Is a flurry of store closings along Kings Highway symptomatic of underlying issues in the borough main street business district, or just a cyclical changeover?
By Matt Skoufalos | April 11, 2017
Historically, the Haddonfield downtown business district has been the standard against which other Main Street commercial shopping centers in South Jersey are measured.
Its broad sidewalks, colonial-era buildings, and revolving outdoor art displays have provided the foundation of a walking retail experience that the Partnership for Haddonfield (PfH), the town’s business improvement district (BID), has marketed successfully to prospective visitors and commercial tenants alike.
Even new real estate development—in Haddon Township, Cherry Hill, King of Prussia, and elsewhere—has pursued recreating artificially the kind of artificial, mixed-use boulevard that the town had enjoyed since its establishment in the 1700’s.
But for a town that is so far ahead of the curve as a shopping and strolling destination, Haddonfield has watched in recent years as fewer of its retailers are becoming generational tenants like bridal boutique Jay West and more are going the way of shorter-term storefronts.
At present, at least 10 shops in the center of the Kings Highway business district are either dark or closing permanently, leaving some of their neighbors to wonder at their own fortunes along the strip.
PfH retail recruiter Remi Fortunato, who operated her own cafe on Kings Highway for 12 years, said the downtown storefronts are subject to “an ebb and flow” that she described as cyclical and typical.
She suggested that a handful of simultaneous occurrences—retirements, planned exits, and multi-year leases that had hit their termination dates—are more to blame than anything else in today’s environment.
“This is Haddonfield,” Fortunato said.
“People are looking for it to be the Internet or the death of brick-and-mortar [retail], but I don’t feel that’s what it is now. These are just people that are changing and moving; personal circumstances.
“There’s a million reasons why people don’t make it,” she said. “Just because you open in Haddonfield, you still have to know your market; who your customer is. It’s unfortunate that it appears that it’s happening at the same time, but at the same time, it’s better that it’s happening in the springtime when we’re busy than in January when nobody’s looking [to lease].”
A few years ago, when some of the more established businesses were shuttering in Haddonfield, Fortunato said she “had great concern,” because “people literally weren’t making it.” By comparison, she said she’s now fielding property inquiries weekly, and feels like the borough business district is “adding new life,” with its first nanobrewery, Kings Road Brewing Company, and established Italian eatery Passariello’s expected by the fall.
“I think we’re at the edge of big things happening,” Fortunato said.
She pointed out that the borough shopping district has survived the openings of malls in Cherry Hill, Voorhees, and Moorestown.
In the intervening years, its newest retailers are more receptive of the idea of keeping later hours to attract evening shoppers and participating in town-wide programming.
But ultimately, Fortunato said, her job is only to recruit businesses that she thinks will be successful in town.
“We just try to get people to Haddonfield,” she said. “It’s not my job to keep them in business.”
Fortunato said rents and the conditions of storefronts vary from block to block, and a lot of Haddonfield landlords don’t lease properties on a square-footage price. Some are generational owners who only have to meet their tax obligations (which can hit several tens of thousands of dollars annually). Others bought their properties more recently and are facing higher mortgages as well.
“I don’t have any landlord that is fine with his property being empty,” Fortunato said. “They’re negotiable. A lot of our landlords do one and two-year leases, which is a nice way to try retail. I think they all want a tenant that is good for town.”
Some changeovers are already in the works.
The Owl’s Tale antique shop will yield its storefront to the eventual relocation of Villa Rosa, but that move will open up another large space on the avenue when it shuts down.
The timeline for other closings is less clear.
Harrison’s announced its shutdown and the impending sale of its building in February, as per the Courier-Post, but Fortunato said that deal remains “up in the air.”
The Little Shop, which closed in December 2016, had occupied 143 East Kings Highway for more than 60 years before owner Debbie Hagy closed it down to join Danique Martin’s Assemble. It remains vacant.
Farther up the block, beachwear boutique Fun in the Sun announced its plans to close a few months shy of its second anniversary. When The Paper Trail moved to 150 Kings Highway, handmade gift gallery Inka’s Hands assumed the lease on its storefront at 45 Kings Highway, but will not extend it.
Dhyana Yoga has a for-lease sign in its window at 53 Kings Highway, but the owner has not confirmed whether she will re-up or vacate the space, according to employees.
Jax Boutique and Sweet Japan will continue their operations in online-only formats.
The small jewelry storefront briefly occupied by Jeffrey Charles Design is available for just under $1,700 a month.
So who’s going in?
Fortunato said she will continue to target retailers that offer a unique shopping atmosphere and could fill the retail niches she sees as lacking in the central shopping district: shoes, children’s clothing, and high-end artisan gifts.
Part of the challenge often involves convincing already-successful business owners to take a chance on a second location.
“There’s a lot of ideas out there, but it’s just convincing someone that they can clone themselves and they want another [storefront],” she said.
After four years in Haddonfield, Jax Boutique owner Jamie Gorczynski decided to eliminate the overhead costs of a brick-and-mortar shop and go fully digital.
Even though it means downsizing some inventory and switching up some of the lines she carries, shaving the $2,800 per month for which her storefront will rent makes a big difference.
Gorczynski also said her audience is already mostly an electronic one anyway, including local shoppers.
“It’s a crazy business,” she said. “There’s a lot of factors. There’s a lot of competition online, and I feel like Haddonfield is very weather-dependent. Foot traffic gets slow when it’s really cold out, really rainy.”
