Brick and mortar optimists: How vintage clothing stores challenge e-commerce

Photo by Hannah Ziegler.

Cruising around Ontario in the summer of 2014 while selling vintage clothes from the sky blue 1960s teardrop trailer she found on Kijiji, Carolyn Fielding had a vision.

As major stores such as Jacob, Costa Blanca and Sears announced closures, Fielding was determined to sell clothes the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, in her own physical vintage clothing shop.

Flash forward to 2018: Sears has completely liquidated their Canadian stores and several neighbourhood malls are shutting their doors. Meanwhile, Fielding is proud owner of a brick and mortar vintage store in Guelph, Ont.

Statistically, Fielding’s transition to a physical store is not a typical move. Retail e-commerce sales increased 43 per cent annually compared to eight per cent for overall retail, 2017 Statistics Canada data shows.

Online is the fastest growing medium for sales, but this didn’t deter Fielding, who was living in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood when she initially developed the idea to sell clothes.

“There was this emergence of mobile shops and flea markets, and there was just something happening,” the 28-year-old business owner says from Outpost Vintage and Thrift, her brightly lit store on Woolwich Street in downtown Guelph. “It got me thinking and I just had to try it.”

Fielding’s nomadic summer lifestyle of sleeping in parking lots and selling clothes in places like Kingston and Sudbury, Ont. led to a burning desire to make a home for her collection.

Slowly abandoning her self-run shop on Etsy — an online hub for independent retailers to sell clothing and accessories, especially vintage — she decided to make Guelph, a place where she spent formative years as a university student majoring in art history, her new home base.

The whole reason I came to Guelph was because I felt like these smaller towns needed stores like this,” Fielding says. “Toronto is really saturated with vintage, and I just feel like I don’t want to be another vintage store that’s going to kind of get lost in the mix.”

Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at J.C. Williams Group, a retail and marketing consulting firm, says despite the exodus from neighbourhood malls, online stores are not necessarily the ultimate retailer. “While brick and mortar stores are having problems, so are pure play online stores,” Atkinson says.

She mentions American Eagle Outfitters, which has closed several neighbourhood mall locations to focus instead on their megamall locations in addition to online. There’s also Frank and Oak, a trendy, predominantly online retailer that creates temporary pop-up shops, garnering large crowds for a limited in-store experience.

“[Online stores] are having the same kind of issues wherein they’re just not doing as well. They’re not thriving,” Atkinson says. “You can’t do 100 per cent of one or the other. It’s not the way the customer wants to shop these days.” Atkinson doubts that a vintage store could thrive in a mall — but not much can nowadays.

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Fielding previously worked as a sales associate at Sub Rosa Vintage in Kensington Market. She says the desire to pick clothes herself led to starting her own business.

With a positive and bright demeanor, frequent laughs punctuating her sentences, it’s easy to see why Fielding prefers the tangibility of brick and mortar to the anonymity of e-commerce. “I like selling to people, the human interaction,” she says. “Whereas with Etsy, I didn’t know where the pieces were going. I want to know the home they’re going to.”

Customers’ reasons for shopping second-hand range from environmental awareness and local business support to simply wanting to stand apart from the masses, says Fielding.

Growing up, she found her voice in her own personal style. Not being able to relate to the sameness of big-box store products, she was drawn to the unique backstories of vintage and second-hand clothing. “There are high school kids who have the coolest style I’ve ever seen — and I don’t think they shop at the mall,” she says.

Fielding serves not only as the curator of her 90s and 2000s centric vintage (think striped cords tagged “Hilary Duff pants” lining the walls of the store). She is also the DJ — faint sounds of 90s R&B fade in and out between pauses in conversation — and cashier, conversing with every customer who walks into the store. Online, she says, is another full-time job and currently not her main concern.

Erika Brodzky, owner of Sub Rosa Vintage in Toronto, agrees that moving business online is too daunting for just one store owner. “I’ve had the brick and mortar for eight years and there’s a demand for online, but the thing with vintage is because the products are finite, there is only one of each thing,” she says.

“It’s difficult for that to be sustainable because once you sell it for 20 bucks, you’re not going to find that same thing again.” Brodzky started the store with a physical location, while its website promises a full online store coming soon.

Sub Rosa, under unique circumstances, ships items out to customers. Typically, shoppers have to keep their eyes on the store’s Instagram page or come in to browse if they want something specific, but Brodzky says she wants this to change. “I want people to be able to buy what I’m offering even if they don’t live in Toronto.” She hopes to eventually hire someone to run the online store full-time.

Instagram has also been a big selling point for Fielding, who uses it to promote items in her store and share collaborative posts with other local independent retailers and artists. “They’ll post something on their Instagram and then tag me and I’ll do the same thing. We’re all helping each other out,” says Fielding.

In fact, some of these Instagram encounters are with the same customers she had met on the road back in 2014. “Now, when I go to all these cities I used to set my trailer up, people still come out to say hi and I remember them. We catch up, I’ll see them again years down the line and they’ll be like, ‘I still have this!’”

While Fielding weans off retail life on the road and shifts back to the traditional storefront, she is discovering a potential online market beyond the Ontario’s Highway 401 — her vintage gems have caught the attention of buyers from California to the U.K.

The secret to her success and reach is not necessarily calculated. “Everything just happened really organically… Nothing for me is really ever planned out. When I look back, I realize, ‘Oh, I guess I was doing that right and I didn’t even realize it.’”