07 Oct 2010

In Defense of the Gap (and other thoughts on our local retail exodus)

Originally Uploaded to flickr by FoxyPar4

This week’s earlier post on the closing of Chateau Animaux reminded me again of this post from DCist from September 11, 2007 reporting the rumor that a Gap might be coming to Barracks Row.

Obviously, that never happened. The DCist post had several positions for and against which all ring pretty hollow looking at the shocking demise of retail on Barracks Row. As things currently stand, that idea that we’d become another Georgetown seems, at this point, to be laughable.

The claim that we don’t want chains in the neighborhood lest it become bland and suburban and boring and whatever else is, frankly, crap. Two Starbucks manage to do just fine in the neighborhood (three, if you count the one in the chain grocery store, Safeway).  I have yet to meet a neighbor who wouldn’t love to have a Trader Joe’s and/or a Whole Foods in the neighborhood.

Me? I wish we’d have gotten a Gap. Throw in a Barnes & Noble, too. Because those stores could provide retail anchors that our neighborhood is lacking. If I need a pair of jeans, I’m stuck going to Pentagon City (cringe) or buying online and hoping for the best. If there were a Gap on Barracks Row, I’d swing by for jeans, and since I was there anyway, hit whatever shops were nearby while I was there.

Many people have brought up King Street in Old Town as a perfect example of the retail mix we should be striving for. I agree with that. I used to work in Old Town and miss having access to so much diverse retail every day. The chains didn’t hurt their local businesses; instead, I’d argue, they helped them thrive.

I try to shop local when I can — Frager’s before Home Depot, Metro Mutts before Petsmart, Peregrine before Starbucks, Hill’s Kitchen before Sur la Table etc. But there are no locally made jeans  — or even a local retailer who sells jeans. (Does Forecast? I don’t think I’ve ever seen jeans in there…) Our local stores need to fill needs — which I’d argue that many of the ones closing, do not. Sweet Magnolia? I liked it a lot, but how much busy, gifty stuff does one really buy? Chateau? I stopped shopping there in favor of another, better local option. Trover shop? Yeah, sorry — they never had anything I wanted.

Keeping chains away isn’t a solution. In fact, I would argue that saying yes to one or two (and actively working to attract them) would benefit our local retailers. Because I’m not going out of my way to stop into Sweet Magnolia, but if I was next door buying socks and a t-shirt anyway, I’d definitely stop in and maybe buy a cherub or two.

But as it stands now, I not only leave the Hill, but I’m leaving DC to buy things that I need, and if I see something I want along the way — it’s a VA business that’s getting those dollars. I want to Buy Local, but our local retailers need to give me a reason to do so, and we have to be more welcoming to select chains that can fill a need that our local retailers can’t.

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32 responses to “In Defense of the Gap (and other thoughts on our local retail exodus)”

  1. Trulee Pist says:

    Nicole, your point about an anchor store is so very true.

    The local ANC-6B set up a “retail mix” committee, initially headed by Commissioner Kenan Jarboe, now headed by Commissioner Norm Metzger.

    You should attend their meetings and offer your ideas to them….oh, wait. The retail mix committee has NEVER met.

  2. whoa_now says:

    Lets put it to a vote..everyone list the chain you would most like to see around Eastern Mkt/Barrack Row.

    I’d suggest Outdoor Clothing Store like Blue Ridge Mountain Sports/North Face/Patagonia..but I realize that probably wouldn’t work..so I’d suggest something that hopefully would generate more traffic: World Market.

    They would have to shuffle some stuff to make it work, lose much of thier larger furniture, but if they could grab two neighboring vacant buildings …I’d go there.

  3. @whoa_now guess what this week’s Reader Poll is? Look for it at 1:30!

  4. LP says:

    well put nichole!

  5. Truth be told, my dream chain would be REI. Obviously not going to happen on Barracks Row, but maybe Reservation 13? A girl can dream…

  6. lou says:

    A runners’ specialty store. REI would be fab too. 10,000 Villages (speaking of Alexandria) would be cool.

  7. Matt says:

    It is a nice thought that maybe a Gap or large corporate owned store would make us all happy on Barracks Row. Fact is there are no retail spaces large enough for such. Second is the high rent that is being charged may not make business work of such. Third the demographics of the neighborhood would not support such at this time. It sounds nice for such space but do you know how many sizes of jeans you need to stock to make all happy? Your local retailers are all having ruff times now due the economy and tight money. Not all retailers have deep pockets, Mom & Dads money or a partner to keep dumping money in the business to use. Reality will set in for some in the future. There are many in the hood that are happy to support every new restaurant, bar coffee shop and probably have never been in some of the retail establishments on the Hill for whatever reason. If you have a Gap or REI on the street how often will you be buying a pair of jeans or jacket? Every week? You better add on another closet. After reading some of the comments in other post this week it is amazing how fast everyone can post a nasty message about a business when they are down on there times. We need to support our local businesses more then we do. Some of us can keep dreaming for whatever it may be.

