At first, the arrival of holiday sales notices in my inbox was a good thing. But then, they just kept coming. Nearly every small, locally owned apparel shop in town was having some kind of promotion, most often storewide discounts on all merchandise, which is great for the shopper, but whispers something ill for local retail. As a rule, sales aren't supposed to happen until after Christmas, and now should be the time for shops to hold the advantage, with virtually everyone compelled to increase their spending.
The past year has seen an outrageous boom in Portland entrepreneurship. Many continue to move here in order to realize their dream of opening a business, and no small portion of these transplants are apparel providers. As I've catalogued the opening of shop after shop each week in this space, I've wondered when I'd begin to hear of closures. The rash of December sales, however, is the first visible sign of strain.
Katy Kippen of Nolita (923 NW 10th) notes that sales can have a snowball effect: If one starts, many others follow suit, particularly if it means items carried in multiple stores are now offered at a discount. "It's a real race to the bottom," says Elizabeth Dye of The English Dept. (1124 SW Alder), one of the few boutiques not marking down storewide merchandise this month, referring to independent stores who share lines with retail giants like Anthropologie, not to mention the internet. But even indie shops can find themselves undercutting each other's prices.
"There are too many boutiques," Dye says. "There's been an insane surge, and people are fighting for the same dollars. I do think it's going to burst. There just aren't enough ladies who lunch in Portland."
So who sinks and who swims? One would hope that those who make the effort and do the research to avoid crossover, bringing something legitimately new and inspired to the table, will reap their rewards. But it may simply come down to old-fashioned business sense and aggressive maneuvering. The good news for consumers: The discounts come January are going to be outta sight.
More good news? PDX Etsy is holding a holiday/solstice sale this Saturday—check out the work of over 50 vendors, see Secondhand (Pepe), a documentary about used clothing's journey from the Salvation Army to Haiti, and be sure to hit up the neighboring farmers' market while you're at it: It's your last chance 'til spring! (PDX Etsy Sale: PSU Smith Center, 1825 SW Broadway, Sat Dec 22, 8 am-4 pm, pdxetsy.com; Farmers' Market: SW Harrison & Montgomery, Sat Dec 22, 8:30 am-2 pm)
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