Everything about the store looks expensive. Behind the glass windows, mannequins are clustered together in groups of three or four, each one wearing loose-hanging layers of clothing in neutral colors and sophisticated patterns. Every so often, the mannequins are replaced with posters that could be in fashion magazines. On one, an aloof-looking blond woman wearing a minidress grips a luxurious fur coat. On another, a man in a leather jacket sits on the edge of a rustic table. Near the ground, brand names span the length of the storefront: Rebecca Minkoff, J Brand, Bailey 44, AG // Denim, Free People. There are no accompanying descriptions; the brands speak for themselves. Here, on the corner of Broadway and York in New Haven is Emporium DNA, one of the newest retailers to join The Shops at Yale — and also one of the loneliest.
The blurb on The Shops at Yale’s website declares that Emporium DNA is “expected to become a retail powerhouse in New Haven and Connecticut.” Still, on a Saturday afternoon in November, almost a year after opening, the store is nearly empty. Though the sidewalk is crowded with people passing by Emporium’s open doors and posters advertising the boutique’s fall sale, only one couple is shopping inside. The shoppers are outnumbered by three saleswomen, one of whom is assisting the couple while the other two stand unneeded by the registers. Perhaps it is the store’s intimidating glass windows that keep shoppers out, or perhaps it is the reputed high price tags. Regardless, shoppers are not shopping. And, with the store taking nearly 3,000 square feet of precious retail space on a street that many members of the Yale community frequent every day and rely on to service their shopping needs during the school year, Emporium almost seems to be a waste of space.
A NEW NEW HAVEN
Before there was Emporium, there was Au Bon Pain, the counter-style soup-and-sandwich chain cafe. The cafe closed in May 2013, and the space remained vacant until fall 2014 when Emporium opened in its place. Before Au Bon Pain’s closing, the location, owned by Yale University Properties, the real-estate company that manages Yale’s commercial holdings, hadn’t changed hands in over 15 years. Suddenly, an inexpensive cafe beloved by the Yale community and the New Haven public alike was replaced by a retailer that did not seem to serve either population. Why did University Properties make a change? And, more pressingly, why this change?
According to Lauren Zucker, associate vice president and director of University Properties and New Haven Affairs, University Properties’ mission is to “create a vital downtown New Haven.” She asserts that 20 years ago, the area was unsightly and unsafe. Stores were boarded up. People weren’t comfortable walking around after dark. Now, thanks in large part to the new restaurants and stores adding vitality and, as a result, safety to the community, downtown New Haven is an entirely different place.
University Properties is still trying to create what Zucker calls a “carefully curated mix” of stores in the downtown area. It is attempting not only to add vibrancy and life to the community, but also to be a competitive and alluring shopping district. University Properties isn’t just trying to appeal to students, who Zucker explains are here for only eight months of the year and aren’t here for the make-or-break holiday shopping season. Rather, University Properties needs to appeal to the people within a 30-mile radius of New Haven.
It’s difficult to ignore one of the critiques of Emporium and of The Shops at Yale as a whole: by bringing yet another high-end store to Broadway, University Properties is alienating the existing New Haven residents. With the average household income in New Haven County between 2009–13 just shy of $62,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau, it’s hard to imagine that the average New Haven resident would be buying a Rebecca Minkoff bag (Emporium’s least expensive model: a tiny $125 crossbody) or a pair of J Brand jeans (Emporium’s least expensive pair: $178).
Zucker doesn’t avoid the issue of gentrification, but instead responds with the notion that not all stores will appeal to or be suited for the average New Haven resident, just like not all stores will be for students, professors or older professionals. “We have to have a mix,” Zucker insists. To attract a broad customer base, The Shops at Yale can’t just have one kind of store or one price point. University Properties, it seems, is trying to look at the bigger picture.
“The store may not be perfect for you,” says Zucker. “That doesn’t mean it’s not perfect for someone else … Not every store is for every person, nor should it be, nor can it be.”
Even if the bulk of New Haven residents or students aren’t the targeted consumers, Emporium still seems to be an odd choice. Currently, there are two other Emporium locations. The newest, which opened in April 2014, is in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C., a neighborhood described by the Washingtonian as a “cosmopolitan outpost.” The other, which opened in 2006 and was the site of the original concept, is inside The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, a hotel and casino. Previously, there was a location at Revel Resorts in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but the store closed in the fall of 2014 after being open for just over a year. In any case, the shopping district surrounding a college campus seems to be an entirely different community than a high-end resort, a fabulous Vegas casino or even a trendy D.C. neighborhood.
“The owner had deep experience with retail,” Zucker says, when asked why University Properties brought Emporium to Yale. “And we loved this concept. These are brands that would have been unable to come to New Haven on their own … Rebecca Minkoff isn’t going to open up a store on Broadway, but with Emporium, people still have access to her brand.”
