Nora and Nicky's, a women's clothing consignment shop on West Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh, feels more like an urban boutique than a thrift store. An inviting storefront window and a few well-organized racks of designer clothes and locally made goods create an intimate setting with a friendly vibe.
Owner Cathy Brooks opened the store two years ago, and though she says she has made connections with local shoppers and other businesses, and does well with out-of-towners during downtown events, the business has yet to turn a profit. "It's like, 'How can we get people to know we're here?'" Brooks says. "I don't think people understand or realize that there is shopping in this section of downtown."
In its downtown draft plan, design company Sasaki and Associates said vibrant retail will be key to attracting more residents to Raleigh's city center. Raleigh leaders, too, are grappling with how to balance the restaurant and bar scene with more retail, which translates into more money spent during the day.
A storefront inventory report from the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, an advocacy group for residents and businesses, found 32 new independent, locally owned retailers have operated within the 110-block municipal district since 2011.
Nonetheless, 21 retail businesses closed in the past three years, mainly in the Moore Square and Glenwood South districts. These ranged from boutiques to art galleries and stores that sold books, music and specialty goods. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs fared even worse; 46 closed in three years. A handful of salons, fitness and other specialty service businesses closed as well.
Brooks says on a bad day, maybe 10 people come into her store, and that the winter months are particularly hard for business. "If you don't get enough people through the door, then you cannot continue to operate for the long-term," she says.
But because of its location Brooks' business has a better chance than some of succeeding. Bill King, the planning and development manager for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and the author of the inventory report, says a lack of pedestrian traffic hurts Glenwood South and Moore Square, which aren't doing as well as the Warehouse and Fayetteville Street districts.
Additionally, Glenwood South needs more offices and an accompanying mix of residents and office workers.
King says clustering stores close to one another is a good way to improve their chances of success. The Warehouse district has been successful as a "destination retailer;" people go to watch chocolate being crafted at Videri, or jeans being made at Raleigh Denim, or coffee at Oak City Roasters, and then they buy the products.
"It's putting the numbers to the data to show that retailers are able to operate successfully," he says, adding that new ground-floor retail space will open within the next year, when large residential buildings, like SkyHouse and The Lincoln, launch. "We need to show that retail is already here, and it's going to be successful."
And although Nora and Nicky's isn't profitable downtown yet, Brooks is confident that soon, it will be. "We're in the process of trying to find out who it is that wants to shop here," she says. "And what can we do to find them."
This article appeared in print with the headline "It's a dog eat dog world"