October 14, 2013

Ethan Allen furniture heads for Portland

The company bucks the trend toward big box stores in the suburbs.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Employees Lenora Bourgeois and Julie Parent pack wallpaper books at the Ethan Allen furniture store in South Portland in preparation for their move into a new store in Portland.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Additional Photos Below

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Hub Furniture recently celebrated its 100th year in downtown Portland.

Press Herald file photo/Gordon Chibroski

  


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