Downtown Collingswood is seeing an outgrowth of new boutiques centered on home decor. Is furniture the new retail companion to Restaurant Row?
By Matt Skoufalos
In the 1970’s, small-town business districts faced bulk pricing and inventory competition from larger shopping centers. Today, they face the same challenges from the Internet.
Experiential retail has become a popular antidote to those customer attitudes, and many businesses are generating additional revenues with in-house services or custom orders.
But the latest wave of boutiques is being built around harder-to-find products that shoppers prefer to browse in person.
Betting on a the strength of home decor in Collingswood, a community with a strong rental base, a handful of home furnishing shops is joining the established art galleries on Haddon Avenue. Could the answer to keeping some of the town’s dining traffic around past mealtime lie in offering a high-quality couch?
“It looks that way,” said Collingswood Mayor James Maley. “It’s another step in the growth of the [downtown]retail [business].
“The stores you’re seeing open up, it’s the stuff you want to touch and feel and see,” Maley said.
“A lot of times, retail is dynamic,” said Cassandra Duffey, Collingswood Director of Community Development.
“It isn’t what it was 20 years ago,” she said. “It can be harder to make it. Businesses that offer art [and]eclectic antiques have a lot of staying power.”
Customers who want the experience of browsing antiques and home furnishings will take a day trip to places like New Hope and Chestnut Hill because “people who look for that kind of thing shop in clusters,” Duffey said. If Collingswood can cultivate a reputation as a home retail destination, she believes it will provide an expanded downtown experience for shoppers and diners.
‘Catching the Pinterest trend’
The latest entrepreneurs to test those waters are Lauren Sathmary and Luanne Mulvenna of Medford, whose shop, Distinctive Décor and More, celebrated its grand opening last week.
Sathmary said their inventory comprises accent furniture with an “industrial-vintage vibe” and a mix of materials—pieces she says are comparable in style to products found at Restoration Hardware or Our House, “but significantly less expensive.” The store will also feature original, local artwork; at opening, the collages of artist Al Di Lauro filled the showroom.
“We hope those aesthetics will appeal to Collingswood,” Mulvenna said. “Our objective is to be different from the mass-produced furniture. To us, that’s not really interesting.”
The storefront itself is certainly interesting, situated in the historic former box office of the Collingswood Theater (in which tattoo artist Jeff Miller had sought to open a studio). While location-shopping, both Mulvenna and Sathmary had originally considered Medford and Hammonton. Eventually, they settled on Collingswood, Mulvenna said, because “the support you get from the community is superior.”
A little farther down Haddon Avenue, Cindy Schreiber and Lori Fischer’s boutique, Clutter, is following the scent of a similar trail.
Fischer, who’s lived in Collingswood for six years, said she’s seen the borough downtown stabilize in the past few years. She believes shops like hers and Mulvenna’s provide complementary rather than competitive business to the Collingswood shopping district.
“Our focus is on people being able to take something unique and put it into their home so their living room is different from everyone else’s,” said Fischer, who brings a background in home staging and a decorator’s touch to her shop.
Fischer says shops like hers are “catching the Pinterest trend” of design: helping people decorate their homes with ideas that they see online “and don’t know if they can execute.
“They can come here and pick something up, get started, and add to it,” she said. “When they come next week, we’ll have more different stuff.”
At the counter, Nancy Erasmus of Erial was picking up a pair of antique spools. Erasmus, who said she likes to sew, confessed that she was doing a bit of pre-vacation antiquing ahead of a trip to Maryland next week.
“I have a lot of collections,” she said. “I will definitely be checking back here to see her inventory.”
More’s the merrier
Reed Orem, whose mid-century furniture shop, Dig This, is in its third year of operation in the borough, expects his new neighbors to add to the community fabric of the Collingswood downtown.
“It’s good for that type of shopper to have multiple places to roll through and compare and get design ideas,” Orem said. “If we could get one or two more, that would help more.”
Orem said his neighbor, Valerie Boothroyd of The Painted Cottage furniture store, “led the way” for Collingswood to become a home furnishings haven.
“That’s what helps us become a destination,” he said; “multiple places to shop. Unless they’re selling the exact same thing, it’s not going to hurt. It’s going to help.”
Taking a page from Boothroyd’s book, Orem recently began expanding his vintage furniture inventory with live-edge wood tables and custom upholstered pieces that he makes in-house. He said his originals are selling well among shoppers for whom the work of a name-brand designer may be too expensive.
“Stylistically, it fits in the mid-century period,” he said. “It’s an iconic look [that]adds character.”
Those services are just part of the personal touch that Orem prides himself on delivering. Whether remembering his patrons’ prior purchases and suggesting complementary items, or making delivery arrangements, it’s all part of helping the borough generate repeat business.
The Collingswood restaurant scene adds foot traffic to the mix, Orem said, and even if diners are only there to window-shop, they may remember his store for their next purchase. If they don’t even remember his store specifically, they may recollect the borough as a place for one-of-a-kind finds.
“We’re part of the circle of shoppers looking for chairs, sofas; a focal point that you start a room with.”
But as bullish as he is on the opportunities of clustered specialty retail in Collingswood, Orem says it’s critical for business owners to practice sound business strategies, which include generating their own buzz.
“We still have to work the Internet and any form of social media that will allow us to advertise our business,” he said. “I don’t think brick-and-mortar alone will do it.”