Pittsburgh's Concierge
Robert Miles

From Downtown Pittsburgh and Northside to Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, and Lawrenceville, there is an array of stylish, quaint and sometimes quirky shops and boutiques.

Several years ago I noted that the future of shopping in Pittsburgh would be boutique driven. Department stores have become relics of a bygone era.  Malls are downsizing or closing altogether. Stores are opting for village settings in some areas and reverting back to the strip mall design. In this blog I address the pros and cons of the boutique and specialty shop realities of 2020 shopping.

There are an estimated 80,853 college students enrolled in Pittsburgh. An estimated 305,841 people live and work in downtown Pittsburgh.  2.34 million live in the city limits. Where are they shopping? I reached out to several small shops, boutiques and specialty stores and asked about shopping, owning a shop and the future of shopping in Pittsburgh.

Adele Morelli  –  Boutique la Passerelle   – Owner    –   www.shop-blp.com

During a recent visit with Adele Morelli, owner of Boutique la Passerelle at her trendy shop on 417 Wood Street Downtown, we discussed boutique shopping with emphasis on downtown shopping.  Adele is about to head into her 10th year of business with great optimism and enthusiasm. Adele enlightened me about the shared goal with Pittsburgh History and Landmarks and The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. Their mutual desire is to attract other investors. The Wood Street area has many available storefronts with space most desirable for small businesses. She brought to my attention the importance of square footage as a main concern for smaller businesses. Something I admit I had not considered. Many retail spaces are just too large to be profitable. There is a shortage of these much sought after spaces, especially in the downtown market.

 

  • Keep your eyes peeled! To celebrate their 10 year Anniversary, Boutique la Passerelle will be featuring a series of fun promotions throughout April to honor their much appreciated customers and as an invitation to new shoppers.

Christopher Weck   –    Sinful Sweets Chocolate Company   –  Owner   –   SinfulSweetsPgh.com

“Operating a small business is difficult and time-consuming, but if your heart and goals are in the right place, it becomes more manageable. My mom told me when I was young that there is love in food when you put your heart into it. And that still holds true to me with everything I create. So when I was creating my business plan, I wanted to focus more on people, both employees and customers. If I could teach or show our staff how we put love, thought, and care into everything we do, then we can function as a team — resulting in a successful life, both personally and professionally.”

Jason Farahi – Annex Pittsburgh    –   Owner   –    annexpgh.com

Current climate of shopping in Pittsburgh?

“Pittsburgh is a very tough market to tap into when it comes to shopping. As a city, i feel that we are split into 2 halves; the ones who welcome the new, and the ones who curse it. The key is to tap into both markets…which is very difficult, but very doable. Yes, the influx of the “new” brings a certain stigma, but if it is done tastefully, and in a way that directly attempts to include everyone, it is an easier pill to swallow. We also find that many people do not love leaving their respective neighborhoods, so that has presented a challenge for us, since we wanted to be a local shop, as well as a destination shop. However we do have a slight advantage in Pittsburgh, in that we aren’t oversaturated with men’s and women’s boutique shops; there are just a few scattered throughout. We love seeing new shops go up in Pittsburgh, and we respect the hustle. From clothing retailers like Franklin and Mercer, Vestis and Pavement, to second hand retailers like Zeds and Highway Robbery…they all get it. And they have paved the way for our city. ”

How do we see the future of such enterprises?

“As much as people love to talk about Amazon and other online giants taking away from brick and mortar, I just don’t see the independent boutique clothing shop falling victim. People love to browse, and touch, and try before buying. It’s an experience that you can’t get sitting on your couch with your computer on your lap. I know for as picky as I am about the fit of my clothing, I wouldn’t dare buy before I try, or touch, or feel, or walk around the store 6 times before deciding :). Pittsburgh is an extremely walkable city; so if we continue to establish great coffee shops, eateries and local businesses, the residents will walk. We will eat, drink and shop as long the sidewalks aren’t icy!”

What would attract new businesses?

“We’ve had our challenges and continue to experience them; that’s just what new businesses go through. The pioneers in this city, new and old, have paved the way for emerging businesses. We were very reluctant, especially in a challenging area, but in our mind, we knew we would be followed, just like we followed the other pioneers and business owners before us. Pittsburgh has been a blank slate for quite some time; even though a lot of progress has been made, and a lot of new shops have emerged, there is still so much room for more. We are very excited for what lies ahead in this city. The beauty of it all is there is very little imitation here, so with one great shop comes another that has something different to offer. We all build off of each other, no matter what it is we have to offer. And as a result, we become stronger because of that. That concept can be translated to basically every aspect of life if you learn how to take advantage of it.”

Peter Lawrence Women’s Apparel  –  Lynne Figgins  –  Co-Manager   –   peterlawrencepgh.com

I can’t speak to the extended city neighborhoods = Shadyside, Lawrenceville, etc., as I rarely shop there anymore.  But downtown is coming back slowly, one small Boutique or merchant at a time and is a focus of multiple organizations. Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation purchased & refurbished lots of properties (my store). They are pushing for retail vs. restaurants, ex: a leather goods store will be opening across the Street. The PDP encourages merchants participating in the Market Square events to consider opening locations in town. They report to landlords and businesses who want a vibrant scene for their tenants/employees. And the mayor is trying to rectify his comments, unfortunately the person he chose to lead the effort is a known misogynist, who alienated many of the women business owners.

While people like the convenience of shopping online, experiences with poor quality, sizing and service are making them reconsider their options. I can’t count the number of times I hear, “it’s so nice to receive great service and have someone to call when I need something”. This comes from downtown residents, workers and visitors. The latter make up a good portion of our business while exploring the city,  looking for unique things they won’t find at home, those who didn’t check the weather forecast or a few who were sent the wrong items by Rent the Runway. 😉

There’s also the shop small shop local movement encouraging people to spend where they live and support neighbors who own the businesses. American Express as the sponsor of Small business Saturday helps to get the public to think about this by spending money on advertising and distributing promotional materials to local merchants nationwide.

Ultimately I am optimistic and believe there will always be a need for the local merchants who know their customers and work every day to provide the best experience possible.

I wish to sincerely thank those businesses and owners that did respond to my request for comment, for their ideas and content. Everyone with whom communicated with was optimistic about the future of shopping in Pittsburgh and within the neighborhoods that comprise this Gem of a City. That being said, it is the shopper that drives the market and keeps these businesses, all businesses alive and flourishing. We need our neighborhood alliances, community leaders and city council members to highlight their neighborhoods, to encourage and entice their populace to shop locally. People who work in office towers in downtown Pittsburgh may not know the abundance of great specialty shops, boutiques, men’s stores etc., that exist within a short jaunt. Stroll around, explore your surroundings, no matter where you live or work. Do a Goggle search, you might just find that great little shop that carries exactly what you need.

Robert Miles

Pittsburgh’s Concierge

NOTE:          The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation  www.phlf.org  and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership DowntownPittsburgh.com  have been working diligently to entice entrepreneurs to relocate or launch new enterprises.

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