One of the largest furniture companies in the United States is closing its store near the Maine Mall and opening a smaller store in downtown Portland, going against a 40-year-old trend toward big box stores in the suburbs dominating the region’s furniture business.

The conventional wisdom has been that customers want to see lots of inventory and lots of free parking. But Ethan Allen is betting on a new smaller-is-better model that views foot traffic as a driver of new business.

The company is moving its store at 160 Western Ave. in South Portland, its home for nearly two decades, to 145 Commercial St. in Portland. The new 4,500-square-foot store is less than half the size of its current store.

The steady flow of pedestrians on Commercial Street will increase the store’s exposure, said Heather Paradis, Ethan Allen regional manager.

“It gives us greater traffic and a broader market,” she said of the move.

Ethan Allen, a Connecticut-based chain that sells high-end furniture, has nearly 300 stores nationally, mostly in suburban locations. Its move to Portland represents the first time that one of its New England stores has moved from the suburbs to a downtown location, Paradis said.

The move is part of an emerging national trend in which high-end retailers are migrating to downtowns in search of affluent customers, who are increasingly spending more of their leisure time in downtowns or moving there themselves.

The rise of the Internet has also encouraged retailers to open small stores well-suited for downtown locations, said Frank O’Connor, commercial broker with the Dunham Group in Portland. Because consumers have become comfortable with the idea of buying online, retailers can now display their entire inventory online rather than fill up cavernous buildings, said O’Connor, the broker for 145 Commercial St.

By expanding their “Internet footprint,” he said, retailers such as Ethan Allen can shrink their physical footprint and save a lot of money.

“The big boxes just aren’t working anymore,” he said. “People are buying stuff from the Internet. They don’t need brick and mortar stores that large anymore.”

Nationally, he noted that big retailers such as Walmart and Sports Authority have begun moving into urban markets with smaller stores.

He said Commercial Street, which runs along the waterfront and formerly shared the right-of-way with rail lines, is emerging as the city’s premier spot for retailers, in part because of its proximity to the Ocean Gateway passenger terminal and the hordes of cruise ship passengers that disembark there.

Until recently, the 12,000-square-foot building at 145 Commercial St. was an office building, but it’s now being converted into a coffee shop and three retail spaces.

Starbucks moved in earlier this year. Edgecomb Potters is closing its store on Exchange Street, where it’s been located for nearly 20 years, and opening up a new store in the center of the building. Ethan Allan will open in the corner space on Nov. 1. O’Connor said a high-end dress shop is expected to move into a space in the rear of the building.

Although the Ethan Allen store will be small, Paradis said, the company has found that it can save space by displaying samples of a set of furniture rather than an entire set, and it also uses touch-screen technology to guide customers through its “virtual catalog.” When people buy furniture, it’s delivered to their homes from the company’s warehouse in Connecticut.

Downtown Portland used to support several furniture stores, but nearly all of them went out of business in the 1970s and 1980s as customers flocked to the new, larger stores being built in the suburbs. Those stores offered more selection and free parking.

Youngs Furniture is an example of a family-owned store that survived because it made the move to the suburbs.

Until the late 1980s, the store was located at the corner of Free and Cross streets. But customers complained constantly about the difficulty of parking or about getting parking tickets, said Stephen Young, one of the store’s third-generation owners.

Rather than close, the store moved to Forest Avenue and then to Western Avenue in South Portland to the building that serves as the current location of Ethan Allen.

Young said that moving out of the congested city center was critical to the store’s success, and he’s a big believer in the need to have a large space to display a lot of furniture.

“Most people want to sit and touch and feel,” he said.

Hub Furniture, which celebrated its 100-year anniversary this year, is located in a former gum factory on Fore Street in Portland.

The store was located on Congress Street near Monument Square until the late 1960s. It managed to stay downtown only because its new location on Fore Street has 35 parking spaces, said owner Sam Novick.

Novick said he is puzzled by Ethan Allen’s move to Commercial Street because it won’t have any parking spaces of its own. “I don’t know how they are going to survive,” he said. “If people can’t get to you, it’s a problem.”

Holly Perry, assistant manager at Company C, a Commercial Street shop where people order custom-made furniture, said it’s surprising that a chain like Ethan Allen would want to be part of the street’s eclectic mix of offices, small shops and bars.

While it’s an open question whether Ethan Allen will thrive in its new location, she said, she doesn’t see the lack of parking as a significant problem.

While parking issues may discourage some potential customers of her store, she said, it’s not a problem for most.

“People who shop in our store somehow find a way,” she said.

 

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com