More than 82,000 people enter uptown Charlotte every weekday morning. And every weeknight, most of those 82,000 people leave.
That 9-to-5 swell-and-recede pattern could be unsettling to potential vendors for whom five days of commerce per week isn’t enough.
But for Whitney Ferguson and her mother, Susan Young, it posed the perfect opportunity.
For nine hours a day, they have constant traffic in front of their boutique, Blis, located in The Shops at Founders Hall at the corner of North Tryon and East Trade streets.
The vaulted atrium and marble floors of Founders Hall are connected to the headquarters of one of the city’s largest employers, Bank of America, as well as to Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, BB&T and the Hearst Tower.
It’s also within a couple blocks of Time Warner Cable Arena, The Ritz Carlton, the Omni Charlotte and the Lynx.
That means Blis’s coral walls, candles and displays of everything from baby-shower gifts to jewelry to chic workday lunch bags, are in the heart of the weekday hoopla.
“There’s a huge captive audience up here,” says Ferguson. “We don’t have to worry about people having to get in a car and come find us.”
Blis, which opened uptown in 2004, is one of a small but growing number of independent businesses with high hopes for the area’s retail market.
Other Founders Hall small business mainstays are local florist chain The Blossom Shop, Charlotte-based Julie’s Boutique and its trendy sister store, Ivy & Leo.
But to thrive in an area with mostly weekday customers and one of the highest rental rates in the county, it takes hustle and a deep appreciation for the customer’s needs – and time (or lack thereof).
Just ask Ferguson and Young, who after nine years in Founders Hall, have hit their stride, taking on a bigger space and getting more foot traffic than ever before.
Gift wrapping on the go
Long before the mother-daughter duo opened Blis nine years ago, the two had dreamed about launching a boutique.
When they heard about a place opening up in Founders Hall, they decided to get serious. Following a busy week of brainstorming a business plan and name (Bliss was already taken, so they dropped an “s”), they soon found themselves negotiating a lease.
Today, Blis attracts 80 to 100 people a day. Typical customers are: employees who need a diversion from the daily grind. Lunch-break shoppers who want to treat themselves to a little something. Men who spot the card turnstile and free gift-wrap station and rejoice at the one-stop shopping.
And over the years, Ferguson, 33, and Young, 63, have learned how to best serve those customers:
They’re professionals. They’re in a hurry. They need friendly assistance, a well-organized store and a fresh rotation of inventory that’s affordable enough to justify buying on a lunch break. They carry a number of local lines and stock as many items under $20 as possible.
At Christmas time, they sell ornaments, from $3 to $25, which are perfect for office gift exchanges. They once sold 1,800 ornaments in one holiday season – and they gift-wrapped every one.
“It was unbelievable,” says Young. “We would have three wrappers and one (cashier). Tissue would be flying.”
Some customers, mostly working women who may be rushing to pick up a child from daycare or don’t have time for a lunch break, will purchase by phone.
The store owners have met customers in parking lots and on uptown street corners. They’ve occasionally even delivered them by car – if the stop is along their daily commutes home to SouthPark.
“One lady asked if we delivered to Concord,” Young said, laughing. “I said ‘no.’ We have to draw the line somewhere!”
‘Take back Saturday’
But operating a shop uptown also comes with its own set of challenges.
The owners, employees and customers have to pay to park. Bringing new inventory to a second-floor shop isn’t as easy as opening a back door for deliveries. And the rent is expensive.
According to Karnes Research Group, rent in uptown Charlotte during the first quarter of 2013 was nearly $29 per square foot, compared to an average of about $19 per square foot for Mecklenburg and the surrounding counties.
In Founders Hall, the going rate is even higher, from $28 to $32 per square foot, says Andrew Jenkins, managing partner of Karnes.
That means a 2,000-square-foot shop costs an average of $60,000 a year in rent.
“To be uptown, you have to really want to be uptown,” Ferguson says.
But Ferguson and Young recently made a move they hope will pay big dividends.
For nearly nine years, their store was located in a 1,100-square-foot space that was narrow, deep and down a side hallway. But two weeks ago, they moved into the 2,700-square-foot space that longtime Founders Hall tenant The BookMark, vacated.
They’re now beside a Caribou Coffee, at the top of an escalator and visible from the atrium, with double doors and triple the window space.
Their new location prompted a new adventure: Saturday hours. Right now, Blis relies almost entirely on the work-week crowd, but Ferguson and Young hope the expanded hours will attract more visitors and uptown residents.
“The (week-day) crowd is our bread and butter,” says Ferguson. “They’re the whole reason we exist. ...Hopefully Saturday can be that extra push.”
There is 2.1 million square feet of retail space in uptown, according to research from Charlotte Center City Partners, a group that promotes uptown neighborhoods.
But Michael J. Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners says growing the area’s retail scene will be critical for the success of the region over the next decade. Uptown and SouthEnd combined currently have about 25,000 residents, he said.
“We need to have a more complete offering,” Smith says. “We’re missing opportunities. ... Many guests walk Tryon and Trade streets and expect to find retail at the next block, and it never comes. ...We half-jokingly say that it’s time to take back Saturday.”
To help with foot traffic, Ferguson and Young have connected with Charlotte Center City Partners and Friends of Fourth Ward, and are hosting special discount Saturdays for neighborhood residents. Ferguson said they’re also considering opening a table at Seventh Street Market on Saturdays to sell candles and spread the word.
“This is really to take us and the business forward,” Ferguson says, “to really make it what we know it can be.”
McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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