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Armitage Avenue boutiques close, leaving empty storefronts

by Jessica DuBois-Maahs
Jan 16, 2013


BOUTIQ

Jessica DuBois-Maahs/

MEDILL

Movers load up props from the now-closed Rugby store on Armitage Avenue.

The United Colors of Benetton apparel store on Armitage Avenue closed in October. A few blocks away, the Cynthia Rowley boutique closed before Christmas. The latest Armitage store to close was Ralph Lauren Corp.'s Rugby, which shuts its doors Jan. 9. For decades Lincoln Park's Armitage Avenue has been a trendy shopping area, but the recent store closures have caused concern among some small business owners and retail investors.

Laura Walasinski is the longtime manager of Tabula Tua, a luxury tableware store on Armitage, west of Sheffield. She said she believes the recent closures reflect the Lincoln Park customers' demand for small, privately owned businesses that can make a connection with locals. She point out that the three stores that recently closed were part of national chains.

Still, she concedes, “It's sort of worrisome.” Walasinski hopes that real estate brokers representing landlords “will be more willing to work with privately owned businesses and bring back some of the character that Armitage has.”

Armitage has been home to upscale and one-of-a-kind retail boutiques for decades, and Lincoln Park real estate investors say it may be losing some of its popularity as a shopping destination, according to Ben Rosenfield, a commercial real estate broker for Chicago’s Titan Commercial.

Rosenfield said a sudden influx of new shops around 2005 allowed rent prices to shoot up to $60 per square foot or more. That made it difficult for some small, privately owned boutiques and retail chains to stay in business as customer traffic slowed during the recession.

“Investors bought buildings knowing the high rental rates,” Rosenfield said. “A lot of the buildings will be turned back to the bank, and the value will be reset. It's not the shopping district they thought it was going to be.”

The government reported Tuesday that retail sales in December increased by 3 percent from the year before. But not all retailers faired equally, and some independent boutiques and chain stores on Armitage may have had no choice but to close if sales did not meet expectations.

“Running a single store is not easy,” said Peter Gill, a representative of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “One off season could push you out of business.”

November and December are crucial for small retail chains because they represent 30 to 35 percent of annual sales, according to Gill.

He said he doesn't believe Armitage Avenue's multiple store closures reflect any change in the affluent retail market—where he said sales are up. Gill said he believes the closures reflect other factors.

Retail industry consultant Howard Davidowitz disagrees.

“Luxury business is mixed and not booming like it was,” Davidowitz said. “There is a shift of consumers to more value. Stores like T.J. Maxx and Ross are doing great in the apparel sector.”

Luxury stores like Ralph Lauren's Rugby are facing a decrease in sales, forcing the company to make hard decisions about pushing forward, according to Davidowitz, who is chairman of the New-York based consulting firm Davidowitz & Associates Inc.

The Rugby chain, which specializes in high-end preppy inspired sports apparel, for example, will be discontinued across the country in mid February. The Armitage location closed early because of an inventory shortage, according to a company representative.

Cynthia Rowley, which features flirty dress clothes for younger women, and United Colors of Benetton, an Italian company known for its colorful knits, did not return repeated phone calls.

Alice Lerman is the 10-year owner of Barker & Meowsky, a pet boutique on Armitage, and she said she doesn't believe the empty storefronts are a cause for concern.

“Things are cyclical...they change,” Lerman said. “I don't know if there's a specific trend. I think that one of the great things about a street like Armitage is that it's not a cookie cutter area.