  8. @Matt – how am I supposed to support a local business that doesn’t sell stuff I need? I know for a fact that I don’t need anything that Sweet Magnolia sells, so I’m not even going out of my way to stop in there. However, if it were next to say, a Gap (which, I’ve seen on many streets across the country just like Barracks Row; it is possible to make it work) I would be more likely to stop in and check out what’s there.

    I won’t buy local just for the sake of doing so, though. I encourage my mommy friends to check out Dawn Price and Monkeys’ Uncle, but as a single childless person, I’m not going to start stockpiling onesies just to support a local business.

    People need clothes and shoes; the Gap is a midpriced retailer who can offer that. I may only buy one pair of jeans this week/month/year, but my neighbor is also going to need jeans etc.

    If you think the demographics of the Hill can’t support a Gap – which sells stuff that we all need – then how the hell is it supposed to support a Sweet Magnolia or a Chateau? The people going out to eat at Matchbox and Cava are buying their clothes somewhere – why shouldn’t it be here?

  9. Matt says:

    Nichole, you seem to be making this a personal thing. It is about the Hill and not only you. We are free to post our comments and we will not always agree with each other. There is a reason none of the large stores we are referring to are not here as of now. The numbers don’t work. Maybe when the Hines school is completed in 2020 or whenever they will locate there if the numbers work for them. There are many stores I don’t shop from as well because I don’t have a need for what they offer. Nobody is asking YOU Nichole to shop for items not needed. This is for the Hill in general and not only you. I wish the Hill had more to offer as well but the numbers don’t add up as of now. Sorry your nerves are ruffled.

  10. Jon says:

    What chains should come to Barracks Row? Cinnabon, J&R Cigars, and Fredericks of Hollywood.

    Ok, just kidding. Seriously, the Hill has most of the necessities of life covered, but it would of course be nice not to have to leave the Hill when one wants to shop for something less common or frequent. Clothing stores in general are something the neighborhood lacks.

  11. Matt, you couldn’t be more wrong. This isn’t just about me b/c I am not the only person who would like to see more and better retail. You are the one whose feelings were hurt that people were posting “nasty” messages about businesses who fell on hard times. You are the one who said we need to support our local businesses more than we do.

    The Hill – in general – needs more retail. That is an undisputed fact. Whether it’s the Gap (which, by the way, wouldn’t be for me anyway, since I don’t actually ever shop at the Gap, but that’s not the point) or something else – we need more than what we have.

  12. Matt says:

    as I stated above!

  13. Matt, the beauty of having ones own blog is that I, along with our other writers, get to use it as a forum to state our opinions and beliefs. If it offends your delicate sensibilities, you don’t have to read or comment.

  14. Matt says:

    as I stated before.
    We are free to post our comments and we will not always agree with each other. I didn’t realize this was a yes we agree with everything blog. It is good to have a discussion and not take everything so personal!

  15. Matt, for the last time, the only thing I’m taking personally are your comments about my motivations which are baseless and factually incorrect. Why the hell would I take it personally? I don’t own a business on the Hill and am advocating for a business that I don’t actually shop at – what on earth could be personal? I don’t agree with you that our neighborhood can’t support something like the Gap and I don’t agree that we should support local businesses just b/c they’re local (I don’t shop at Fairy Godmother or Groovy, but instead choose to shop at Why Not? in Old Town because it is a better store).

    You’re free to comment as long as you stay on topic. I’m done arguing with you b/c your position is based on inaccurate assumptions.

    Although, I do wonder… are you a Hill business owner? If so, which business?

  16. Trulee Pist says:

    Both Fairy Godmother and Groovy each kick Why Not?’s butt.

  17. jmt321 says:

    My suggestion…open a boxing ring so Matt and Nichole can have at each other someplace in the real world…you know, that place where buying online with free shipping, both ways, is much cheaper then traditional brick and mortor. Maybe clothing retailors can learn a thing from the food truck phenom.

  18. HillGuy says:

    Wow. Matt, I think maybe you should take a step back and look at all of this. It sounds to me like for some reason you have some set of blinders on and are not able to see the overarching point the writer is trying to make.

