Downtown retailer of nearly 4 decades set to close by year’s end

photo by: Journal-World photo/Chad Lawhorn

Longtime women's boutique Saffees plans to close its downtown Lawrence store near the end of 2018, company officials have confirmed.

Sometimes it is not a slowdown in sales that causes a business to close. Sometimes it’s just that there’s no one left to run it. That’s the case with a 37-year retailer in downtown Lawrence that will close its doors later this year.

Saffees, the women’s clothing boutique at 911 Massachusetts St., will close near the end of the year, co-owner Steve Mercurio recently confirmed to me. Its sister store next door, Envy, also will close at the same time.

Saffees, though, is the store that many downtown shoppers are familiar with. It has been open since 1981. Mercurio’s roots in retail go back much further than that. His family has been in the retail business in Jefferson City, Mo., since 1923. Mercurio is the third generation of the retail dynasty, and perhaps the last. He owns the store with two sisters and a brother. Their Lawrence store location has a lease that is expiring and, as is customary, the landlord is seeking a five-year renewal. The gang of siblings are reaching an age when they aren’t sure they want to sign on for another five years, Mercurio said, and there is not a fourth generation interested in the retail business.

“It was a tough decision,” Mercurio said. “It is all we have ever done.”

Plus, Mercurio said business had been good recently.

“Fall looks to be one of the strongest falls in several years,” Mercurio said. That lines up with what some national retailers are saying, too. Target, for instance, recently posted it strongest same-store sales gains since 2005.

In downtown Lawrence, though, there has been growing angst about retail, as the number of vacant storefronts has been on the rise this year. Mercurio, though, said he finds the Lawrence market to still be a good one, in part, because it doesn’t see the wild swings that some other markets experience.

But he also said retailers have to be ready to change. He estimated that in the 36 years he’s been involved in the business that the company’s stores have had to “change their mojo” about five different times.

“That is what it takes in this business,” Mercurio said.

The strategy that the business has now found to be successful is to offer a more personalized shopping experience. Store employees find out a woman’s tastes and make lots of suggestions on possible outfits.

“The world has become racks and racks of clothes,” Mercurio said. “But when you want to look special, you do it this way. Our job is to find home-run clothes for people.”

On the day that I was there, multiple sales associates were helping a lone woman pick out and model outfits. (The store sells only women’s clothes, but don’t worry, I once found a place that offered the same service for me. They promised I’d love the way I look. The whole staff gathered and gave me a piece of advice: Avoid all mirrors.)

The changing strategy has been one way to fight back against the trend of online shopping, and the store has experienced significant changes to its customer base over the years.

“It has gone to fewer customers but larger sales per customer,” Mercurio said. “Foot traffic is less, though.”

The more personalized approach also has been a fun one in that Mercurio and store employees have gotten to know their customers better, he said. But that has made the decision to close the store more difficult.

“When it is time to retire, we have learned that is when you realize you have a lot of people you feel obligated to,” Mercurio said.

He said that’s one of the reasons the store is going to take several months to close. He said the store would fully stock fall and winter merchandise and planned to be open very near to the end of the year so that longtime customers were not left in a lurch during the holiday season.

Saffees and Envy operate stores in other Midwest communities, and several of them have announced closure plans as their leases also have expired. At its peak, the company had nine stores. By the fall, that number will be down to four, Mercurio said.


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