A not-so-subtle shift in boutique land is emerging. Tony or tarnished, small stores are carrying fewer clothes.
That's not to say there is less to look at. Quite the opposite. The expanded list of options now includes books, furniture and housewares, flea market finds, food condiments, foundations, diamond jewelry (the real kind) and hair-care products. Some are even serving food, from hamburgers to cookies and cappuccino.
Behind the return of what used to be called the general store is the disappearance of conspicuous consumption. Today's shoppers, averse to fashion looks with quick expiration dates, are returning to basics, be they T-shirts, denim jackets or cashmere cardigans. That translates into fewer entries at the cash register. Merchants say they must diversify.
"People can only wear so much sportswear," says Mark Werts, who with his wife, Margo, created in November Maison et Cafe, a restaurant and furniture store in the midst of American Rag. An offbeat collection of four new and vintage clothing and shoe stores, American Rag is spread across a block of La Brea Avenue, one of the city's most eclectic shopping strips.
Elsewhere around town, the Esprit de Corp. clothing store in West Hollywood introduced a book department in November. Madeleine Gallay began selling wedding rings and antique furniture in her Sunset Plaza women's apparel store last fall. In mid-March, Barneys New York will open a bistro in its South Coast Plaza store. And Fred Segal, once a small, men's clothing store, now features cookie shops, espresso bars, book sections, gift items, lingerie and toiletries.
"Clothes have lost ground over a lot of other things such as putting your kids through school, retirement plans, travel, making ends meet, taking care of aging parents, health expenses--you go down the list," says Ross Goldstein, a San Francisco-based psychologist and market researcher.
Gallay concurs. "The period of our lives where our identities are wrapped up in what we wear is over."
"There are a lot of ways to spend your money other than on clothes," says Tom Gillman, owner of Studio, a small, clubby men's apparel store in Santa Monica.
The Studio array includes pricey European apothecary items, women's fine jewelry and an in-store haircutting salon.
"Maybe in these times, there is less of an urgency to beef up a wardrobe with everyday trends," says Gillman. "But you can still buy a bottle of Molton and Brown $15 shampoo or $200 sunglasses, and our customers will always need haircuts. They still hold certain things important."
Retail analysts are, at best, skeptical about the concept of cross-selling. "I would not dignify this with the word trend ," says Kurt Barnard, publisher of Retail Marketing Report in New York.
"The specialty stores that are doing the best are the most focused, like the Gap is to weekend wear, like Victoria's Secret is to lingerie, like the Limited Express is to young working women," says Alan Milstein, publisher of the Fashion Network Report in New York. "No one wants to shop at a general store. If they want something for the kitchen, they'll go to Crate and Barrel."
Robert Kahn, publisher of Retailing Today in Lafayette, Calif., says: "The bottom line is making money."
But merchants say diversification is about more than profit.
"Basically we're in the entertainment business," says Michael Segal, a partner in the Fred Segal stores in West Hollywood and Santa Monica and the new Fred Segal For a Better Ecology. "People come in and spend hours."
Shoppers also linger longer in Esprit's Superstore since its Big & Tall book department opened. "Instead of running in, making a purchase and running out, going through the store becomes an activity and it makes going there fun," says Lisa Engler, president of the company's retail division.