Emporium is owned by IK Retail Group, a fashion retailer and consulting firm created by longtime retail developer Iraklis Karabassis. Zucker says she doesn’t remember who approached whom about Emporium’s possible place on Broadway, but the answer seems to be tied to another one of IK Retail Group’s companies: KIKO Milano, an Italian cosmetics brand with a store right next door to Emporium on Broadway, for which IK Retail Group “negotiates for all retail space locations for the development and opening of KIKO Milano stores” in the United States, according to Karabassis’ LinkedIn page. According to Zucker, University Properties “aggressively” pursued KIKO Milano after determining that downtown New Haven would benefit from a cosmetics store. Zucker could not comment on whether or not Emporium and KIKO Milano were a package deal, citing University Properties’ “policy not to comment on individual lease terms.” That’s not the only thing University Properties is secretive about; Zucker also couldn’t tell me how long Emporium’s lease is, and whether or not University Properties collects a percentage of Emporium’s sales in addition to the store’s monthly rent.
When I walk into Emporium on a Monday morning in November, there are two sales associates manning the counter. Ten minutes before, seven or eight women were participating in a private shopping party. There was personal styling and champagne. The women all left with ostentatious, bright-orange Emporium bags and took a photo out front before going their separate ways. Now, the sales floor is quiet and the two associates smile expectantly as I approach the registers.
Kelly, a young New Haven native who started at Emporium in July, says “I’m wearing a dress from here right now,” when I ask her if she shops in the store. She gets an employee discount on her purchases, but if I were to buy her same lacy, long-sleeved dress, I would pay the entire $203 plus tax. Andrew, the other sales associate, is broad-shouldered and wide-eyed. He wears a checkered shirt and blue jeans. Besides Shea, the manager, he’s the newest member of the team.
A third sales associate is on the phone behind Kelly and Andrew, her back turned away from me. Her name is Lajuanda and she’s the most knowledgeable of the three, having worked at Emporium since its opening last November. She wears a beige blazer and looks like she’s in charge.
Lajuanda finishes her phone call and the three give me their undivided attention, though it is obvious I’m not here to browse the racks. “We have an eclectic mix of customers,” Lajuanda tells me when I ask what the typical Emporium shopper looks like. She points to the fact that the store has both a younger clientele — Yalies and young professionals — and an older clientele. “The store has something for all of them,” she says. “You can buy for yourself, or your daughter, or your mom, or men. No one gets left out.”
The next day, I meet Shea, the store manager, who estimates that 40 people a day enter the store to browse. On average, she thinks that the store completes 20 transactions a day. “It really varies though. It’s definitely a weekend store, and the number of shoppers [is] also deeply affected by the weather,” she says, with the apparent confidence of someone who knows the store intimately. I ask her how long she’s worked at Emporium. Two weeks, she says.
She asserts that the store has a strong mix of items, although she concedes that “the problem we’re having now is how to get people inside the doors.”
WE’RE TRYING, WE PROMISE
Without even going in the store, you can see three different signs advertising that students get 15 percent off purchases. The signs are little squares of white paper beneath a plastic cover. They are unassuming, but not unnoticeable.
The store also gives out coupons that provide $50 off a purchase of $200 or more. It’s unclear how one gets these coupons; Shea talks about them as though they automatically apply to anyone who spends $200. Kelly says she gives them to customers who spend a certain amount in the store. Lajuanda says she gives them to customers she recognizes, customers who seem truly interested in the clothing but haven’t purchased anything yet. “Sometimes someone isn’t ready to make a purchase, but I give them one of these so that when they are, they have a little bit of help,” she says.
Why all this talk about “helping” the customer make a purchase, if the price points are, as Zucker asserts, on par with the bulk of the clothing you would find at a store like J. Crew?
“It’s a boutique store,” says Lajuanda. “We try and build client relationships.” The store doesn’t have the impersonal feel of a department store or chain retailer; the sales associates want to know their customers. It is the kind of store, already, where the sales associates can call past customers when new arrivals come in and say, “We just got something in that I think you’d really like.”
When the merchandise buyer, who buys for all the Emporium locations, is in town, she works the sales floor, talking to customers and getting a sense of what they’d like to see next. The store has already gone through different phases of “remerchandising” in which the buyer has replaced items that don’t quite work for this particular Emporium store with items that are more suited to the customer base and location. “Each location has different items,” explains Lajuanda. “It just depends on what the customers want. Like, for example, a lot of young ladies were asking for AG jeans, so now, we sell a couple different pairs of AG jeans.”
