The months immediately following COVID-19’s arrival in the United States felt like the beginning of retail Armageddon. With stores forced to temporarily shutter and shoppers required to stay at home, April 2020’s year-over-year sales plummeted by 27 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. Clothing stores—at least those that didn’t specialize in adult pajamas—were acutely hurt; sales of apparel and accessories nosedived from $63.7 million to $20.5 million over the same time period. “It was the hardest time I’ve ever seen,” says Grace Buttorff, the owner of Hailee Grace women’s boutique on Larimer Square. “But I never thought, I’m not going to make it.”
It’s a good thing she didn’t surrender, because while clothing sales have yet to rebound to their pre-pandemic heights, September 2020 reached about 80 percent of the prior year. (Total retail sales in Denver were nearly whole—but more on that later.) “I don’t think I’m going to be 100 percent this year,” Buttorff says, “but I think 65 percent is pretty damn good.” To rebound to even that mark, however, has required major changes across the industry—changes that may affect how we shop well into the future.
Change Number One: We’re Keeping It (Very) Casual
Why dress up when you have nowhere to go? “Apparel has been particularly hurt,” says Nick LeMasters, president and CEO of Cherry Creek North Business Improvement District, “because there are no galas, no formal occasions for buying fancy clothes…. When everyone is wearing PJs at home, there’s no reason for a ball gown.”
At least people are investing in new PJs. “Everything is loungewear and tie-dye,” Buttorff says. “I can’t get enough tie-dye in. They immediately fly off the rack.” PJs make sense, of course, with Denverites tapping into their inner homebodies. Is tie-dye an intuitive reaction to an otherwise gray and dreary 2020? “I don’t know,” Buttorff says. “It’s not my choice.”
Not that she has had many options—casual or formal—in 2020. California, where many retail boutiques nationwide source their wares, imposed strict restrictions after the initial COVID-19 outbreak, largely shuttering Los Angeles’ fashion industry. Buttorff had expected selections to broaden in the latter part of 2020, as the city reopened warehouses. But due to a surge of new cases in Los Angeles County, officials there instituted stay-at-home orders. Either way, whether neutrals or rainbow, “cozy is the way to go this year,” Buttorff says.
Change Number Two: We’re Pointing and Clicking
Remember when we said retail sales in September 2020 were nearly equal (94 percent) to what they were in September 2019? That’s largely due to “non-store retailers,” which is Department of Revenue–speak for Amazon and other online stores. Their total sales in Denver almost doubled, to $141 million, from September 2019 to September 2020.
Not being able to interact face-to-face with regulars has also affected how brick-and-mortar retailers reach their customers. Before the pandemic, Buttorff says about one percent of Hailee Grace’s revenue came through its website. After relaunching its website (increasing the share of the store’s inventory available on it from about 50 percent to around 90 percent) and adding a shop feature through Instagram, the boutique’s digital sales as a percentage of total sales rose to about 20 percent. “That being said,” Buttorff says, “it’s still more of a driver into the store.”
Cherry Creek North’s tenants also took to technology to maintain relationships with their clients. Perch, a Vail-based women’s clothing store with a location on East Third Avenue, began a program in which patrons could shop by texting a stylist. Fascination St. Fine Art created virtual art shows in hopes that collectors would still, well, collect. And Vineyard Wine Shop launched virtual weekly wine tastings in which the store’s buyer, who’s studying to become a sommelier, picks two to four vintages on Wednesday; customers then buy the wines at the store and convene at 5 p.m. on Saturday over Zoom to sample the selections. “I can’t say how many people have participated over the year,” says Charisse Miller, a Vineyard employee, “but this past Saturday there were 27 connections, with two people per call. So it’s been very popular.”
Change Number Three: We Need to Be Entertained
COVID-19 might have finally done what Spencer’s, Sears, and food court salmonella never could: kill off indoor malls. For proof, look no further than the shotgun merger between Simon Property Group, the country’s largest mall owner, and Taubman Realty Group, the owner of Cherry Creek Shopping Center. After the deal was announced, Simon tried to back out once COVID-19’s effects on Taubman’s business became clear; it’s now going forward (at a lower valuation) after the sides were ordered to mediation.
Buttorff and LeMasters believe, though, that places like Larimer Square and Cherry Creek North will remain popular because they’re open-air shopping areas, so customers don’t have to pack into an enclosed building to reach stores. “People feel safe because we’re outdoors,” LeMasters says.
In the event that fresher, less virus-y air isn’t enough to lure people away from their computers, retail districts have begun turning to attractions—beyond discount prices on tie-dye PJ pants—to elevate the shopping experience. Larimer Square, for example, expanded outdoor dining, erected pergolas, and planted greenery. “We have the same customers,” Buttorff says, “but now they’re coming to Larimer to see what they’re doing with the block.”
Similarly, Cherry Creek North started Live & Local Saturday, an outdoor concert series that ran from July to September, in which Colorado bands serenaded people outdoors as they swiped their credit cards. For the holiday shopping season, Cherry Creek North unveiled Winter Wanderland, featuring a 16-block light walk, an interactive art installation, and a new outdoor market. “There’s going to be an attraction,” LeMasters said weeks before Wanderland was announced, “that extends beyond dining and shopping that will create a new tradition in Denver.” Which is fine with us, as long as the pandemic that inspired it is a one-time-only event.