes on how he makes the bags, briefcases, and luggage.
The Garden Movie Theater does not just offer the mainstream movies you find at the Route 1 multiplexes. The non-profit that runs the theater also programs lectures in conjunction with film screenings and other live events. In an instance of creating an event that you would never find duplicated at a shopping mall, last month the Garden hosted a series of revamped Halloween classics, with live musical accompaniment. Adam Sterr played viola for “Carnival of Souls.” If his name sounds familiar it’s because he also busks outside the theater.
People attract more people. One recent fall afternoon a musician from Spotswood showed up downtown with a photographer and a ventriloquist’s dummy, dressed up in a costume that matched the musicians. Why? Because they were hoping to create a video of people dancing with the dummy for use on the musician’s website. And downtown Princeton, they figured, was a place to find people, particularly relatively uninhibited young people.
Window displays are still an effective way to engage passersby. Underhill says there has been “one terrific change” in window strategy. “It used to be that you would put as much stuff as possible into the window to show everything you had in your inventory. Now the windows are being used to tell a story or even tell a joke. You look at the window and it makes you smile.”
“How do we animate a small town downtown,” asks Underhill. “The chamber of commerce and government have to have a better sense of fun. There are so many reasons people want to congregate downtown, but government can’t be passive about it.”
Underhill says that one “21st century innovation” that works downtown is “mobile retail,” by which he means food trucks, not apps on smart phones. “But towns need to make it reasonably easy to gather in a public space like a parking lot. There are infrastructure issues that make it more or less difficult to transform from a parking lot to an event venue and vice versa.”
Von Moltke says that her store, Labyrinth, has a “good understanding” with the Zoning Board, which is in charge of the sidewalk space. “One of our perennial hopes,” she adds, “is that there be a bit of a lobbying effort to persuade the town to give free parking in the garages during the holiday season and/or on weekends. This would truly help to remove one of the hurdles in bringing customers into town…and back to town.”
Lots of merchants and residents have complained about the tour buses that descend on Princeton, tying up traffic and overloading restrooms. Princeton Tour Company founder Mimi Omiecinski points out that other tourist destinations charge tour buses parking fees. “There is an opportunity missed in terms of commerce,” Omiecinski says.
At Landau’s store, Robert Landau recalls a store he visited years ago in Manchester, Vermont. The Jelly Mill did “all the right things,” but remained a small but quaint store dating back to around 1900. Then the owner added bathrooms, and it suddenly became an attraction for the tour buses. More recently the owner sold out and retired. The store became an Orvis outlet store.
Maybe Princeton needs a public Johnny-on-the-Spot.