    When I read this post, I found myself agreeing almost completely and not because I would personally be going to buy a pair of jeans from a GAP if it existed here (although I definitely would), but because it is these kinds of anchor stores that fulfill the retail necessities for residents. And as she says, if one can get what he/she NEEDS on the Hill rather than going to another part of the city – or worse Virginia or Maryland, then that person is definitely more likely to purchase other non-essentials here as well.

    I mean, I love Hill’s Kitchen. And I make it a point to go and buy things from Hill’s Kitchen not because I’m a great cook or anything but because I want to support our small businesses–the commercial/residential combo is a large part of why I moved here. I do the same thing with our other small businesses – buy onesies from DPB for baby showers, toys from Groovy for birthday parties etc. And I personally pay more for these things because I know I’m trying to do my part to help support these businesses. But let’s be honest about this. Given the economy, the rising market values of housing etc, not everyone has the luxury of paying 15% more for a toy from Groovy than they would pay at Toys R Us — or online. And with rising commercial assessments, landlords are asking for rents that are just not achievable by small fledgling retailers — especially when the retail concentration starts to decline as it has on 8th Street.

    Look at 7th Street by the Market. It’s the flip flop of 8th Street. You have a concentration of retail that is complemented by restaurants/food offerings. So people will go out with the intention of shopping and are likely to patronize an eating establishment while they’re there.

    I somewhat doubt that a large amount of people go out to dine on Barracks Row and then are suddenly hit with the urge to seek out the few retail options left on the street. But the concentration issue is not the only thing.

    The fact is that in general, when people need to make purchases that are not available here — and yes, clothes are an excellent example — then they are likely to head to the burbs to do just that. And the thought becomes ok, well while I’m here, I might as well pick up a toy for the birthday party and a onesie for the baby shower–since I can do all of that right here because of the concentrated nature of the retail.

    BUT, if those necessities WERE available here on the Hill – and offered within the affordability of, say, the GAP then yes – folks – myself included – will be much more likely to make the other non-essential purchases here as well–because it’s easy, I’m already here, and I don’t want to get in the car to go save $2 on a greeting card.

    I don’t think anyone in this neighborhood wants to have a strip mall chain store situation here. And I do think our community is trying its best to support local businesses as much as possible. But in this economic environment and real estate market – especially on Barracks Row, that’s a lot of toys, cards, and gifts you have to sell in order to pay the rent, let alone the taxes–especially in a void of other retail options.

    There are plenty of examples of how a well-thought-out mix of chain and independent retailers can coexist and become one another’s beneficiaries. People have said it numerous times – Old Town is a great example. There is a GAP and various other chain offerings alongside independent retailers and I don’t think anyone would say the Old Town isn’t quaint, livable, and most importantly — continuing to thrive.

    And I too would like to see these demographics that show that the Hill cannot support a GAP. That seems ludicrous to me, especially in the face of all of the other independent retailers that sell non-essential items like greeting cards and calendars and still manage to stay afloat here.

    People on Capitol Hill are buying their jeans, clothes, socks, winter jackets somewhere. And it’s not on Capitol Hill. So if we can support the GAP in Old Town then why couldn’t we support a GAP here in our own neighborhood. Just doesn’t make sense.

    And just as clarification – I’m not saying this as a slam on the businesses who sell non-essential items. Only saying that working toward attracting retailers that DO sell essential items to operate alongside specialty retail will only help to support those that specialize in non-essential items.

    And I should add — I’ve been to plenty of small GAPS – and seen plenty of places where two spaces are combined into one to make a larger footprint. It’s not out of the realm of possiblity. The issue of retail on Barracks Row is not about the size of the footprints available and it’s not about the community not being willing to support retailers. It’s about not having enough concentration for retailers to thrive as much as they need to in order to afford the rents, taxes, let alone overhead and inventory.

    If you don’t agree with the article or the commenters or me or whoever, you don’t agree. But you don’t have to become so defensive and make it out as though anyone is attacking you when they’re not. We are all in this together and my take away from this post and its comments is that this community by and large has a vested interest in our commercal areas being as successful as they can. No one is saying we want to close Homebody and replace it with a Target. What is being said is that bringing in an anchor or two could help ensure the survival of homebody and groovy and what few retailers have been able to stay open.

  19. Matt says:

    Thanks Nichole, I rest my point, not even you will support local businesses as you stated above. I welcome you to open a business that the Hill needs since you have all of the info and maybe the Hill residents will support your dreams. The End!

  20. As I stated, I won’t shop local just for the sake of it. If the stores don’t have what I want or need, or the service is shoddy, I’m going elsewhere. In my experience, Why Not? is a better store, so I go there. Sorry that hurts your feelings.

