If you live in New York City, October is a great time to shop around your neighborhood. New Yorkers usually grab their pumpkin spice lattes and hit the local boutiques and department stores to update the season’s wardrobe before the holiday madness starts. A few days ago, I went on one such expedition. For the mix of creative boutiques and big brands stores, NoHo, SoHo, the Lower East Side and the East Village are ideal for cool hunting; however, I was not prepared for what I found.

Empty spaces in SoHo
Photo: Maria Elena Velardi
Empty spaces in SoHo
Four months after apparel stores have been allowed to reopen, many vacant retail spaces (around 35% to 40% according to a visual estimate), dot what used to be busy shopping streets such as lower Broadway. Locations big and small, new, such as Rumble, a boxing gym, and established, such as the tourist jeans shopping mecca OMG, are closed, their merchandise still on display behind dusty shuttered windows.

According to data released by the US Department of Commerce last week, retail sales grew 1.9% in September, well above expectations. Clearly this growth still has to trickle down to Main Street, and with the increased strength of e-commerce, one can arguably wonder if it will come back as before at all.
NYC street fashion
Photo: Maria Elena Velardi
NYC street fashion
However, on the street and in the stores in New York the mood is not “doom and gloom,” but “we’re resilient and we’ll get through this.” On Broadway and 13th Street, Zumiez, the chain specialized in skate and streetwear, was open and hopping with music. The store manager Whitney noted, “We rely less on tourist business compared to other locations, and our customers are usually loyal so they have been coming back.” She added, “People coming into the store are more friendly towards sales assistants now. I guess after the months in isolation, everybody welcomes a chat.” Sales of seasonal classics such as flannels, cargo pants and hoodies, together with masks and new trending brands such as Primitive, 4Hunnid with YG and the ‘80s rappers’ classic Kangol have been keeping the store busy.
Display at Zumiez
Photo: Maria Elena Velardi
Display at Zumiez
In the more upscale SoHo, the only socially distanced line of the day marked the door of Stadium Goods, the store specialized in limited edition sneakers and premium streetwear. A few streets up Katie, a newly hired sales assistant at Wolf and Badger, the UK-based multibrand store for independent and sustainable designers, said that weekends have been very busy lately.
Shoppers look for corduroy shirts at Urban Outfitters
Photo: Maria Elena Velardi
Shoppers look for corduroy shirts at Urban Outfitters
At Urban Outfitters in the East Village, customers were browsing around the two floors for the hottest looks of the season: oversize sweaters, extreme baggy jeans, corduroy shirts and pants, and bucket hats. According to Anthony, the store manager, “Sales are picking up again especially driven by Covid-19 accessories such as masks and toothbrush sterilizers.”
Boarded-up window with graffiti
Photo: Maria Elena Velardi
Boarded-up window with graffiti
As colorful graffiti and street art covered the boarded up windows, the atmosphere took me back to 20 years ago, when I first arrived in New York City and these streets were populated by artists and hip streetwear stores. The pandemic has hit hard here, and yet the feeling is that under the ashes of the past something new and exciting is germinating once again. As noted by a recent article on Crain’s, New York City’s leading business publication: “There is no going back to the Manhattan retail landscape of 10 years ago or even 10 months ago. We must rethink how we use ground-floor spaces and [...] create a critical mass of activities and experiences.”
Indeed, in the age of remote working and e-commerce, retail in urban areas needs to reinvent itself: from sales points focused on foot traffic potential to experiential venues integrated in the life of local residents.



[About the author: Italian-native Maria Elena Velardi lives in New York City for more than 20 years, she works as a freelance journalist.]



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