If there’s anything retailers in the Hamptons can rely on, it’s knowing tourists and celebrities alike will swarm to the chic, picturesque villages during the summer and then skip town come Labor Day.
The downtown districts that were lined with shoppers only months earlier are now experiencing the East End’s annual disappearing act. But fall in the Hamptons is a more lively scene than some might think. Between the fall festivals and wine tastings nearby, many shops can still experience a steady flow of traffic. Still, the retailers are largely using this time to recuperate. Reducing shop hours in the fall is standard, and closing for one, two or even three days mid-week isn’t unheard of either.
Heading into winter, the gradual fade-out for the Hamptons shopping strips continues. Some shops closed after Labor Day, others stuck it out until Columbus Day to take advantage of the still warm weather, and another group is just now starting to close earlier in the day, locals say.
For London Jewelers, at least one-third of its business is done in a 10-week period in the summer, says Ed Dressler, general manager of the East Hampton and Southampton locations. He says July and August are by far the store’s busiest months, and December is the next busiest month when people are looking for holiday gifts. “Summer pays for the rest of the year,” Dressler says.
That makes perfect sense for businesses on the East End, where the population shrinks from 381,000 in the summer to 138,000 in the off-season, according to the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning. The town of East Hampton alone drops from 95,000 people in the summer to 22,000 in the months that follow.
London Jewelers started reducing hours in September — closing on weekends at 5:30 p.m. instead of 7 p.m.— but the store errs on the conservative side in terms of closing for full days at a time. It’s still open seven days a week throughout the fall in East Hampton and six days in Southampton, which has a smaller store and staff of five, compared to East Hampton’s 12 employees. Closures will extend to Wednesday in East Hampton after the new year, the next seasonal marker where most stores make further cuts.
Neil Stern, senior partner of Chicago-based retail consulting firm McMillanDoolittle, says tourist areas like the Hamptons, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard are wise to stretch what he refers to as the “collar months,” the months before and after the summer. But, he says, “there comes a point where they need to weigh the costs against sales.”
“Labor can vary for many chains, but it can run between 15 to 20 percent of sales. So if you close for a day, you would save some, but you still probably have fixed costs like managers’ salaries, so you don’t save that much,” he says.
One thing that works in London Jewelers’ favor is that it owns the buildings it occupies in the Hamptons. “It’s key for a business to own because rents are very high,” Dressler says.
Figue, a luxury women’s apparel brand created by designer Stephanie von Watzdorf, experimented with a pop-up boutique in Southampton in the summers of 2013 and 2014. As the brand grew — it’s also sold online, at a Manhattan studio and through retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman — it decided to plant some roots in the Hamptons and last year opened its doors in East Hampton year-round, says Figue general manager Jessica Beierle.
She says the boutique, tucked in an alley off Main Street, is able to attract a substantial number of customers in the off-season, many of them locals looking for clothing and accessories for their winter travels. Like London Jewelers, Figue closes earlier throughout the fall and winter, cutting back one hour. Since Columbus Day the store has been closed on Tuesdays, and it will continue to do so until Memorial Day.
“If someone is to come out on the weekend, it’s going to be probably Thursday to Monday if it’s an extended stay, so a lot of stores will be open Monday and they’ll close Tuesday or Wednesday or both,” Beierle says.
In another cost-savings effort, Figue also cuts back on employees. Including Beierle, the store has three employees in the off-season. She works five days a week, but her other staffers are each part-time. During the summer, Figue employs five or six altogether, she says. “The summer is a good opportunity for young people or students looking for a job, but it’s understood that most will be going back to school in the fall.”
Shoppers in the off-season will notice a familiar pattern: one store open, the next closed, maybe even with a “Back May 1” sign placed in the window. East Hampton Village has an ordinance requiring retailers with a year-round lease who aren’t open the whole year to put some form of display in their windows so passersby aren’t left gawking at plain brown paper or able to peer inside the empty stores.
Women’s clothing boutique Alice and Olivia, for instance, has splashy floor-to-ceiling signs in the windows of its East Hampton and Southampton stores saying: “See you next summer.”
While many seasonal stores prefer to completely shut down and vacate their summer locations, Hal Zwick, commercial real estate director with Town & Country Real Estate, says the Hamptons could see more retailers signing year-round leases.
“East Hampton is still the most expensive, but you get the most traffic there,” he says. According to Zwick, tenants in areas like Southampton, Sag Harbor, and Bridgehampton are paying two-thirds of the costs that commercial tenants in East Hampton pay. He notes Westhampton is still up and coming compared with towns further east, and that’s where retailers can get a good bang for their buck.
Expensive or not, retailers like Tenet, a men’s clothing store, are wishing more stores would stay open in the off-season, says store manager Ryland Hilbert. Tenet has operated in Southampton for about seven years and expanded to East Hampton this past summer. The new location was expected to be open only for a few months, but in October employees learned the owner would be extending the lease through January.
“We wish more stores would stay open year-round so there would be some consistency and it doesn’t look like a ghost town,” Hilbert says.