    Of course, you still haven’t told us which store you own…

  21. JEEEZE says:

    I don’t want to get in the middle or make this dabate go on any longer, but it really seems like Matt is drawing conclusions that aren’t really fair. I thik Nicole was simply saying that she (like many) are not going to support local business just to support local business. But that doesnt meen that overall she doesnt support any local business. I think the point is that no one is just going to stock up on cards from a specialty card shop solely to say they support local businesses. People will support the businesses that sell/offer the things they need and want. And if you put anchor places that specialize in what people want/need then people will be more likely to grab that card or fancy pen or apron or whatever locally because they will find themselves physically near these indpenendent retailers. Can you really expect a business to survive on a model that is based on people buying what they sell –no matter what it is and no matter whether they need it or not — JUST because they’re local? I just don’t understand why you are being so nasty to the writer and drawing these conclusions. Maybe you should open a business on the Hill selling non-essential items and then let us know how well that goes instead of beating up on someone whose intent-i think- from the beginning was to offer an opinon on how to HELP local busnesses.

  22. ET says:

    HillGuy – I don’t think it’s that the demographics don’t match up with stores like the gap, but the foot traffic likely won’t be enough.

    There was a cute clothing boutique for women on 8th a few years ago and it didn’t make it. Granted one of the reasons is that it was selling only to one gender and a small age group demographic but the it didn’t have enough of the right customers to keep it viable. The right customer base may be the Hill but are the numbers?

  23. Suza says:

    Although not technically on the Hill, we do have chain retail shops at Union Station. No one’s mentioned them yet in these comments, which I think shows how much they are overlooked.

    Aside from Trader Joe’s (of course), what I’d really like to see is something more like a retail/dining/event combination like Busboys & Poets. Peregrine and Port City are great for what they are, but I’d like a place I could go for coffee and brunch OR bring my laptop and work OR meet friends for drinks OR shop for books OR see local events. Something like that would definitely keep me on the Hill.

  24. whoa_now says:

    I think Matt’s main point is that the Hill doesn’t have enough people to support “the Gap” like stores..and that peeps should shop local when they can…

    I think his main point fails the logic test. 1), If stores like Monkey’s Uncle or Hill’s Kitchen can make it selling a specific sort of good- a store that is larger, that sells something that everyone needs (not a small subset like baby clothes, cooking equip), and needs often, like clothes then I think it would do well. 2) No one is going to shop local if they A) don’t need the product. B) Can get the product with better service/cost somewhere else. Improve service, improve cost.

    I will continue to shop local..when I can and want. Some stores that I think would work
    1) World Mkt foods from around the world/wine/furniture/nicnacs/etc
    2) crate/barrel-housing stuff
    3) jcrew/gap-clothes


  25. Caroline says:

    I agree with HillGuy and Nichole. I posted a long comment on Prince of Petworth’s post about the Chateau Animaux closing, in which I observed that it’s hard for retail to survive on the Hill since Virginia (with its plethora of chain stores) is so accessible from here. In the case of Chateau Animaux, it’s understandable that a pet-owning Hill resident would prefer to go to the larger, cheaper Petsmart that’s a 10-minute drive away, especially since they can hit up the Old Navy while they’re at it. However, if the Old Navy were located on the Hill alongside Chateau Animaux, they may be more likely to patronize the local pet store since they’d have less to gain from going out to VA.

    Ultimately a small retail business needs to do some solid research before opening on the Hill. They need to honestly ask themselves, what am I providing that the chains can’t? And, would the convenience of our location outweigh the higher prices that a typical consumer would have to pay for our products and/or services?

    The stores that have survived on the Hill have survived not because residents felt an obligation to patronize a local business, but because they were offering something you can’t easily get at a chain– whether that be unique items, quality reliable products, or knowledgeable and helpful staff.

  26. Kim says:

    I’m in agreement with Nichole’s original piece and with her comments here. As Nichole has stated, a few anchor stores will draw more people to the area and help existing local businesses thrive as well as make it easier for new local businesses to operate successfully. Bringing up locally owned stores that failed makes no sense because chains (such as Gap) have the resources to put more time into a store before ultimately deciding whether or not the store will be successful.

    I think something like Gap or a running store (possibly City Sports) would do well in the area.

  27. Barbara Riehle says:

    Wow, what a lot of passion about the retail mix on 8th Street. At the September ANC meeting thanks to a questions asked by the former ANC6A chair, it was announced that citizens may serve on ANC committees. Several months ago, ANC6B created a special committee on the retail mix on 8th Street. I don’t think the committee actually has met yet, but if you care about this, why not ask to serve?

