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Boutiques sidestep behemoths

Pat Patera

As big box stores gorge on market share, small retailers continue to get creative in finding a niche too narrow or esoteric for the mass-market stores to reach.

But finding a location can be the highest hurdle, says Mark Keyzers, vice president of retail properties group at NAI Alliance.

Will they feed off anchor tenants? A dry cleaner, for instance, wants to be near a grocery.

Eclectic shops that serve specialized niches, meanwhile, want to congregate together to create a specialized ambience, he says.

Or, they may eschew those considerations because they feel they are a destination business by themselves.

Economics is a final consideration, Keyzers adds, as some don’t want to pay the rent that a high traffic location commands.

Three Reno retailers have addressed those issues in their own way, just as each chose a different niche, location and path to profit. What they share is an appeal to individual taste, and the willingness to create their own traffic.

Babboo sells children clothes on California Avenue, Isles serves Celtic authenticity in the emerging SoDo district south of downtown and LaBussola sends funky art out the door in downtown’s designated arts district.

LaBussola owner Meredith Tanzer was instrumental in launching the monthly wine walk, a joint promotion by the downtown merchant’s association. Babboo owners Valerie and Mark Curtis are officers in the California Avenue merchants association, which organizes periodic shop-and-stroll events. And Isles owner Terry Fegan says she plans to organize a Celtic Crawl to mimic the successful wine walk format.

“People in this town enjoy imbibing in good spirits,” says Tanzer.

What the merchants have in common: Knowing the customer and filling a need the big boxes don’t.

“We have 30 lines not available elsewhere,” says Curtis, who opened last spring. To clothe her own child, she had been traveling to shops in Sacramento and San Francisco.

Her customers, says Curtis, is not an age group; it’s a mindset.

“It’s a parent who wants to mirror their own lifestyle; who wants to make children as individual as they are,” she says.

Terry Fegan drew on her roots when she opened The Isles on Center Street at Cheny in the developing SoDo district this summer.

“I’m from Ireland,” she says. “For a long time I said, someone needs to do this. Turns out it was me.”

Her goal is for the store to become a central clearing house for the Celtic community. She connects with local Celtic groups such as Society of Scottish Clans and Sons and Daughters of Ireland.

“People literally do their grocery shopping here,” says Fegan. Best sellers are HP Sauce, haggis, British bangers, Cornish pasties and Irish sausage.

She uses five importers from California to New York to fill the shelves with food and gift items.

LaBussola, says Tanzer, creates inspired madness. The shop sells artist-crafted jewelry, tableware, wall art and funky hand-painted furniture.

It’s going on five years in business.

“Coming to a specialty store like mine is a luxury,” says Tanzer. “You could have bought a can opener for $10 at a big box yet you bought a custom can opener here for $25. And supported a local artist.”

However, she adds, “The retail economy is so difficult, a store has to be accessible. Family friendly. A place to hang out. A place where, if you can’t afford to shop today, you can take away a valuable experience.”

Whether a retailer is large or small, location is always a consideration.

“Traffic is good on California,” says Curtis of the 1,200-square-foot Babboo shop. “And I thought it would be a good complement to the street.”

Says Fegan, “I looked on California Avenue but found it too expensive.” Instead, she bought a house in the neighborhood south of downtown and devoted the bottom floor 800 square feet to a store.

A rent hike propelled LaBussola from downtown to SoDo; but Tanzer moved back again when a likely space opened up.

“I like the downtown ambience where I can go out with the girls after work,” she says.

“We’re a destination,” says Tanzer of the 1,400-square-foot shop. “While looking for a new place, we got calls from shopping centers saying, ‘We want you here.’ We understand we’re a pull.”

Special promotions also are key to the independent retailers.

Fegan says, “You have to be constantly doing something to keep you in people’s attention.”

This holiday season, for the exposure, she’ll donate baskets to raffle at fundraisers. And provide authentic decorated nutcrackers at cost for sale at Reno Dance Company performances of The Nutcracker.

Customer care is something the big boxes, with their hordes of shoppers, can’t deliver.

Curtis, for instance, invites the children to visit Santa’s workshop.

And something you’ll never see at the big boxes: Fegan hugs her favorite customers goodbye.