The Apparel Niche and the Home & Hearth Niche: The Growing Importance of Independent Operators


The apparel niche and the home & hearth niche may seem unrelated, but they share several commonalities:

  • They are both particularly important to downtowns
  • They are both facing challenges, and
  • They will both be relying on the success of independent operators for their future well-being and growth.


First, let’s consider apparel. This niche is important to downtowns because women are our most prominent and powerful shoppers (making 80% of the purchases for the home and family). And clothing, shoes and accessories purchases for themselves and their children are an important part of women’s purchases. As we’ve reported in previous blasts, time-pressured mothers are willing to accept higher prices from downtown vendors if they can shop quickly and easily close to home. In addition, a successful apparel niche adds diversity to the downtown mix and stimulates interest in strolling and window shopping.

But apparel has been an at-risk niche for the past two decades. While the industry has grown, it has grown at a pace much slower than other retail sectors. Additionally, major retailers like Ann Taylor, the Gap and Chico’s – the kind of trophy apparel shop that many downtowns have targeted as their dream tenants – are not opening new stores as they suffer reduced sales in a difficult economic climate.

What to do? We all know of downtowns where there is more than sufficient unmet demand for apparel within a ten-minute drive shed to support a new store with $300,000 to $400,000 in annual sales. Such revenue may be too low for a national chain, but very adequate for an independent operator.

These new merchants will need a great deal of support from the downtown organization in finding affordable space, negotiating leases and perhaps even “sourcing” their merchandise. To succeed it will help that these merchants:

  • Be a local resident – for instance, a local mother – with a network of friends and colleagues in the community
  • Represent and market to a specific and strongly populated ethnic group in the community
  • Be opening a very high-end shop that provides an exceptional level of pampering and customer service
  • Be able to solve the problem of sourcing attractive merchandise

In many instances, an independent operation apparel niche is not going to be recognized or realized without the proactive intervention of a downtown organization. Your organization can help foster such a niche by:

  • Having market research performed to identify opportunities
  • Indentifying and cultivating possible entrepreneurs
  • Helping the entrepreneurs form a viable business plan, find appropriate affordable space, find loans or investors, etc.

Home & Hearth

For decades, revitalization advocates have searched for a type of retailing that can thrive in downtown locations despite the presence of nearby malls and big box discount retailers. DANTH has found that home and hearth niches are very often the answer.

Home and hearth niches are groups of shops that feature goods and services that enable shoppers to make their homes more comfortable, more entertaining and more beautiful. They include retail establishments selling furniture, carpets, antiques, table top goods, window treatments, hardware, electronics, art works, picture frames, tiles, appliances, kitchen and bathroom equipment, plumbing supplies, telephones, and gardening equipment. This niche can also include architects, plumbers, carpenters, contractors and service firms that deal with lawns and septic tanks.

Usually, the firms in this niche are overwhelmingly independent operators or small regional chains. They usually don’t need vanilla box spaces.

The home and hearth niche is very dependent on the housing market and the niche’s current economic woes have traced the decline in home values. But DANTH believes that demand for this niche’s products and services soon will begin to grow as consumers start to put more money and attention into fixing up their current homes instead of buying new ones. Home Depot and Lowe’s have already pivoted their marketing in this direction. Economic conditions have also sent Americans into more “cocooning” in their homes which is leading to strong sales of flat screen TVs and other home theater accoutrements.

Plus, the long-term trend for this niche is very good, showing that businesses in the home and hearth sector have grown at a pace greater than GAFO in eight of the last ten years for which data are available. DANTH expects that as the current housing crisis is resolved and household formation again rises, sales in home and hearth stores will follow suit. Now, as the market is bottoming out, is a good time for downtown organizations to strengthen or build their home and hearth niches.

Another positive for this sector is that downtown organizations will need to do less work in attracting and building this niche than with an apparel niche – since less home and hearth business owners are “newbie’s” to the industry. The downtown organization can take on a more traditional business recruitment effort without having to provide the large amount of business development assistance that independent apparel operators will require.

This posting was condensed from my longer report by Mary Mann. To read the full report on Apparel and Home & Hearth Niches, visit