Web-Savvy Mom-&-Pops Keep Storefronts Open

Thomas MacMillan PhotoA recent visit to DelMonico Hatter found the century-old hat shop empty of customers—and doing a brisk business.

Ernie DelMonico (pictured) was selling hats not at the front counter, but through the computers at the back of the store, where orders were coming in from far and wide.

Despite DelMonico’s booming online hat trade, he has no intention of shutting down the walk-in portion of his business. Like other downtown businesses—from a coffee peddler to a women’s clothing boutique—DelMonico continues to do business from a storefront, the old-fashioned way, even as he leaps into newfangled web commerce.

DelMonico, owner of the family business, stepped over to a chest-high pile of boxes containing carefully packaged hats waiting to be picked up by the mail carrier. He called out shipping destinations as he sifted through the stack: Sweden, Alaska, U.K., Korea, Florida.

DelMonico no longer relies on customers coming through his doors to buy fedoras and Panama hats, as his father and grandfather did for the first nine decades of DelMonico Hatter. DelMonico reaches customers all over the world through the store’s website, which he established when he took over the business 12 years ago.

At the advent of the internet age, people predicted online sales would mean the end of small “mom-and-pop” merchants who peddled their wares from brick-and-mortar storefronts. But some of those operations have found a way not only to survive, but to thrive in the digital age.

In New Haven, DelMonico Hatter is the prime example of that kind of success; online sales now comprise 80 percent of his business. He and other downtown merchants have figured out ways that walk-in business can support online sales, and vice versa.

DelMonico said having a physical storefront gives him credibility with buyers in the virtual realm. Hello Boutique, which does half of its business online and half from its Chapel Street storefront, has found that a dual operation offers staffing and stocking advantages. Willoughby’s Coffee found that selling online was like opening another store to join its four coffee shops.

Any New Haven business that isn’t already selling online should start, said DelMonico.

“If they’re not on the web, they’re really missing the market,” he said. “You have to be online.”

The Modern Hatter

The first year after it started selling online, DelMonico Hatter did 15 percent of its business over the internet. That was 2001. Within only seven or eight years, that ratio had nearly flipped.

DelMonico Hatter is “one of the premiere sellers of hats on the internet,” DelMonico said.

The store ships out between 50 and 100 hats per day, he said. Last year, “We sold more Stetson fur felt fedoras that any other store in the U.S.”

If that’s the case, why even bother having a storefront anymore? DelMonico said people have advised him to simply shut down the shop and become an online only operation working out of a industrial park somewhere. “We could operate more efficiently in a garage in the suburbs,” DelMonico said.

He said he has no plans to do that, partly because having a store—especially one that’s been around since 1908—helps him on the internet. “A physical store gives us credibility on the web,” DelMonico said.

On the internet, you don’t always know whom you’re dealing with when you give over your credit card number. It could be just “two guys in a warehouse,” DelMonico said. When you’re shopping online and you see “Est. 1908” and a picture of the Elm Street storefront, it’s reassuring.

“It means a lot in the community, that we’re here,” said Jeff Dyer, who works in the store. “They trust us.”

Another reason he doesn’t close up shop, DelMonico said, is that the shop has become a destination, with a reputation spread wider by the internet. People find a hat they like online come from far and wide to look at it in the store, DelMonico said. Most people come from one to two hours away, he said—Albany, Westchester, Long Island.

DelMonico said he counts those purchases as in-store, but they’re really online sales too, since that’s where the customers start out.

DelMonico Hatter now has eight employees, including DelMonico’s son Ben (at right in photo), who processes orders as they come in. The online operation unfolds in the back of the store, near a now-defunct hot-sand hat shaper from the shop’s pre-digital days.

Hello, Online Sales

At Hello Boutique on Chapel Street, the online operation is in the basement. That’s where store manager Taryn Allison spends most of her day.

Hello Boutique sells high-end women’s clothing from mostly European designers. Items range from $36 to $700, according to Ingrid Ruddy, who was staffing the front counter on a recent visit. She pointed out a $248 Catherine Andre knit scarf hanging nearby, as an example.

The store has been in New Haven for over 30 years, under the current owners for 10. It began selling online about eight years ago, said Allison.

“It’s been growing quickly every year,” she said. The store has a staff of eight and sends out about 50 packages a day, she said.

At this point both online and in-store purchases are about equal, said Allison (at left in photo). The two operations support each other, allowing each to carry more items and have more staff available than they would otherwise, said Haley LeBuff, another staffer.

“We would never want to give up our location,” LeBuff said.

“A lot of Yale people come every season,” Ruddy said.

“They expect to shop here,” LeBuff said.

The store is targeted to “a demographic in line with people going to art museums,” Ruddy said. The Yale University Art Gallery sits across the street; the British Art Center is just down the block. Both of those institutions attract the “mature, sophisticated” 30- to 90-year-old women that Hello Boutique caters to.

And, in the digital era, a world of other customers is only clicks away.

World-Wide Willoughby’s

In 1985, Barry Levine and Bob Williams started “what was a really unique concept—roasting coffee in a retail store,” Levine said.

They opened the first Willoughby’s coffee shop in a storefront near the corner of Chapel and College streets. Other coffee shops followed; Willoughby’s now has two locations in New Haven, one in Madison, and one in Branford.

Levine, who said he has an affinity for technology, jumped into e-commerce early on. “I think we were selling coffee on the internet in 1995 or 1996. It was archaic, by comparison to how it works today.”

Online business is appealing because it’s so much simpler, Levine said. “It’s much more controllable. There’s a lot fewer moving parts in an online operation. Running a retail store is a complex thing. You need a lot more people. You need a physical space.”

Willoughby’s online operation now generates as much business as any one of its coffee shops, Levine said. It’s a supplement to in-store sales, not yet a replacement, the way DelMonico’s online operation could be.

“It’s not that the company could just say we want to close all of our stores tomorrow and just be wholesale and mail order. That type of security has not happened for Willoughby’s, and I don’t think it will.”

“At this point, it’s just like another store,” Levine said. “I have significant growth plans.”

Levine said Willoughby’s ships all over the globe. “We have customers in every state and quite a few countries,” he said. “People from Yale wind up going all over the world. They often become fans of Willoughby’s during their stay in New Haven, and end up taking Willoughby’s with them.”

Levine has also started a second online business, Roastmasters, which is geared toward people who want to roast their own coffee.

“I personally feel much more of a sense of security online,” Levine said. But you can’t serve hot cups of coffee on the web. “At least not yet. Maybe in the future your cell phone will have a spigot.”

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posted by: robn on July 1, 2014  10:22pm

Hats went out of style with Eisenhower….but seriously I’ve worn hats before and they’re awesome. Still kidding a bit but that aside; I’ve bought hats at Delmonicos in the past and those gents know their stuff.

Question though. Is the “internet” some kind of a hat like a hair net?

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on July 2, 2014  8:25am

You’re wrong Robn.  Hats will NEVER go out of style.

posted by: BillSaunders1 on July 2, 2014  1:04pm

Never Say Never, Samuel T.

But I do think it would be fair to say that Robn will go out of style before hats do.

posted by: cttaxpayer on July 3, 2014  8:44am

I love stories about savey business folks.

Keeping the New Haven address adjacent to the Yale campus is extremely important to online shoppers.

I know when I shop online with a new vendor its a bit hairy. If I saw they have a real business address I can actually do a bing search for- it makes things better.

One reason Amazon does so well is that it is the “store front” and we trust Amazon to make things right if things go wrong with a vendor.