As for prices, the sales associates think there’s a misconception within the community about how expensive the store really is. Sure, they have $500 Rag and Bone boots in the store, but the same boots are currently 50 percent off, plus an additional 25 percent off, bringing them to about $185. Still expensive, but certainly more in line with the $228 it would cost to buy a similar pair of boots at J. Crew. Similarly, the store carries traditionally high-end brands like Rebecca Minkoff, for which you might expect to pay over $200 for a dress, but it also carries more moderately priced brands like MINKPINK, which feature dresses for just $60.
“[People] come in expecting to see $500 price tags everywhere,” says Lajuanda. “Then they see lower priced items and go, ‘Oh, wow.’”
What’s the least expensive clothing item in the store? Lajuanda can’t tell me exactly, but she points to a few different $38 T-shirts in basic colors. I’m unimpressed; $38 for a glorified undershirt that nobody besides me will ever see? Still, while she is telling me this, a couple buys a plush men’s sweater for just $48.
Is the store successful so far? The sales associates aren’t so sure. Lajuanda sidesteps the question by explaining that the store has definitely picked up in sales, but they are still trying to get more. “Small chains have to be more creative about marketing,” she says, pointing out that everyone knows what J. Crew is, but most people need a little encouragement to check out a relatively unheard-of boutique. Kelly, on the other hand, makes a long “hmm” sound in response, as though she’s not quite sure if she’s allowed to say “no”.
ROWS OF BLACK PANTS
It’s not just a misconception about price that keeps students out. It’s something deeper. Holly Taylor ’17 tells me that she doesn’t shop at Emporium — it’s intimidating and not her style. She thinks it caters to “trendy New Yorkers … 28-year-olds … new professionals who make a lot of money” and she is none of those things. She continues: “I just imagine black pants. Like, who needs that many different pairs of black pants?”
Later, I will go into Emporium and see dark jeans folded on counter tops, black suede dresses hanging on the sales rack, a collection of grainy black-and-white cropped sweaters and one lonely black tunic, but no black pants.
For now, I ask if she’s ever been inside the store.
“Like, I just imagine row after row of black pants,” she says.
“But have you ever been inside?”
She stops, looks up like she doesn’t want to admit it, but eventually says, “No.”
She’s not the only one who has an aversion to the store. John Kelleher ’17 says, “It’s a stylish-looking store, but I’m afraid to go into it because everyone always talks so badly about it. People say, ‘Only rich people shop there. It doesn’t belong on campus. Who goes there? Do people actually go there? What, you went there?’”
Once, before this conversation, I told him I was going to check out the store. “Oh, let me get my sunglasses and my hat,” he said to me. “And then I’ll go with you.” In the moment, he was joking. But at the same time, he wasn’t.
Although Zucker says students aren’t the biggest draw for The Shops at Yale, Marie Driscoll, CEO of the consulting group Driscoll Advisors and an equity analyst focusing on luxury brands, sees it differently. “If the students turn it away,” she says, “the retailer will leave.” She later explains that the worst thing that can happen is not that the retailer won’t make any money, but rather, that the students’ ambivalence towards the store and negative press will undermine the brand’s positioning in other locations. For retailers to be successful, Driscoll stresses that they have to “ingratiate themselves with the locals.”
One Friday evening just before 5 p.m., I stand on the corner across from Emporium. I watch as people walk by the store, sometimes pausing at the windows to look in at a pair of shoes or a bag, but then continuing on. Every so often, someone enters. In the two hours I am there, 18 people go inside. It’s more traffic than I am expecting, but it is the holiday season and there’s a sign just inside the entrance advertising jeans: buy one get one free.
Still, of all the people that browse, only one person comes out with a shopping bag. The buyer is a young woman. I imagine that she fell in love with a silk shirt or an unimaginably soft pair of jeans, but it turns out that inside her bag is just a candle — the kind that the store sells for $38. The clothes, hanging elegantly off their hangers inside the now-empty store, continue to hang just so, undisturbed and unwanted, but asking for a chance.
Ultimately, Emporium’s place on Broadway will be a test. Will the Yale community shun a store that, regardless of University Properties’ “bigger picture,” most of New Haven’s population simply can’t afford? Or will it look past the glass windows and luxe brand names and accept a store that can respond uniquely to its needs and desires? And for Emporium, will it change its marketing techniques in order to feel more accessible to the community? Or will it continue to flaunt its luxury, holding tightly to the vibe that seems to ostracize students?
Later that night when I walk inside the store, Shea tells me the sales associates can no longer answer any of my questions. “It’s just not helping business,” she says, before scurrying off to greet a customer.
Before I leave, I notice a new stack of plain white bags on the counter behind the registers.
“You guys are giving up the orange bags?” I ask Kelly, who is folding a pair of jeans.
“We still have them,” she says, looking over her shoulder. “We’re just trying something new.”