Gorczynski was also heavily involved in the Partnership for Haddonfield during her stay in town, participating in its executive board and marketing committee. She believes she’s done as much as she could to improve the outlook for the downtown as a tenant and business owner.
“We had a great experience,” Gorczynski said. “I think [Haddonfield has] definitely taken steps in the right direction as far as branding ourselves, but there’s work to be done. Everyone’s really trying. I’ve had a great four years here.”
For Monika Harris, who will be shutting down Hanna’s Gourmet at the end of the month, a variety of factors led her to the decision to close. Already mother to a toddler, Harris is expecting her second child soon, and said she has had trouble finding reliable help for the shop. After three years, she’d also seen declining business and a steady rotation of new tenants at the property next door, which made it difficult to sustain continuity on the block.
“In the past three years, I changed my hours to be open when the shops around me are open,” Harris said. “My neighbors next to me are closed Monday and Tuesday; the one next to her is closed Monday and Tuesday. It’s tough to get anyone to this side of the street if I’m the only one open. The shops aren’t open late, so after people come to dinner, nothing’s open, so they head home. There’s no consistency among the shop owners.”
Harris also said participation in the BID among business owners is declining because many of the shop owners are frustrated with the town itself.
Whether having their marketing ideas shot down or being asked to further discount their products to participate in sales or promotional events, she said there is a level of disconnection among a segment of the business district and the committees that manage its governance.
To that feeling, she adds the daily pressure of solicitation for donations from local charities, organizations, and community groups whose members don’t otherwise patronize her business.
“I think there’s this preconceived idea of what Haddonfield is,” Harris said. “I moved into town after I opened my business. People love driving through town, but they don’t spend their money in town. All my neighbors still go to the Cherry Hill Mall. Even with the events in town, they don’t partake in the events.
“I can’t even tell you how many people come in, literally on the daily, asking for donations,” she said. “The events the town holds, they ask businesses to give discounts, and that’s costing them money. We have to pay employees to stay later. We’re putting out samples of our products to sell. I’m fortunate enough where I’ve had employees help me and I could afford them, but if you’re not getting local support, those are the people you really rely on.”
Harris said that if she weren’t pregnant, she would stay open and continue to seek out a reliable employee to help out at the shop. Her family will continue its 23-year-old spice wholesale business, but Harris said that, despite a loyal following, she wouldn’t go into retail again.
“At least 70 percent of my customers are reoccurring,” she said. “It’s not like I don’t have a community here.”
The Bistro at Haddonfield owner Nick Lavdas said it’s the downstream pressure of property taxes that hamstrings local business owners, and offered the opinion that the shopping district will continue to suffer from it unless it changes some structural issues.
Lavdas would like to see the borough either relax its restrictions on parking requirements or recruit high-end anchor tenants to drive the rents up to a rate that’s consistent with the tax rate.
“For my customer base and from talking to other people who would want to come into business in town, the biggest deterrent is the parking,” he said. “We need anchors, and in order to bring anchors, you need parking.”
The same Haddonfield demographics that are eye-popping for boutique retailers could also attract luxury brands like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, or Coach, which would in turn attract similar storefronts, Lavdas said. He theorizes that those retailers would push the shopping hours later, bringing in additional foot traffic throughout the district, and encouraging other storefronts to remain open later.
Another approach would be for property owners in the business district to add a second or third story to their buildings, adding a mixed-use component to the downtown and additional shopping volume. Something similar happened in the early 2000s when developers overhauled the Kings Court plaza with overhead condominiums. But for that to work, Lavdas said, building owners would again need some relief on parking constraints.
Creating ‘the Haddonfield experience’
Mitch Gorshin, who said his Trading Post business has grown in each of its three years since opening on Kings Highway, believes Haddonfield has a destination value that each retailer should embrace in order for the shopping district to thrive.
“When you choose to open up an outfit in Haddonfield, there’s another layer of personality that goes on top of your own brand,” Gorshin said.
“You’ve elected to participate in a small, Main Street, USA hometown that actually has equity in its town, even if people have never been here before. Part of the rental agreement you sign as a store operator should be that you’re going to participate in this thing we call Haddonfield.”
Gorshin, a former Disney imagineer and international brand developer, says the historic downtown has the opportunity to offer an immersive experience just by getting all the businesses on the same page. He believes the borough business district should have a brand standard and “somebody at the ‘Haddonfield experience’ helm.”
“You don’t have to bang nails [or] change the faces of buildings,” Gorshin said. “It’s the human component that we as store owners have as the face of the town. There’s a personality that has to happen across every store, to every person who comes in.
“When they walk into our world, we have their attention,” he said. “It takes people 13 seconds to make up their mind if they want to continue into the experience or not. They’ll walk into a store and in that timeframe, they’ll size you up. They’ll look at the lighting, the sound, and decide, ‘Do I want to be here?’ “If you’re a store here, you’ve got to dial it in.”
In short, Gorshin said, “what’s really sitting in front of people is that the name Haddonfield has a boatload of equity with people.”
Capturing its authentic hometown experience in order to capitalize on it is less easy to do—but if done correctly, offers a benefit to the community at large.
“If that happens, they eat here, they visit here, they get snacks here, they shop here; they do all that if that’s the feeling they get,” Gorshin said.
“For a robust and dynamic downtown space, you’re part of the Haddonfield theatrical performance that happens every day, and you have a role to play.
“The best compliment I ever heard from a guest at Disney is, ‘I don’t know what it is about this place. I just love it; the whole thing works,’” he said.
“And that’s what people should say about Haddonfield.”
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