Professional Jeweler Archive: Urbane 'Burbs

August 2000


Urbane 'Burbs

Former downtown denizens move out but demand urban amenities

It used to be people went to the city to find funky, authentic shops and merchandise. Now suburbs such as Bethesda, MD, and Wayne, PA, have quaint little places selling Tibetan dining room furniture.

The reason, according to an article in The New York Times, is the people who frequent these stores moved to the suburbs and took their dollars with them. Mostly, these are people raised in the suburbs who craved life in the urban core – museums! restaurants! nightlife! – and years ago gravitated to downtowns. Now, though they may not like it, they’re moving back to suburbia – often to satisfy the needs of recently acquired children.

Yuppie Non-Conformity

These suburban rebounders still dislike split-levels, cul-de-sacs, conformity and Wonder Bread. So to ease the pain of transition, they buy stuff that reflects their gritty, urban self-images.

That means patronizing little bakeries (where they pay $5 for a loaf of bread), quirky boutiques and garden stores selling English gardening implements.

A New Kind of Chain

So widespread is the anti-suburbia phenomenon that entire chains have sprung up to serve urbanized appetites. Most, however, try hard not to seem like chains.

In Bethesda, CP Shades sells dyed “carefully casual” clothes. The retailer is based in Sausalito, CA, with outlets in urban exile zones such as Short Hills, NJ, and Santa Monica, CA. Fitigues – offering sophisticated SoHo-style clothes in black, gray and white – has branches in Scarsdale, NY; Hinsdale, IL; and Birmingham, MI. Retail emporium Anthropologie – which the Times calls the “quintessential urban-exile chain” – sells muted-color women’s wear, “perfect for the multicultural cardiologist who is taking a few years off to rear the kids,” along with shabby-chic furniture, funky jewelry and other accessories for body and home.

In addition to its original store in Wayne, PA, Anthropologie is in five moneyed suburbs. Its name – the French spelling of the academic discipline – is calculated for its status appeal with the high-income, educated set.

Mindset Matters Most

You won’t find urban exile outposts in just any suburb. Money is part of the profile, and location matters too. Those with an urbanized mindset tend to locate in the inner ring of suburbs. Some close-in suburbs have money but don’t have the mindset. Claritas, a market research firm, identified 14 behavioral types in the suburbs (plus 48 more in other locales). One is called “Kids & Cul-de-Sacs,” while the closest to the previously urban-dwelling folks is a group called “Money & Brains.”

Income is about the same; the average is about $62,000 per household. But while the “Kids & Cul-de-Sacs” types belong to Price Club, buy Velveeta and subscribe to Golf Digest, the “Money & Brains” crowd contributes to public broadcasting, buys olive oil and subscribes to The New Yorker.

Glen Senk, president of Anthropologie, uses a more informal method when siting new stores. He looks for suburbs with art galleries, a high-end grocery store and Starbucks. And if, while walking around, he notices blue plastic bags in people’s driveways – the kind that indicate a Times subscription – that’s a very good sign.

The “Money & Brains” ’burbs also share a certain genteelness in the business districts. Unlike the butchers, bakers and locksmiths once on these main streets, newer shopkeepers never put prices in their windows. Among their clientele, it’s considered vulgar.

It’s a paradox. People who haven’t finished high school respond to rational appeals about price and value. To sell to the urban-exiles, however, you must appeal to a self-image built around not being materialistic.

Hints for Jewelers

Jewelers looking to open a new store or considering a move away from an urban downtown should be careful – for every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction. Anthropologie, for example, just opened a branch in Center City Philadelphia, acknowledging the persistence of urban shopping habits. There may be a reason why branded jewelers such as Lagos open their new stores in cities. A lot of Baby Boomer and Gen-X parents may tire of the continuing conformity of many suburbs.

Already, demographics are changing – as the kids go off to college, many empty-nesters move back downtown to take advantage of the cultural offerings and easily navigable retail areas.

On the other hand, if you’re in a suburban spot recently invaded by the urban masses, consider more avant- garde jewelry. This is a demanding consumer subset that won’t be content with just the classics. Unusually cut colored gemstones, platinum, contemporary designers and affordable but chic silver appeal to this sophisticated group.

– by Mark E. Dixon

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications