These Harlem Boutiques Have Overhauled Their Businesses in the Pandemic

Harlem Haberdashery’s storefront.  

Before the pandemic, Sharene Wood’s boutique, Harlem Haberdashery, used word of mouth and personal relationships to drive sales. Now, it is relying on a site that was essentially built from scratch earlier this summer after the shop had to temporarily shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Once the pandemic hit, it really forced us to expedite our virtual presence because it became the only real way to provide what customers wanted in the mode that they could access it. We really adopted the notion that the more effort you put out, the more responses you get,” says Wood.

Because many customers are unable to physically go into brick and mortar stores, retailers have accelerated their use of e-commerce transactions to make their inventory digitally accessible. Two such places are Harlem Haberdashery and The Brownstone, both of which are located in Harlem. Not only has this pivot granted them the ability to maintain relationships with their established customer bases, but it has also allowed them to thrive during an unprecedented time and cultivate a new, widespread following. 

“We really didn’t have a robust e-commerce program before the pandemic. March to April was a whole learning curve for business owners, and you either had to adapt or die,” continues Wood.

These adaptations included investing in a shipping system, purchasing a postal scale, adopting a user-friendly payment system and expanding the lifestyle branch of its brand. One extension of the latter endeavor is e-Harlem, an aromatherapy spray line.

“Before, we only sold in the store, and the store was only open from 12 to 8 Monday through Saturday. Now, with e-commerce and because of social media postings, our store is open 24 hours internationally. And so we’ve actually seen an increase of about 80% in our e-commerce sales since the pandemic,” says Wood.

The sales are welcome because they now have additional customer impressions that are helping them diversify their offerings, the founder says. Additionally, the boost in e-commerce business is helping the shop substantially after it took a financial hit at the height of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been a really pivotal time of expansion for people who have traditionally been really focused on one business model,” says fashion anthropologist and founder of Sidewalk Safaris, a Harlem-based tour guide company, Mikaila Brown.

The narrative arc of Harlem’s boutiques is a microcosm of the current story of Black fashion around the country and the world — one that is in the midst of a renaissance given the sweeping changes that owners are being forced to make as a result of the pandemic coupled with the social justice movement, Brown says.

Just two avenues east from Harlem Haberdashery is The Brownstone, a specialty boutique for women that has been in operation for over 21 years. It is also reckoning with implementing changes in its business tactics and this larger, community-driven trend.

The Brownstone in Harlem, NY.

Founder Princess Jenkins says that business has rebounded from 30% of pre-pandemic sales in June to 70% in September.

“What helped us was really focusing on developing the website and getting people to really see it as a place to shop, not just look for new style trends that we had,” she continues.

Because of her efforts and that of the two employees she kept earlier this year, Princess Jenkins was able to build a site while the boutique was closed from March to June, and customers have taken note.

“I really like that she’s online because now we get to browse more things. We know that the products are excellent, so we can go on the site, click and have our order arrive at our doorstep in a matter of days,” says Elaine Perry, local resident and owner of Perry Associates Realty in Harlem.

Perry buys an assemblage of “dress up” pieces from the boutique. When asked about her commitment to elaborate styling amid an emphasis on athleisure since more people are spending time at home, she says: “Dressing up makes everything better! It makes the biggest difference in your mood.”

The Brownstone’s investment in digital has also made it easy for Perry’s Washington D.C.-based client, who used the online site for the first time during the pandemic, to browse through and purchase “feel-good clothes.”

Other initiatives implemented by The Brownstone were the creation of a monthly digital catalog sent to a 5,000-person email list in addition to myriad fashion shows on Facebook Live, which Jenkins says have garnered attention from many individuals outside of her usual clientele.

“The pandemic has been really detrimental in a lot of ways, but I really feel that many, many solely brick and mortar boutiques have really risen to the challenge. And I think it’s indicative of a larger e-commerce trend that will become the new normal. If there’s anything this time has shown, it’s that it’s possible to weather even the worst storms,” says.  

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Gretty Garcia currently attends Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. After graduating from Harvard College, she worked as the features at special projects editor at Editorialist and wrote for the Cut and V. A native New Yorker, Gretty is happy to be back in the city and explore and write about everything in it.

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