    For my part, I’d like to be able to buy clothes, shoes, books, and cosmetics. It also would be nice not to trek all the way to Friendship Heights for a routine blood test.


  28. ym says:

    On the subject of blood tests, it would be nice if we had a general doctor or two that were accepting new patients. After 5 years of searching in and around the Hill with no luck, I expanded my radius and finally found a doctor in Alexandria. It sucks having to go out there when I’m sick but it’s the closest I could get.

  29. ar says:

    Interesting topic! A critical point I wish someone was making as the argument bounces between support local and go big chains is that in a strictly analytical sense what’s best for the neighborhood is that which will support our property values.

    A truly thriving Baracks Row (and consequently Eastern Market neighborhood) just can’t be supported by residents’ spending. It depends on visitor dollars as well as neighborhood dollars, and charm and destination shopping/restaurants bring in visitor dollars.

    There are Gaps all over the DC metro area, why would people bother going to one on 8th? Same goes for Trader Joe’s and Target. Plus they don’t attract browsers and foot traffic – ever feel an urge to peek into the window at Trader Joe’s? And they send their sales revenue straight out of the District to the home office. And they are the first to trigger a bump in rents, and the first to hightail it out of town at the merest hint profits are down.

    Unique spots that also sell things people want to buy (sorry Sweet Magnolia, but here’s where you fall into the untenable category) make for Fairfax etc. residents coming into the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon, strolling with a $5 Peregrine latte, shopping our boutiques, and having a moderately expensive sit-down dinner before heading back to the big box ‘burbs.

    If we want a neighborhood that serves the residents and doesn’t shutter up every time there’s a dip in the economy, we need stuff that will establish Barracks Row as a an attractive local destination. Take a look at Hill’s Kitchen, and regardless of your philosphy about shopping local vs. cheaper big box, you can’t deny that the shop is appealing and unique, and always packed on the weekends. More of that and there will be lots more money spent on Barracks Row, which in turn means a lot more interesting shops trying to locate in our ‘hood. We need to encourage them to do so, not put them out of business because Target’s down the street and sells a cheep plastic knockoff of whatever you’re looking for.

    As a kid I watched the small town my grandparents lived in – where they owned the local hardware store that like every other shop on Main Street served only the local residents – shutter up and practically die when the economy dipped. Twenty five years later and it’s still a ghost town.

    Shops that cater only to locals don’t prevent ghost towns, regardless of whether a mom and pop or mega corporation own them.

  30. Trulee Pist says:

    This has been a good discussion on all sides. Now do something about it!

    ANC-6B meets this Tuesday, October 12, at 7 pm at The People’s Church (535 8th Street, SE). The first item on the agenda is “Community Speakout,” giving anyone in attendance 3 minutes to talk on any topic.

    Commissioner Kenan Jarboe was chair of the Retail Mix committee for the past year, and he never called a meeting. Now Commissioner Norm Metzger is chair of that hard charging Retail Mix committee.

    Come to the ANC meeting Tuesday, stand up during the Community Speak Out, ask Jarboe and Metzger why the Retail Mix committee has been so moribund during this dire period for retail in the neighborhood, give them your ideas about what you are looking for in terms of retail, and if you feel so moved, become a citizen member of ANC-6B’s Retail Mix Committee!

  31. Erin says:

    I have no idea if our neighborhood can support a Gap or not. What I do know is it’s not as simple as plopping a Gap or an Old Navy or an H&M or whatever in the middle of 8th Street. I don’t oppose the idea of any one of them, per se, but if 8th Street is going to be a commerical shopping area, it’s not going to be because one chain opens on that block. That’s just basic development planning. A grocery store sure. A development down on Res 13, yes. But 8th street just isn’t big enough to become a Georgetown or an Old Town alternative. And so if you have a single Gap, or whatever, in the neighborhood, it’s not going to be a destination.

  32. Jenn Bussell says:

    The issue why there are no apparel retailers for men or women on Barracks Row is cost and the greed of local property owners / landlords.

    I wrote a business plan for a small mens’ & womens’ boutique earlier this year and called the realtors/owners/landlords of the many of vacant commercial spaces on Barracks Row.

    They are looking for unrealistic rents and are unwilling to work with start-up, independent retailers.

    As someone who sees a need and wants to fill it by giving Capitol Hill style seekers a place to shop without leaving the neighborhood, or the city, it’s frustrating that the only apparel retailers that have a shot of getting onto Barracks Row are the big chains.

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