There was a time when Ann Gitter wouldn't dream of relocating her popular women's wear boutique Knit Wit beyond Rittenhouse Square.
"I never felt like I could leave the hood," Gitter told me last Friday as shoppers milled through a drastically marked-down selection of high-end sportswear, Autumn Cashmere sweaters, Diane von Furstenberg dresses, and Citizens for Humanity jeans. It all had to go.
After the boutique spent five years on the 1700 block of Chestnut Street (and more than 40 years in various Center City locations that included two stints on Walnut), Gitter's landlord proposed to more than double her rent. Ironically, when Gitter was forced to leave Walnut Street because of skyrocketing rent, boosters hailed Chestnut Street as the new independent retailer hub. Now building proprietors on Chestnut Street can command as much — we're talking between $20,000 and $40,000 a month — as their Walnut Street counterparts. Because of it, independent retailers face an uncertain future.
So, fast-food chain Just Salad is planning to take over Knit Wit's 2,200-square-foot space this spring. And that has left Gitter busy scouring blocks in Midtown Village -- east of Broad and Spruce Streets -- for a suitable new home. She's even considering moving to University City.
"There is so much more beyond the four-block radius from Broad to 18th and between Chestnut and Walnut," Gitter said, referring to the residential developments sprouting up around town.
Knit Wit's change of address isn't the only sign that independent retailers need to rethink their survival. Gitter, who has co-owned Knit Wit locations in Center City, Bryn Mawr, and Margate for more than 50 years with partners Bob Brandt and Donnie Davidow, is considering partnering with other established retailers.
Gitter said she'd love to join forces with another Philly-centric fashion or home goods retailer -- perhaps a florist or coffee shop? -- to split the cost of business. The new store, she said, could be a Philadelphia version of Fred Segal, the L.A.-based boutique with a regular mix of new merchandise as tenants cycle in and out.
"The time for adopting a shared-space concept has really come for independent retailers in Philadelphia," Gitter said. "We can no longer bear the brunt of the entire cost. ... I don't need a lot, but I don't want to work for my landlord, either."
Independent retailers across the country, particularly those in the fashion space, have been having a tough time for several years now. Online shopping and binge-TV watching is partly to blame.
But in Center City, specialty store owners have their own unique set of issues. Runway-chic brands like BCBG and Ralph Lauren closed their posh Walnut Street stores (so some fashion cachet was lost), and in their place, brick-and-mortar destinations of brands once carried exclusively by specialty stores — think Vince, Theory, and Rag & Bone -- are now part of the competition.
Casual, dual-purpose, athletic-inspired fashion brands, like Under Armour and New Balance as well as Lululemon and Athleta, are hurting boutiques, too, as athleisure styles have been a popular staple at independents. And the discount big-box retailers -- Nordstrom Rack, Bloomingdale's Outlet, and even Target -- have been, well, undercutting everybody.
"It wasn't like this five years ago," Gitter said.
All of this, coupled with the general uncertainty haunting retail markets since the presidential election, is driving many local specialty store owners to get creative.
Recently, Mona Lisa Jackson, the owner of cute lingerie boutique Coeur, began looking for a specialty retailer with which to partner. The idea, Jackson said, would be to help a clothier become a one-stop shop. After all, fashion is nothing without the proper foundation garments.
This week, to drum up business, Jackson marked down the majority of her pajamas and bras up to 75 percent.
After moving her women's wear boutique Shop Sixty Five from Doylestown to 20th and Walnut Streets a little over a year ago, Linda LaRosa moved again in September to 17th and Sansom (the former location for Plage Tahiti, also Gitter's).
With the higher foot traffic came a higher rent, so to subsidize her costs, LaRosa started offering her loft space to local designers on a short-term basis. Last week, it was Bela Shehu selling her Ninobrand collection.
Pamela Katz closed First Impressions in Lafayette Hill last February after she came to grips with the change in her core customers' shopping habits, which for her, meant they bought their designer clothes online. Next month, Katz will join forces with Artur Kirsh, one of the Main Line's most seasoned salon owners, and open a gift store she's named ATF (All Things Fabulous) in Kirsh's new Manayunk location.