By Hilary Danailova
Coastal stores cater largely to a leisure clientele — tourists and weekenders who want souvenirs, local handcrafts and unique pieces they can’t find at a chain store. “People are looking for something special, not your everyday basic,” explained Stacy Smallwood, the owner and buyer for Hampden, an upscale boutique in Charleston, S.C. “They say, ‘I want something that I’d never buy at home, but maybe I will because I’m in this special city.’”
At the 11-year-old Hampden, vacation shoppers gravitate toward whimsical splurges like handbags from the Proenza Schouler line in “fun colors” like silver or hot pink instead of everyday black, Smallwood said. Statement purses from Stella McCartney also sell well at the 4,200-square-foot boutique, where clients with significant disposable income may spend nearly $1,000 on a handbag.
Smallwood merchandises carefully for a clientele that appreciates fashion-forward trends rather than classic, preppy looks more typical in coastal resort towns. “Not Lilly Pulitzer,” Smallwood laughed, referring to the iconic resort wear brand. “I look for things that are interesting and different, and people love it.”
Coastal destinations are also major event venues, and Smallwood does a brisk business in dressy eveningwear and accessories for rehearsal dinners and parties. “Charleston has a lot of weddings, and tons of people come in and buy a dress for that evening,” said Smallwood, adding that the Isabel Marant line is especially popular.
Since expanding its shoe collection recently, Hampden has seen sales in that category skyrocket, and pricey novelty footwear is now a best-seller for the store. Smallwood said her customers will splurge well into the three figures on a pair of pearl-bedecked heels from Nicholas Kirkwood, shiny sneakers from Golden Goose, or crystal-studded dressy sandals from Sophia Webster.
Both selection and clientele are very different at Elegant Affairs, a longtime retail fixture in the Long Island seaside town of Port Jefferson, N.Y. But Co-owner Joga Singh said his customers — a mix of locals and North Shore tourists — gravitate toward unique, not-exactly-necessary pieces like candles and crystals.
“The spiritual stuff always sells the best,” explained Singh, whose 850-square-foot boutique carries a mix of home décor, women’s apparel, fragrances and tarot accessories with a New Age flavor. “Some people like religious statues, things like that” — items that people won’t find in a chain retailer, for instance.
Offbeat “finds” are also what drive sales at Twig, a 1,350-square-foot store in the Southern California resort town of Laguna Beach. “Everyone is on the Internet, so if you’re brick and mortar, you have to have things you can’t find online,” noted Owner Susan Elliott.
That’s why Elliott customizes vintage denim with quirky, one-of-a-kind detailing like embroidery, patches and dye, making jeans a best-seller for her six-year-old family business. Another customer favorite: handmade sea glass jewelry from a local surfer-turned-artisan, “which is a huge top seller,” Elliott said. The necklaces and earrings are also appealing for their accessible price point, $24 to $35.
For Laguna Beach’s upscale tourists, who make up about half the shoppers at Twig, Elliott also carries mugs, candles, and pins with the town’s name. But while the items themselves are common, Elliott tries to customize those souvenirs so that they don’t look like generic beachside swag. T-shirts bear stylized vintage photos; trucker-style hats have a vintage Laguna Beach logo. “Vacation people love anything that says Laguna Beach on it,” Elliott explained.
Along Florida’s Gulf Coast on Ana Maria Island, Retailer Mary LaBell agreed. “For a souvenir, people like to have something with the island name on it,” said the owner, with husband Dave, of Two Sides of Nature. The name-dropped preference has held steady over 20 years in business at the coastal T-shirt emporium, but recently LaBell has seen a trend toward brighter colors, especially for women. Bestselling Ts and sweatshirts featuring marlins and palm trees sell well in tropical hues like turquoise, periwinkle and fuschia.
Shoppers are similarly drawn to those Floridian colors at The Island Trader in nearby Holmes Beach, Fla., said Store Manager Leah Best. “A lot of coastal blues and whites is what people want, along with anything mermaids,” Best explained. The 12-year-old boutique has tables piled high with T-shirts emblazoned with sharks and dolphins in colors like coral, aqua, red and white. Seasonal residents are drawn to seashell-themed décor items, including wall art and hanging ornaments, while tourists pick up souvenir magnets, key chains, and mugs.
“For tourists, the things that sell the best here are anything they can fit into a suitcase,” said Best. “They don’t want to have to ship things home.” T-shirts are a consistent best-seller for the store, along with hats to stave off the strong Florida sun. “A bit of everything” is how Best described The Island Trader’s approach to merchandising: “We fill up this place with shells, lamps, signs, you name it,” she said. “As long as it looks like Florida, it sells.”