COLUMBIA — Look to the runways this fall, and you’ll see brightly colored wool coats, leather bags, dresses and touches of gold. Look to the storefronts in downtown Columbia, and the fashion shows are brought to life.
Within the past two years, five boutiques have opened downtown. These shops — three of which are owned by women in their twenties — are targeting what the owners felt was an overlooked demographic in Columbia: young women and professionals.
“They’re women who have been frustrated with stores in Columbia and recognized a huge gap in the market,” said Carrie Gartner, director of the Columbia Special Business District.
Gartner said the sudden growth in boutiques makes sense; Columbia’s bargain market for clothing is saturated. And, aside from chains like GAP and Old Navy, shoppers have lacked trendy clothing options, she said.
The newer boutiques fill a void and keep women, who would normally travel to St. Louis or Kansas City, shopping locally, said Patty Holmstrom, general manager of Britches. Britches opened on Ninth Street eight years ago.
The new stores are selling clothing made by big-name designers such as Betsey Johnson, Elie Tahari, 7 For All Mankind, Sigrid Olsen, French Connection and William Rast.
All the retailers strive to stock clothes that are rare finds. Customers at Elly’s Couture, for example, won’t find the same line of Betsey Johnson products at any other private local retailer because of designer regulations, explained Elly Swetz, the owner of Elly’s. Designers limit the number of local retailers that sell their clothing to make sure they’re not saturating the market.
Shopper Lauren Kristich likes that items she buys at shops like Elly’s are one of a kind.
“Clothing is so much more unique” in boutiques, she said. “And workers are focused on you and not just making the money.”
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The Mercurio family has been competing in the in the women’s retail market for three decades. The family, which opened Saffee’s on Broadway in 1976, began to observe that their junior apparel line was outselling other lines. Last year, they transformed Saffee’s into Envy, which features clothing aimed at young women. “There is a trend in stores targeting young women,” said manager Lori Young. “There is a trend with young shops going on even in big cities.”
Prices vary and can approximate those from Old Navy or Neiman Marcus.
Erin Keltner, the owner of Swank, said her items are moderately priced from $2 to $300.
Sarah McGann, owner of the recently opened Manhattan Closet, is the newest retailer to enter the downtown boutique market. Clothing here isn’t cheap; a blouse could set you back $248.
“We have a higher price ticket than most other boutiques in Columbia,” she said. McGann said she offers apparel labels with reputations of longevity and quality.
When researching Columbia’s demographics she felt that the college market was well-covered territory; Manhattan Closet targets women in their late twenties and up.
While women’s shopping options have expanded downtown, men have fewer options.
Downtown stalwart Puckett’s closed in 2005.
David Danuser, co-owner and manager of Binghams, said that after years of stagnation in the male fashion industry, there is some revitalization occurring. Danuser, who’s been with Binghams for 10 years, said he’s seen more men opting for dressier sportswear and suits. “People got tired of being all casual,” he said.
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Through her travels, Lorie Guy, owner of the Elm Street boutique Girl, has seen a national pattern in small-scale shopping. “It’s definitely a trend right now to shop in smaller boutiques,” she said. Guy said she’s observed that “big box stores” have begun incorporating elements of boutique shopping into some of their shops by adding online boutique choices and remodeling brick-and-mortar stores to feel more like boutiques.
Courtney Cothren, an instructor in the school of fashion and design at Stephens College, said there is a continual seesaw of popularity between department stores and small, privately-owned shops.
“I think that generally in retail there’s a shift every few years from people shopping at department stores to specialty stores,” she said.
In Columbia, Cothren views the boutique movement as a sign that residents are doing more specialty shopping. “Downtown is a positive place,” she said. “These shops should have a bright future.”