With closing of Crate and Barrel, plaza merchants concerned


 By Hallie Busta

Crate and Barrel store closing
Crate and Barrel is closing its Wilmette location at the end of January

— Crate and Barrel will close its anchor location at the Plaza del Lago in Wilmette Jan. 30, the company said in an email announcement. The location opened more than 40 years ago as the company second store and its first in the Chicago area to sell furniture.

Company representatives could not be reached for comment, but other plaza merchants said they were concerned about the impact the vacancy would have on their businesses.

Hundreds of stores vacated

Crate and Barrel is not the only company to close locations recently.  Nationwide, many retail chains, including Lane Bryant, Ann Taylor, Ritz Camera and the Gap have closed hundreds of stores during the past two years. And the downsizing isn’t over yet.  Blockbuster, which had a location in the Wilmette mall, plans to close 110 stores in the first quarter of this year after having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September, Reuters reported in December.

While the number of jobs at U.S. shopping centers stayed the same from November to December, due to the holidays, they had declined by 50,000 jobs in the two prior months, according to a report by the International Council of Shopping Centers. The Council also reported that while holiday sales for 2010 were the strongest in four years, with same-store sales climbing 3.1 percent in December, they remained lower than analysts’ expectations of a 3.5 percent gain.

Surrounding businesses expect  impact

Crate and Barrel is joined by 29 other businesses, including Jewel-Osco, in the Wilmette shopping plaza, where other merchants said they have developed a shared customer base with the larger store.

  They produce the big-box gifts and they send people here for the gift wrap, said Carol Schaner, owner of Yellow Bird, a stationery and gift store.

 Yellow Bird has developed a strong customer base during  its 22 years thanks to its unique offerings, Schaner said. However, she plans to survey her customers asking what products they would like her to carry to fill the void left by the larger store. They re big shoes to fill, she said, referring to Crate and Barrel.

Peggy Kocian, who has been the manager for 17 years at Artisan Shop & Gallery, which sells gifts and jewelry made by artisans, said she also shares customers with Crate and Barrel.

If we don t have what they are looking for, we (tell them) to look at Crate and Barrel and we hope [it ] vice-versa, Kocian said.

Kamila Sobon said she doesn’t deliberately try to draw customers from Crate and Barrel, but with an emphasis on European merchandise, she said her six-month-old Kinga European Children’s Shoes franchise may attract them anyway.

European influence

Crate and Barrel first sold imported European dinnerware when it opened in Chicago in 1962, according to the company website. It partnered with the Otto Group of Hamburg, Germany, in 1998 and still carries many European goods.

European Children's Shoes opened last year in the plaza
European Children's Shoes opened last year in the plaza

Sobon said that may be driving customers looking for European products   “ including shoes “ her way. Nobody carries European shoes, she said. I carry shoes which are made in Europe.

 But not all stores in the plaza see Crate and Barrel as integral to their customer base, and many merchants said they were “destination stores” that would continue to lure customers.  Candace Warner, who has been a part owner of Convito Café and Market since 1996, says that while the larger store was a big part of Plaza del Lago, her business draws from its 22-year-history, which includes another now-closed location.

But she, too, is concerned about the plaza future and what Crate and Barrel loss might mean for it.   It not good for a great flagship store [to be] leaving, she said.

The loss of foot traffic will likely impact all merchants. There always less of a draw when there aren t as many stores, Kocian said.