Untagged: Western work store survives unscathed
Downtown Portland can seem like a ghost town these days. Coronavirus fears keep people away from the few stores that have dared to reopen. Block after block of boarded-up storefronts and offices add to the sense of gloom. Typically, at this time of year, festivals, parades and simple hanging baskets of flowers show Portland at its peak. Now the most excitement is the midnight scramble between police and protesters at the Justice Center, and the random paths they take.
Add to this, the flight to the suburbs caused by e-commerce (it's easier and safer to have Grubhub fetch your dinner, or Amazon ship your new clothes and homewares) and downtown Portland seems to offer no street life, no serendipity, no commerce.
Some stores have tried to remain open, however. We checked in with owner-operator Brad Popick of the Portland Outdoor Store, which has been selling "work western" (Wranglers, Carhartts, cowboy boots, bandanas, and riding gear) for 100 years.
Popick and his two partners own the Portland Outdoor Store business, the building, and the quarter lot it sits on. The store shut down on March 17, but Popick reopened it on June 19, the same day that restaurants were allowed in-house dining.
"We've been pretty steady," Popick told the Business Tribune on June 30. "People are starting to come back. People want to get out. We're very surprised. I didn't think we were going to do quite as much business as what we're doing right now."
Overheads and overalls
He estimates sales are at about 35% of what they should be this time of year.
"We were in a position where we can still be okay. A lot of these stores can't do that. Their overheads are so high that….you're seeing restaurants and clothing stores that just can't make it."
In April, Popick, a keen student of the retail scene, correctly predicted the bankruptcies of Neiman Marcus (May 7) and J Crew (May 4).
He blames the fact that investment banks take over these companies. "When the waters flatten, it's plain sailing, but in turbulence like this, there's just no way, it just can't possibly work. There was an article a week or two ago that said in the men's and women's clothing retailers that there could be 26,000 retail outlets closing this year, and it might be as high as 100,000 in the next four or five years."
His current customers are the usual mix of workers, fashion kids, and a few travelers. "The young kids don't have any money right now. But we're seeing people who've been with us for 40, 50, 60 years. They're so excited to see that we're still here."
As for changing retail habits of a lifetime, he says they are "doing hand sanitizer and distancing." One staffer has a compromised immune system. "Opening up is fine, but everyone has to take a certain amount of responsibility for themselves and for everyone around them."
So far, they have always been able to politely persuade customers to put on masks.
But can Portland Outdoor Store survive while running at 35 percent of regular sales?
"We could do it," said Popick. "It's not fun. We're not going to make any money, but at least you're paying the bills and take care of responsibilities."
His company has three things in its favor: owning the property, a deep customer base from 100 years of tradition, and a sharp focus on western workwear. Having little online presence may hurt them in the long run, but they are surviving for now.
All around, he sees industries that have modernized — embraced e-commerce, social media, and even Wall Street — failing.
"The hardest blow came to the clothing industry and restaurant industries, who had to close down and were probably living week-by-week. We're trying to work through it. It's been very difficult, and it will probably be a little more difficult, at least until Christmas or after Christmas. You're going to see some more changes," he cautions, about clothing retail in general.
Popick says the government should try to save businesses by putting more pressure "on the financial side," the investment bankers who own many large retail chains.
"There's been no pressure on them not to cut the cord and grab their money and run. Bankers are not exactly the best managers on a day to day basis. They're the money guys. Sometimes I think those are the unseen evil, but it's part of life."
He thinks banks that have been bailed out should be showing some restraint.
"I don't think anyone believed that it was going to go more than four or five weeks. I would think (the federal government) would step in and say to the banks, 'Guys, you need to hold the line.'"
Downtown is a different story. "The looting is not the Black Lives Matter. It's a group of kids that have nothing to do with this. They're just looting, and what they've done to some of these stores was just pathetic. And unfortunately, the police didn't have enough bodies on the ground to stop it."
Popick had security guards for the first five nights of late May demonstrations, which turned into riots. He did not put up plywood protection, for the same reason he doesn't maintain the front of the building — giving it a kind of Western shabby chic.
"We talked about it, and the cost was fairly expensive. And, then they've got to take it down."
Portland Outdoor Store was lucky. No one broke the windows. No one even tagged it, even though Rite Aid, the Scientology Center and many other nearby spots were damaged.
"Every time you see a broken window. It's $3,000 to $5,000 depending on the size. It's so expensive, it's scary. We got lucky."
Portland Outdoor Store
304 S.W. Third Ave.,
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