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Small urban retailers struggle to adapt to a changing landscape

Small urban retailers struggle to adapt to a changing landscape
Natty Boh Gear in Fells Point closed Dec. 31 after 10 years in business. Former owner Todd Unger says a drop in customer traffic prompted the closing. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

For years, customers found their way into the Natty Boh Gear shop in Fells Point — families heading to Orioles or Ravens games, tourists enjoying a day in the city, convention-goers who’d stop in for an “Utz Girl” or “Mr. Boh” T-shirt or glass.

“The city was just popping; it was the place to be,” said the store’s owner, Todd Unger.

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But in 2015, the year of Baltimore’s riots, the store’s sales plummeted 75 percent and never recovered. On New Year’s Eve, after a dozen years, Unger closed his doors for good. “We just dried up and no one wanted to come downtown, and it just was deemed unsafe,” Unger said.

The shuttering of Unger’s tiny, three-employee shop on Thames Street may seem unremarkable at a time when stores are closing by the thousands nationwide, driven by the rise of online shopping, shifting consumer spending patterns and retailers’ race to the bottom to compete on price. But urban merchants such as Unger, already fighting against big-box and online sellers, face yet another challenge: increasing crime in the city and perceptions of a lack of safety.

In neighborhoods in and around downtown Baltimore, at least a half-dozen recent closings have included small merchants and chain stores alike. Several said a drop in customer traffic influenced their decision to leave.

At the Inner Harbor, Urban Outfitters closed Jan. 7 at Harborplace, where an overhaul and changing retail mix at the Pratt Street Pavilion has been slower than expected. Michael Kors, located in The Gallery across Pratt Street from Harborplace, closed Dec. 31. Neither chain replied to requests for comment.

In Harbor East, Amaryllis Handcrafted Jewelry closed earlier this month, after opening a store last April in The Shops at Kenilworth in Towson. Other closings planned this month include Handbags in the City in Harbor East and the Fells Point location of Fire & Ice jewelry.

Sales at Amaryllis on Aliceanna Street fell the summer after the riots in 2015, said co-owner Allie Wolf.

“We thought that maybe we would have a little bit of a downturn as most businesses did, but … the following summer was even worse and it continued to get worse,” Wolf said.

Her mother started the business in 1986 in the now-demolished Owings Mills Mall. It moved to The Gallery in 1987, then to Harbor East in 2009.

Wolf said she has seen a drop-off in customers in town for meetings, conventions and vacations. She has noticed fewer of the patients and their families who would come from foreign countries to rent apartments in Harbor East while undergoing treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. National coverage of the riots and increases in crime in the city the next two years have kept people away, she believes. Asking patrons to pay for their parking hasn’t helped.

“People who didn’t really go to the city definitely are not going now. … It’s not just the perception of crime, it’s the reality of crime,” she said. “I’m a city person and I feel safe, but the violent crime is scary to me. … I feel sad about not having a store in the city. This is where I live.”

Instead, Wolf and business partner AnnaMarie Fiume are reinventing their nine-month-old Kenilworth store with the Harbor East store’s merchandise, jewelry cases, crystal chandeliers and gray, black and silver palette.

Unger said he tried to keep the Natty Boh Shop going.

“We thought we were going to be able to do it,” he said. “We hung through it, and said let’s just keep this train going, hopefully we can get out of here. It just didn't happen.”

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, discounted the impact of the rise in violent crime on the city’s retailers.

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“If this were only happening in Baltimore, I would say, yes, it’s a direct link to safety concerns, but this is happening nationally,” he said.

The store closings downtown reflect national trends, Fowler said. The rise of online shopping has triggered thousands of store closings in cities and suburbs alike, he said.

Evidence of those changing shopping patterns has shown up in newly built apartment buildings downtown, designed with large mailrooms and lockers to accommodate residents’ online purchase deliveries, he said.

“That is a tremendous change in how retail is addressed,” he said. “So there will be ramifications in Baltimore city and beyond.”

Store occupancy downtown at Lockwood Place, Harborplace, The Gallery, Harbor East and Harbor Point was 89.5 percent in 2016, according to the latest figures available from Downtown Partnership, and the rate likely dropped last year, Fowler said. Nationally, closures from major chain stores alone numbered 9,000 last year, according to Cushman & Wakefield. National closures are expected to jump to 11,000 this year, the firm said.

“Without question, the national retail industry is in complete flux,” Fowler said. “There is a serious question nationally about how retail that is tied to bricks and mortar will be able to compete.”

At aMuse Toys in Fells Point, a small business with a second store at Quarry Lake, co-owner Claudia Towles has had to think outside the box to keep and attract new customers. She schedules events and classes and co-founded a Fells Point District Instagram feed to promote neighborhood businesses. It has more than 15,000 followers.

Beyond steps shopkeepers can take, Towles said city and state leaders need to do more to promote independent businesses that allow neighborhoods to thrive and to counter perceptions that city retail is dying.

“We’re losing regional traffic and local traffic … that used to come down frequently for lunch and dinner, rooted in the perception that the city is an unsafe place to be,” Towles said. “We have a perception issue that is based in some fact, but it is not our entire reality. Fells Point has a great core of professional retailers that have been there for a long time.”

Jan Levine, owner of Fire & Ice jewelry stores, said she never saw the foot traffic she expected for her Fells Point shop, which opened in 2015. It will close later this month. She partly blames neighborhood construction projects and acknowledged her merchandise never seemed to be the right fit for the district.

But more than anything, she blames shifts in consumer buying habits, which led her to close mall stores in recent years as well. Business has been stronger, she said, at her remaining three stores, at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, National Harbor and Philadelphia International Airport.

“The industry has changed,” she said. “People don’t shop. They shop online or compare prices.”

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