Kent Gushner was at home the evening protests turned into looting, violence and vandalism in Center City. He watched the scene unfold from security cameras installed at Boyds, one of Philadelphia’s oldest and vaunted retailers.
Glass doors and windows from his family-owned store at 1818 Chestnut St. were broken and marauders plundered any items they could get their hands on. “I was watching this in real time,” Gushner said.
Aside from the stolen merchandise, the three floors that make up the store suffered millions of dollars in damage. There was blood splattered on the carpeting and little could be salvaged.
“It was a crime scene,” he said. “The city’s handling of the civil unrest was abominable and completely unacceptable. It was very angering to me but even more angering was that I never heard from anyone in the city government. Not a word. Zippo.”
Gushner re-opened Boyds on Sept. 16, six months after he had closed because of the pandemic and government shut down orders. He, like other retailers and businesses, was preparing to open at the beginning of June, eager to make up for some lost ground when the protests and looting took place. It set not only the store back but also Philadelphia, he said.
That Gushner decided to re-open in Center City came after a lot of soul searching. For the first time, the third-generation owner of Boyd’s entertained moving the storied, 83-year old retailer out of Philadelphia.
Gushner, who isn’t one to make the situation a political commentary, said he was finally able to speak with Mayor Jim Kenney about his concerns and his worry not only for him but other retailers and the city on a whole. “I could go on and on about my emotions but I finally landed at a place where I felt comfortable,” he said. “We made a decision to stay and rebuild.”
Though that’s the case, Gushner has decided to dip Boyds into the suburbs. The retailer signed a three-month lease to occupy the former Urban Outfitters space at Suburban Square in Ardmore. This is the first time Boyds will have a second location and a presence in the suburbs.
“Some people think we’re crazy but I’d rather try and fail than not try at all,” he said of the pop up location.
In his quest to find the right location, Gushner looked at King of Prussia Mall, King of Prussia Town Center and Wayne before settling on Suburban Square. The store will be open at the beginning of October and run until January, when he will evaluate the situation.
The Ardmore location serves two purposes, Gushner said. It allows Boyds to attract and follow clients who are living in the suburbs and not coming into Center City for work or weekend excursions. It is also a test run for a permanent, second location in the suburbs. A migration of residents, particularly millennials having children, out of Center City had started but picked up during the pandemic as people began looking for more space and their own private yards.
In the time Boyds has been closed, Gushner and his team began to re-evaluate every aspect of the business. The company completed in 2019 a $10 million renovation to the 70,000-square-foot landmark building as it sought to position itself for the future. The damage that was caused by the looting made the investment all the more disheartening.
Looking to the future, everything was put under a microscope. Demand for fashion has changed during the pandemic, which accelerated some trends already underway. While Boyds had already begun to including more lines of casual clothes before, it intends to bolster its offerings to meet the current situation of people not dressing up for work or events and holding Zoom meetings in the comfort of their homes.
The company is expanding in other areas. It intends to hire someone to head up a new outside sales division that will serve customers in their homes or offices. Boyds intends to also bolster its in-store personal shopping services. To that end, it built out a private area on the fourth floor where a customer can go before the store opens to the public at 11 a.m. and try on clothes and get assistance in selecting items.
The retailer also plans to improve the skills of its sales staff to sell merchandise virtually in what Gushner calls a hybrid of e-commerce and traditional shopping.
“In a weird way, I believe our business has more potential to grow in other ways rather than through e-commerce,” he said. “We are experts in personal commerce.”
In other words, taking care of existing customers, who are loyal, and attracting new ones is the mainstay to its business strategy.
Being small is allowing Boyds to be nimble and adapt quickly to meet the times and customers’ needs, Gushner said. Surveys it conducted during the pandemic indicated that Boyds’ clients would rather shop smaller — not in an enclosed mall — and local where they felt it was safer.
“That gave me a road map,” he said. “Our business model is going to serve us well and when it’s over, I think we are going to grow exponentially.”
*Articles Courtesy of Philadelphia Business Journals
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