Resale boutiques find mixed fortunes in D.C.


Katerina Herodotou, owner of vintage clothing store Treasury, shows some Halloween ideas to Egbert Neilson and Felix Pelloth. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)
October 28, 2012

When Susie Saadian, a former bartender and personal trainer, opened up a used clothing boutique called Black-Eyed Susie a few blocks north of the Columbia Heights Metro station, she had hoped to parlay her love of shopping into a bustling hub for fans of vintage styles.

She performed an extensive market analysis for the 700-square foot shop, and her sales were strong at first. But after a slow, hard winter, she realized in March that business might never pick up.

Earlier this month, just a few hangers and light fixtures remained as Saadian held a clearance before shutting her doors for good.

“People were not coming in as much, or they would say, ‘I just got laid off, and I need something for an interview,’ but they had limits on how much they could spend,” she said. “Then, people just forgot about us.”

She’s wasn’t the only one feeling forgotten. Another clothing shop, It’s Vintage, Darling, had opened at around the same time and on the same block. It also shut its doors last month.

The stores had opened with hopes of capitalizing on a growing market: Washington has seen an influx of young, white-collar professionals in recent years. More than two-thirds of the households that moved into Washington between 2006 and 2010 are headed by a person under age 35.

But while a slew of vintage and used clothing shops have sprouted in the District in the past two years, those in the Logan Circle and U Street area seem to be surviving — and in some cases thriving — while those in Columbia Heights and other neighborhoods are not.

Their divergent fortunes highlight the block-by-block nature of retail in D.C., where a few feet too far from a Metro station or an unfavorable mix of stores nearby can mean the difference between success and failure.

That’s especially true for resale clothing outlets, which often rely on the customers who are selling them clothes just as much as they do on those who do the buying.

“The way these shops work — you’re subjected to the clientele that’s bringing the product to you,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group. “The successful ones are in the area where the choice product comes in the door to turn around and sell it so it goes out the door.”

Many vintage purveyors have found just that balance. Somkiat Uamkerd of Dr. K’s Vintage, which opened two years ago near 16th and U streets NW and sells primarily decades-old men’s clothing, said customers seem to be spending more this year than ever before. Treasury, near 14th and U streets NW, has been open for three years and said sales have grown every year. In August, Treasury owner Katerina Herodotou expanded after acquiring another clothing shop, Meeps, in Adams Morgan.

And Buffalo Exchange, an Arizona-based chain of vintage stores with 44 stores around the country, opened its first D.C. branch near Logan Circle in June.

“We liked that location because it’s kind of developing, and it’s doing well so far,” Buffalo Exchange President Kerstin Block said. “There’s a used furniture store and a consignment store. It’s a little more alternative, which is good for us.”

But as the competition for retail space in busy, affluent areas heats up, small boutiques could face another perennial D.C. problem: high rent. Saadian paid $2,000 a month for her spot, while storefronts near Logan Circle and U Street go for significantly higher.

“When It’s Vintage, Darling closed, my business also got slower because we would refer people,” Saadian said, “The best place for us to be would have been U Street ... but then again, I couldn’t afford U Street.”

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