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WESTPORT — Before the COVID-19 pandemic and the opening of a mall a few miles away, Main Street had reigned as one of the premier retail destinations in New England. It still does today.
While the pandemic and the presence of The SoNo Collection in Norwalk have changed the local retail landscape, the resounding majority of the storefronts on Main Street are filled. The street is not immune to closings, but a number of recent and upcoming openings show retailers’ abiding interest in the thoroughfare.
“COVID was obviously a horrible thing, but coming out of it, there’s been so much activity,” Maxxwell Crowley, president of the nonprofit Westport Downtown Association, said in an interview. “We’ve had a lot of new residents, and this new wave of businesses, including retailers, is a reflection of all this good activity.”
‘Westport felt like a great fit’
In the latest opening on the street, jeweler Gorjana debuted June 16 at 74 Main St., taking a storefront formerly occupied by a Sunglass Hut. The new store is the second in Connecticut for Gorjana, complementing an establishment at 160 Greenwich Ave., in Greenwich, that opened in January 2022. It is one of approximately 50 locations nationwide for the company, which was founded in 2004 in Laguna Beach, Calif., by husband-and-wife team Jason and Gorjana Reidel.
“We had a lot of people asking for another location, and Westport felt like a great fit,” store manager Caroline Kelly, who formerly worked at the Greenwich store, said in an interview. “Being from Laguna Beach, coastal towns are something we aspire to be a part of. And for the interior, we went for a coastal bungalow feel, with a lot of white, wood and brass finishes.”
There are neighboring jewelers, including Lux Bond & Green, at 136 Main St., in the Brooks Corner plaza, and Tiffany & Co., at 40 Post Road E. But Kelly said that Gorjana had distinctive offerings.
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“Our price points make for something that might have been missing,” Kelly said. “Our fine jewelry, like any of our solid-gold pieces, with real diamonds, start at $200 or $150.”
Among other recent arrivals on the street, apparel retailer Birddogs opened May 1 at Brooks Corner. It is the brand’s first store in Connecticut and third overall, following the opening in September 2021 of its first store, in midtown Manhattan, and the debut of a second in February in Short Hills, N.J.
“Westport was very strategically picked out,” Jonathan Scalisi, Birddogs’ Westport store manager, said in an interview. “The shopping is steady, as far as foot traffic is concerned. And it has a good mix of locals, tourism and people who come here to visit family members.”
Another apparel brand, Stamford-based Rhone, will open at 7 Main St., taking a storefront formerly occupied by Lou & Grey. The Rhone store is expected to open in late summer or early fall, according to Skip Lane, the Stamford-based director of commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield’s Leasing Services Group, who represents the owner of 7-17 Main St.
“There are new brands that really need the eyeballs, and there are old, established brands that need to stay relevant,” Lane said in an interview. “It keeps these outdoor malls vibrant.”
Messages left for Rhone’s marketing department were not returned.
Across the street, at 58 Main St., Chanel plans to open a store, taking the space that was formerly occupied by exercise-equipment maker Peloton, before its closing a few months ago.
Alongside apparel brands, home-furnishings retailers have long had a significant presence on Main Street. Last year, the street added two — Oka, at 44 Main St., and Timothy Oulton, at 38 Main St.
“With the opening of our third store in the United States, we’re closing in on another milestone: OKA Westport is our first foray into the east coast, and our U.S. flagship,” reads an excerpt posted last December on Oka’s website. “With its rare mix of small-town charm and cosmopolitan spirit, we’re certain Westport, Conn., is a perfect match for our particular brand of effortless British style.”
The recent and upcoming openings show how Main Street continues to hold its own alongside other high-end retail hubs such as Greenwich Avenue and The SoNo Collection, which opened in October 2019.
“The traffic on I-95 is a natural barrier,” Lane said. “Who really wants to get on 95 and go to Greenwich (from Westport)? It could take you an hour.”
Typical of even the most successful retail destinations, there are still some empty storefronts on Main Street. The most-recent vacancy was created by the closing in late May of Pottery Barn’s longtime store at 27 Main St. It stayed in town by opening another store, about one mile east, at 620 Post Road E.
The storefront at 17 Main St., next to the future Rhone store, is also vacant. It has been idle since the closing about a year-and-a-half ago of a Loft store.
“It was red-hot during COVID. Now, with (rising) interest rates and the fear of a recession, these big retailers are kind of pumping the brakes a little bit,” Lane said. “It’s definitely cooled off, but it’s still a pretty hot market.”
Even if another recession hits in the near future, Main Street will likely withstand the disruption given that it attracts many customers whose spending tends to be less affected by economic downturns. In Westport, the median household income was $236,892, compared with a statewide median of $83,771 and a national median of $69,717, according to Census Bureau data, as of 2021.
Given the resilience of the customer base, retailers are still willing to pay more to have a presence in places like downtown Westport.
“There have always been rumors that the reason why the retailers can pay these big rents is it’s part of their marketing budget,” Lane said. “They don’t make money on Fifth Avenue (in Manhattan), Main Street in Westport or Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, (Fla.). But it’s their brand and presence, and it reflects in their online sales and everything else. So it actually validates paying $100 to $120 per square foot (in annual leasing), if it’s helping your brand.”
Regardless of the economic climate, Crowley said that downtown merchants can count on support from the Westport Downtown Association, which organizes events throughout the year, including the Sidewalk Sale, which was held June 23-25, and the Westport Fine Arts Festival, which took place May 27-28.
“We’re going to keep doing events and beautifying the town,” Crowley said. “It not only gives the people of the town a beautiful shopping environment and a fun place to gather, but it also supports the merchants by bringing people to town.”