Earlier this week, we reported about the problem of empty storefronts popping up in Brooklyn. But this is a different kind of retail story, about a storefront in Ditmas Park that’s bringing holiday cheer to passersby and even passengers on the city buses that rumble past the store. The two store windows of Brooklyn ARTery, at 1021 Cortelyou Rd., feature fanciful cityscapes decked out for the season and populated with items from the artisanal variety store within. “I see kids here right now, finding the little creatures and seeing all of the little pieces, it’s just wonderful,” said Jocelyn Lucas Kirouac, a co-owner of the store.
The shopkeepers had some help. Only a few days before the windows were unveiled this month, the shopkeepers had been contacted by Vistaprint, a big business whose customers are primarily small businesses. Vistaprint told the shop owners the company would give them precisely $347, the estimated average amount that small shops spend on holiday decorations, to demonstrate what shopkeepers can do on a modest budget, along with a few pointers and some design help.
“A survey we conducted of 500 business owners told us that lack of ideas, budget and time are their most frequent barriers,” said James Regal, a global p.r. manager for Vistaprint. “We wanted to level the playing field, and show there are a lot of great, creative things small business owners can do to make their storefronts stand out.” For many shops, he added, a strong holiday season “can mean the difference between survival and closure.”
Five design students from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute were recruited to construct the window display out of everyday art-store supplies, along with an assortment of merchandise provided by Lucas Kirouac and her co-owner Susan Siegel. “We really tried to get the community involved, and to show that through our design. So we included the Q- and F-train signs,” said one of the artists, Ramsha Kahn. Victorian houses, a distinctive aspect of Ditmas Park, were mixed with other Brooklyn details like water towers. “We’re referencing the city,” said artist Katie Burzon. And referencing joy, of course, “joy and craftiness.”
The economic challenge for a business like Brooklyn ARTery is that it’s selling merchandise in a literally brick-and-mortar store, which means it competes with national retailers as well as e-commerce. Getting established in a neighborhood takes time as well. (Brooklyn ARTery just marked its fifth anniversary.) “When a neighborhood revitalizes, the food always leads retail by five to ten years. Always. Everyone can justify eating,” says Lucas Kirouac. “But it makes it harder for retail when there hasn’t been retail in an area. People are sort of trained to do their shopping elsewhere. If they work in the city, they do it there. Or they’re just following their regular path, when sometimes a block further would lead them to something completely different.”
When the holiday window display was finished earlier this month, the art students added to the drama by covering up their handiwork with sheets of brown craft paper. At noon on a Sunday, the curtain was pulled back and a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk trilled with seasonal delight. Said Lucas Kirouac: “This is going to provide so much joy and entertainment to the entire neighborhood.”
Since every store window should be distinctive, the Vistaprint team offered a few tips on how small shops can do it themselves:
- First, figure out your message: What are you trying to say about your store? You should be telling a story.
- Imagine your store window is a stage, with a “backdrop, a floor, a ceiling, lighting, set décor, supporting cast members and the stars of the show.” Keep the concept simple, but bold.
- Think eclectic. Mix contrasting colors, large and small shapes, varying typefaces. The slight clash of styles creates intrigue and energy.
- Give it dimension, a 3-D effect. Stagger items between the background and foreground. Illuminate the front with a small spotlight.
- Let it shine. You can use mirrors, glass and glittery material to add sparkle. The spotlight will help.
Lucas Kirouac is still surprised that the opportunity came along. “Here’s why you should always read through all of the emails that you get. I was busy cleaning out my promotions box about a week ago and something caught my eye. I opened it up and it was a description of what the project was going to be and a questionnaire to fill out. So I thought, Fine, I’ll fill this out. It sounded really fascinating,” she said. “I got an e-mail back from James almost the next day saying, ‘Can we set up a call? I’d like to hear more about your business.’ So we had a great conversation. He told me that when he was starting the project, he pictured an old-fashioned storefront with two windows, like this. It’s that classic, old New York storefront.”
The shopkeepers at Brooklyn ARTery can already feel the effect of their jazzed-up windows. “They do notice our windows already, because people come in and here and say ‘Oh, I see the ARTery on our bus route and I finally got off and came in. It took me three years,’” said Siegel. Inside the store, the shopkeepers have curated an eclectic mix of merchandise, everything from home decor to beauty products to games and toys.
The decision to offer such variety might have been risky in our specialized world, but it worked for them. “For us, we have to be all things to all people. We felt like it made more sense rather than choosing a vertical,” said Lucas Kirouac. “I think that’s what everybody else did. They chose a vertical and there just wasn’t enough need for that one particular niche to sustain a business. So that’s why we have our good fortune.”
The shopkeepers have other secrets to their success as well, including staggered deliveries of holiday merchandise to keep things fresh, and social media to keep customers engaged. Said shopper Katherine Bradshaw: “They have wonderful local items on sale. And the staff is really friendly. I love this place.”