Despite competition, plenty of room for boutiques in Old Town

Despite competition, plenty of room for boutiques in Old Town
(Derrick Perkins)

By Derrick Perkins

Old Town’s plethora of small specialty shops is well known, but the bevy of potential competitors didn’t deter Gale Curcio and Coddy Eyre from opening Bucket List Boutique just off of King Street in the fall.

“No [I wasn’t worried about the competition], because I think we have something really special,” Curcio said after opening the shop in September. “That’s what people have been telling us: We have a blend of old and new, and nobody else really has that. Either it’s all antiques or all shabby chic, and we really have a blend.”

And finding a speciality is pretty much the trick, said Jay Palermino of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. Focusing on a niche market helps boutique owners stand out from the crowd. It’s a proven path to success for many of Old Town’s specialty shops, he said.

“I think that we have seen a lot of very, very unique concepts come in where — in the beginning — people come in and say, ‘I don’t know how it can survive’ and then like Olio it takes off,” Palermino said, holding up King Street’s olive oil-themed shop as a success story. “[Bishop Boutique] is a good example of that … and even fibre space. Walk into any of those [shops], and all you see are shoes or all you see is yarn.”

Curcio and Eyre’s shop, overflowing with goods on several cramped levels, is a mix of knick-knacks, toys and home decor accessories. And they also are Alexandria’s sole retailers of several product lines, including Casart’s removable wallpaper.

Gale Curcio and Coddy Eyre are betting their shop caters to enough of a niche market to keep them from blending into Old Town’s bevy of boutiques. (Courtesy Photo)

The pair regularly changes up their product lines, hoping to entice new customers by reinventing the store every few weeks. They plan to begin selling an exclusive line of chalk and clay paint this month and offer how-to classes for customers in February.

The duo is betting the tactic will make their store a destination for shoppers.

“It’s very time consuming, but it’s actually very worth it [to change] up the inventory and making the shop look like new every single month,” Eyre said. “That’s our goal: make it brand new. … The motto is look up, look down and look twice around. There is so much for people to see.”

If they’re on the same wavelength as their potential patrons, the effort should prove fruitful. Finding a niche has translated into success for Old Town’s boutique owners, but they also need to know their market inside and out, said Bill Reagan, executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

“As a boutique they really want to be distinctive — that’s the nature of a boutique, it’s a unique type of store,” he said. “Focus on that target market and thoroughly understand who that target market is, what they want, how they want to reach them, what that brand is that they want to be known for. And once they have that brand defined then that drives the look and the feel of their establishment.”

Betting on boutiques

City officials have rolled out the red carpet for Old Town’s small business owners, especially those trying to get off the ground.

When Curcio and Eyre were looking for a location to open their shop — after renting space at the Mount Vernon Antique Center for years — they turned to the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership’s staff for help.

Not long after, they selected the former home of Mint Condition, which had expanded to a new location in Old Town, on South Royal Street and opened up shop.

Though it may seem like the neighborhood is inundated with boutiques, it wasn’t always the case, said AEDP’s Christina Mindrup. As recently as 2009, when Mindrup started with the partnership, the area was known for quick turnover and a high vacancy rate.

With the success of boutiques in recent years, national retailers have taken another look at Old Town. Large chains, like H&M and Anthropologie, and mom-and-pop shops play off one another to bring new customers to the neighborhood, Mindrup said,

“It is our opinion that having a select amount of national retailers helps boutiques do better,” she said. “That boutique store has something the national retailer does not have. The perception is that national retailers draw people to the neighborhood and help smaller boutiques. The perception is you need to offer something different than larger retailers. That’s the trick to boutiques.”

And to keep the ratio healthy, city officials provide plenty of support. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center offers help for navigating Old Town’s planning and zoning restrictions, securing loans, and other funding. It also teams boutique owners up with lawyers and market analysts.

“The city is really very interested in making sure its businesses are successful,” Reagan said. “All of our city departments are very sensitive to what they can do to really give the business an edge, to give them help.”

Destination shopping

While local boutiques may compete with one another for shoppers’ dollars, they end up supporting each other by turning Old Town into a one-stop shopping experience.

“They feed off of one another,” Mindrup said. “They feed off of the woman who is single or married looking to go to the Shoe Hive and might be having lunch at Fontaine.”

That symbiotic relationship is not lost on the neighborhood’s small business owners, many of who have banded together as part of the Old Town Boutique District. The group hosts joint events, like November’s Black Friday effort, which saw dozens of small stores open up extra early and offer once-a-year deals.

For potential boutique owners, Alexandria’s bevy of specialty shops acts as more of an allure than a deterrent, said Palermino.

“I would imagine a boutique coming into Alexandria does this as strategic positioning for their business growth. They’re coming into an environment that they believe is healthy, wealthy and wise,” he said. “Boutiques together become a destination. The more we have, the more folks will come into to Alexandria to shop, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that.”