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Main Street retailers starting to see persistence pay off

Second in a two-part series

By Samantha Christmann

News Business Reporter

Novi Paluch is finally beginning to see the fruits of her labors since opening her shop in the Market Arcade five years ago. Sharon and Don Snell have hit a stride with their candle shop near Shea’s. And Joe Incao is struggling to get his footing with his home decor and gift shop, Furnishings.

The newest generation of retailers are experiencing varied levels of success but, together, they are writing the next chapter in downtown Buffalo’s retail history.

For decades, downtown Main Street has been living in the shadow of once-booming retailers like Hens & Kelly, AM&A’s and Bergers. A stagnant row of vacant storefronts stood in stark relief against the street’s bustling commercial past.

Just a few years ago, the idea of opening a store on the desolate downtown stretch would have seemed a fool’s errand. But slowly, those abandoned storefronts with long-gone names have been giving way to new activity. Main Street has begun crackling back to life.

And while some retailers struggle, they’re all fighting to make the comeback happen.

• The Market Arcade is filled with funky boutiques, such as Buffalo Adore, where business is brisk.

• City Wine Merchant, on the 700 block at Main and Tupper streets, is going strong.

• Customer foot traffic way down at the Shops at HarborCenter is hit and miss. But they have received a big break on rent to fill the shiny new storefronts.

• Stalwarts such as Tent City, M. Steffan’s Sons and New Generation Jewelers continue to anchor the street.

Grit required

Paluch, owner of Sasmita Batik Indonesia, said that if retailers can stick it out, they can make it.

When she opened her boutique on Main Street, there were just two other stores in the Market Arcade with her, the block was still closed to cars, and Main Street wasn’t getting all the attention it is now from developers and the city.

As an immigrant new to retail, she struggled to get her shop off the ground. With grit and determination, she built her boutique into a popular purveyor of handmade dresses, jewelry and accessories. But the early years were hard. There were many, many days without a single sale.

The nearby Hostel Buffalo Niagara began encouraging its overnight guests to visit. Downtown workers slowly found the place and started coming back. When the street opened to cars, customer traffic picked up more.

The Market Arcade’s status as a historic building brought architecture tourists. Then Sinatra & Co. Realty bought the building, promoted and brought in additional retailers.

“It’s much better now,” Paluch said.

Timing is everything

Sharon and Don Snell opened their candle shop, ScentCerely Yours, at 610 Main in late 2014. Since then, the shop’s owners have learned the downtown market’s various quirks and found themselves a groove.

Like most downtown businesses, the shop targets commuters who walk the streets in the middle of the day. But workers on their lunch breaks used to walk past the shop without noticing it. The Snells put out large, burning candle lanterns, a sandwich board sign and a display with flowers to catch their attention.

“People stop and say, ‘Whoa! I didn’t know you were here,’ ” said Don Snell.

The store also caters to the crowds that visit Shea’s Performing Arts Center more than 3,000 people at a time. That means being open before and sometimes after the theater’s shows. The shop has also started making themed candles to match each major show that comes through, such as the glittery, red, leather-scented “Kinky Boots” candle.

The store also stays open on Saturdays and during special events on the street.

“It’s all about timing down here,” said Don Snell. “You gotta be here when the people are.”

Ghost town

Though there are more people living downtown than there have been in years, much of the street is a ghost town at night. There’s not enough residential population for most retailers to justify staying open past 6 p.m.

The retail renaissance has been slower to reach other parts of the street. On the 500 block, there are more vacant storefronts than there are retail operations.

The 500 block is just a short walk from the often bustling Theatre District, but feels a world away. The patrons that spill out of Shea’s and into nearby restaurants tend not to make the trek down the block to visit its lone retailer.

Joe Incao knew he was taking a gamble when he opened his home decor and gift store, Furnishings, at 500 Main St. in downtown Buffalo last year. The former vice president at fashion icon Prada, familiar with how long it can take for new urban neighborhoods to develop, knew he was ahead of the curve.

But even in the worst-case scenario spelled out in his business plan, he never envisioned things would be this bad.

Many days, Furnishings’ sales don’t break $100. Some days, there are no sales at all. If things remain the same, he said the store won’t make it until Christmas.

With the rebirth of downtown apartment life, he’s left to wonder: what’s up?

Pioneer pains

Incao has been proactive and creative marketing his store. He has bought traditional advertising, brought swag to local hotels in hopes they would send their guests to his store, and has sent direct advertising to downtown residents, including those who live above the shop in the Belesario. He belongs to several local business committees, lavishes customers with attention and brought in a florist to sell flowers in front of the store on Mother’s Day. He bought speakers to pump music outside to the sidewalk, and switched up his product offering – all in hopes his well wishers will put their money where their BuffaLove is.

Mixed in among the $700 lamps and $100 serving trays are plenty of more-affordable items. If visitors just picked up the occasional $8 Buffalo tea towel or $10 olive oil decanter, he said, it would get him over the hump as the street develops.

“I wanted to be a pioneer. I wanted to be one of the first new retailers on Main Street,” he said. “I’m just asking for some help to make it happen.”

Retail is last

As new neighborhoods form, the process begins with people moving in and fixing up living spaces. That is what happened downtown when several developers started to renovate old, disused buildings and redevelop them into loft apartments and mixed-use living spaces. Often, that new life in a neighborhood will draw trendy restaurants, which has happened here with D’Avolio, Raclettes and Jerk’s. According to the chronology, new people living in and visiting a neighborhood create demand for support services, such as corner stores, dry cleaners, coffee shops. Then, slowly, discretionary retail begins to creep in.

But until you hit that critical mass, retail in a neighborhood like downtown Main Street can be a tough sell.

“It’s like the chicken or the egg. You need stores in order to attract people, but you need people to support the stores,” said Robert Silverman, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. “The city is at a tipping point right now.”

Despite the growing residential population, a surge in recreational visitors and lunchtime crowds that swell the city’s population each day, the influx of people may not be enough to support a thriving downtown retail sector. To reach that critical mass, there have to be things that draw in new populations and things that capitalize on the populations already there, such as a day care center. And of course, a grocery store is key.

There’s an education component, too. Shopkeepers report that some visitors aren’t aware the Metro Rail is free above ground. Visitors from the suburbs don’t know that metered parking is free on weekends. Some people are unaware how far down Main Street is open to traffic and, if they do, many are afraid to drive it. And residents new to city dwelling have to retrain themselves not to jump in their cars and drive to a mall to shop. To top it off, this is all happening at a time when the independent retail sector as a whole is struggling to stay alive among competition from big box stores and internet retailers.

Helping hands

But downtown retail is getting some help. The Buffalo Urban Development Corp. has run several cycles of Queen City Pop-Up, which have spun off several permanent stores, including Buffalo Barkery, Buffalo Adore, Rust Belt Love, Yar Mo’s Muse, MMW Style Studio and Rudeboyz Artworks. The current pop-up, at 517 Main St., has helped attract customers to the 500 block. At least one of its current pop-up shops, Buffalo Loves Tees, intends to open a permanent brick-and-mortar store.

Buffalo Place has a retail committee planning several events to bring consumers to the street. Retailers are hoping to bring an outdoor vendor market and street concerts. Shops are working together and taking creative approaches, such as paying Shea’s patrons’ baggage check fee when they shop before a show.

Michael Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, said all signs point to the rebirth of a successful retail district on Main Street. It will take time, he said, but the neighborhood is making progress.

“It’s like when the first people started going west, someone had to take the arrows,” said Schmand. “Those first people in really have to fight, but sometimes they end up the most successful.”