CHANGING THE RULES OF RETAIL by Sara Courtney
Updated: Feb 2
Out-of-the-box boutiques offer new ways to shop.
If the past few years have revealed anything, it is that change is inevitable. Sometimes it appears to move at a glacial pace, incrementally sneaking along, so no one notices the change until it is already here, like those once busy shopping malls that turned into ghost towns. Shoppers moved on – but to where? Big box stores? Little boutiques? Online shopping? It wasn’t clear. Then the pandemic hit, and while it brought much of life to a screeching halt, it seems to have accelerated the pace of change, at least for some local businesses.
As usual, that leap into tomorrow is being led by the world of fashion.
Lately, a Mercedes Sprinter van has been dashing about town. But this is no fancy ice cream truck, because when the doors of The Gypset open, a selection of upscale designer clothing is within. Owner Andrea Gordon has turned the shopping experience on its head, offering a “white glove concierge mobile boutique,” and her business is catching on. “We really want to be true gypsies,” she says. “So Gypset stands for gypsies who are jetsetters.”
She opened The Gypset with her husband, Eric, along with another shop owner in Summit.
“We started in September 2020, and it exceeded all our expectations.”
Initially, they were on the cusp of creating a fashion line together called The Edit 18, so called for the 18 pieces every woman needs in her wardrobe. Then COVID hit and put their plans on hold. But when adversity strikes, the creative get, well, creative.
“My husband, when we were in lockdown, kept seeing all the Amazon trucks going to people’s homes,” Gordon explains. “And he thought, ‘Why am I sitting here waiting for things to happen? I’ll create a mobile truck of my own and go see my customers!’”
Thus, The Gypset was born.
With a deep background in fashion, the team had seen changes to retail over time.
“Being in the business for so many years,” Gordon says, “we realized retail was suffering. We could see it was not going in a positive direction.”
Many of the changes were accelerated by the pandemic. “People don’t really want to go to the mall, they just don’t have many choices. It’s hot, we’re in COVID, they’re waiting in line,” Gordon notes.
The brilliance of the concept behind The Gypset was to offer another choice. “We say this is the new way to shop.”
The mobile fashion store – complete with private dressing rooms – would go directly to clients, often driving to several appointments a day. While that is still a part of the experience, the business has “morphed into something completely unexpected,” Gordon says, noting that the company now does a lot of hybrid events for charities as well as shopping parties for groups of friends.
The appeal is more than the excitement of something different. “We are saving you time. We are coming to you. You don’t even have to leave your home! And you don’t have to worry about returning anything, because it’s instant gratification. We bring the dressing rooms as it’s all direct to the consumer.”
For anyone who has ever waited to return an ill-fitting pair of pants, The Gypset is the answer.
The Fabric of the Community Will See You Now
Yet what about the beloved brick and mortar boutiques, the ones with friendly owners and scenes reminiscent of the Cheers gang shouting “Norm!” whenever patrons enter? One such stylish shop is closing its doors in March and evolving into something new.
Julie Perlow-Greene has owned and operated Retail Therapy, an eclectic, stylish shop with vintage and consignment pieces, for six years. She started in South Orange before moving to her location in the heart of downtown Maplewood, where she’s gotten to know her shoppers’ stories, from the Maplewood Middle school girls who shop her store after the school bell rings, to the moms who come in looking for that perfect high school reunion dress.
Perlow-Greene is not your typical store owner. A clinical psychologist with a doctorate, she practiced for 12 years before shifting her focus to fashion. With Retail Therapy, named as a nod to her background, Perlow-Greene uses her empathy and considerable listening skills to get to the heart of how her shoppers see themselves. “When I dress people, I think about their authentic self, and how to make a better version of themselves.” Retail Therapy became a much-loved boutique in town, a place for people to both look and feel good.
As her store became embedded in the community, Perlow-Greene observed the ways in which retail was changing. “Consignment was getting to be big, because people do care about sustainable style and not just buying a bunch of things. It became a big thing with the younger crowd. And it’s more economical – you can sell your own stuff and then buy things. Another thing that became big was renting things,” she adds.
Ultimately, she notes “young people do not want to be committed to a wardrobe. Social media changed that. People don’t want to be seen in the same outfits. We are more transient.”
Still, when COVID struck, the impact was significant. “That really changed the face of retail,” she says.
Perlow-Greene was doing a lot of online services, like making videos for customers to browse through during the lockdown. “That worked out well,” she says. “But things have changed, and I am changing my business too.”
Starting in March, Retail Therapy will be in a smaller, more intimate showroom in South Orange’s Village Plaza, where shopping will be done in private, by appointment only.
Change can be startling, and this has been difficult news for some of Retail Therapy’s devotees. Customers have been saddened to hear the storefront in Maplewood is closing, but Perlow-Greene wants her fashion-forward customers to embrace the change. “It’s going to morph into a different type of business. It’s changing and evolving, but there are a lot of opportunities. And even though a door is closing– and, let me tell you, I’m sad not to be there with the storefront – I think that when one door closes, some very interesting ones open.”
The new location will offer her clients a more personalized experience, where they will have more time to find pieces that work for their style, find sizes to flatter their fit, and, as always, it will offer more opportunities for Perlow-Greene to provide an empathetic presence. “It’s about drawing out their vision of themselves,” she says. “Getting them to talk about what they are looking for and making them feel comfortable chatting about their life. I hope they leave with their mood uplifted.”
For Retail Therapy, the shopping experience will feel fresh, yet similar. She knows that part of the delight of finding that perfect outfit is in the experience of discovering it. “People still want to touch and feel, to try things on, and this will still be a place for that.”
While many struggle with the pace of change – too slow, too fast, the new rushing in, the comfort of yesterday slipping away – all can still delight in the ways in which the community evolves. Look closely, and the new experiences and new ways of doing things become a glimpse into the future.
Just like standing in front of a fitting room mirror, you are seeing both the present and the future at once. For Perlow-Greene, she will be there for her customers to “enhance what they like with a little flair – it’s a lot of honoring where they are at.” And, of course, where they will be tomorrow.
Sara Courtney is a writer living in Maplewood.