New York Post By Nicole Gelinas November 27, 2016
‘Tis the season to be shopping — but in Manhattan, where?
New Yorkers set in their retail routines are suffering annoyance and anxiety as their favorite places to browse close. And the industry responsible for a big chunk of New York’s recent job growth is facing serious woes.
Last week, The Post’s Steve Cuozzo reported that Gracious Home looks to be in trouble. It’s a huge hardware, housewares and home-goods store that has been a mainstay of the Upper East Side for 53 years. The store’s Upper West Side location is newer, but old enough to be an institution: It opened 18 years ago.
Now, the stores, which employ 300 people, are having a fire sale. Signs are up advertising that everything is 10 to 50 percent off.
This doesn’t seem to be normal Black Friday stuff. The signs proclaim, ominously, that “everything must go.” Last week, a worker stoically told a nervous customer that the stores were “restructuring,” and she wasn’t sure if they’d stay open.
Gracious Home is unique and fun. Where else can you get a fake furry squirrel Christmas ornament made in Germany, hair cream made in Britain or high-thread-count pillowcases made in Italy, plus laundry detergent and mousetraps?
Shopping has become a grim exercise in harvesting commodities. But Gracious Home has always been sweetly old-fashioned in its eclectic array of goods.
And the chains aren’t doing so well, either. Until last year, a Crate & Barrel took up a huge two-story space on Madison Avenue, roughly midway between the two Gracious Homes. But it shut down, and most of the storefront has been empty since.
New Yorkers who walk the streets have noticed huge storefronts empty for years. The Hearst Tower, at 57th and Eighth, had its “prime” retail space on the northern side empty for a decade, before the building gave up and remade the windows into a giant billboard to advertise Hearst’s digital offerings.
Three global banks, too, have closed up shop on Eighth Avenue in the past half-decade, leaving medium-size spaces that still aren’t filled.
What’s hurting retail? Obviously, one culprit is the internet. People supposedly want “experience” shopping these days, and you can’t recreate the Gracious Home experience online, like you can when buying a big-screen TV. But stores like Gracious Home need the money they make from selling cookie-cutter appliances to carry their more varied products.
Stores like Gracious Home and Crate & Barrel have suffered, too, because financially strapped millennials have put off buying homes, and buying the furniture and curtains to put in those homes.
These stores serve a shrinking clientele: people financially healthy enough to splurge on a better-quality bathmat, but not so rich that they hire professionals to outfit their homes, and who use wholesale providers to do it.
Finally, these stores struggle because they don’t serve the tourist trade. Since the financial crisis, Manhattan’s retail market has been defined by overseas tourists who spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars per trip. But tourists want to buy clothes and jewelry and M&Ms, not pie pans.
The tourist trade, too, may be peaking. Fifth Avenue’s tenants, from Topshop to H&M, seem increasingly desperate for customers, advertising rock-bottom “sale” prices year-round.
Retail upheaval is showing up in the numbers. In its fall report, the Real Estate Board of New York noted that “a slower retail sales environment,” coupled with newly built space, “have started to affect ground-floor asking rents in Manhattan’s most prominent retail corridors.” Prices fell in 11 of 17 areas.
More importantly, it’s showing up in the jobs numbers. Earlier this month, city Comptroller Scott Stringer noted that the retail industry lost 2,500 jobs between July and September. The city has steadily lost retail jobs for nearly two years, since the beginning of 2015, even as the city has gained other types of jobs.
That’s important, because retailers provide entry-level jobs and work to people without college educations or advanced skills. Retail helped save New York City after the financial crisis. As wealthier people and tourists kept shopping, the industry added 51,400 jobs, or nearly 12 percent of its new jobs.
Empty stores are empty of their workers, too — who can’t easily become nurses or construction workers or computer programmers.