A city known for its sports dynasties, baked beans and place in American history, Boston is becoming a testing ground for direct-to-consumer retailers. The revitalized seaport is attracting companies looking to target a different kind of consumer, one that may park their electric vehicles in a certain kind of yard.
With daily average visits of roughly 40,000 people, up from 34,000 in 2018, according to Placer.ai data, Boston is the new place to be. The Seaport District, a rebirth that’s a decade in the making, has 7 million square feet of mixed-use development and 1.1 million square feet of retail space. It’s slightly larger than New York’s The Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards, which covers 1 million square feet of retail space. While the Seaport District houses traditional brands from Sephora to Bluemercury, direct-to-consumer brands like Allswell, Away, b8ta and Bonobos are finding a new home there as well.
“The perception of Boston has changed and is changing very rapidly,” said Maggie Smith, vp, head of marketing at WS Development, a Massachusetts-based property developer. Considering Boston consumer preferences and habits, she continued, “I think brands are taking notice of that buying power [and what the] Boston consumer now represents.”
As of today, Smith said only about 30% (or about 330,000 square feet) of Boston’s Seaport retail development is open, and WS Development is at the helm of “reimagining what modern retail can look like in Boston.”
The vision for the Seaport began back in 2010, when the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino proclaimed the Seaport District as the “innovation district.” According to Smith, WS Development originally came on as a retail partner and now exists as the master developer of the area.
As part of this new retail vision, the Seaport started a pop-up village in 2018 dubbed The Current, debuting a She-Village of nine female-founded companies such as Cynthia Rowley and Boston fitness brand Booty by Brabants. This past summer, Glossier claimed the space, with Allswell at the seaport for eight weeks.
At the same time, Allswell, a DTC mattress brand incubated by Walmart, brought its Tiny Home Tour to Boston Seaport as its last stop. Arlyn Davich, president and GM for Allswell, said the tour was designed to target markets where Allswell customers already existed and coming to Boston during the summer was the perfect time to do so.
“It’s just really high foot traffic in the day. There’s a lot of like-minded brands in the area,” Davich said. “It gave us a lot of ideas of how to activate [the Tiny Home] around the Seaport.”
As part of activating in the Seaport, the Allswell team measured engagement around the brand and how many people attended events the brand put on, from a pet photoshoot in the Tiny Home to an outdoor yoga event. During the six-week activation, Allswell saw about 50,000 people come to the Tiny Home and a 150% sales lift in the Boston market.
Davich said other organic and random opportunities happened with the Tiny Home tour, such as retail associates holding a customer’s spot in line at the local Cisco Brewery while they perused the Tiny Home. She said the Tiny Home tour was about “optimizing for the most authentic brand moment.” And while the Tiny Home Tour took place across many markets in the U.S., the number of customer engagements in person, Davich said, was relatively the same. In other words, size didn’t matter.
“We wanted to do things that were authentic to the brand, not necessarily go to the biggest markets,” Davich said. “We [went] where our customers were [and] where we had relationships or interesting ideas of what we wanted to do and where we could actually have fun.”
On Nov. 1, The Current became a hub for new and old brands like Le Creuset and sock company Ace & Everett to take over during the holiday season.
“I don’t think we were uniquely seeking out DTC brands that set that criteria,” Smith said. “It more so just happened; [an] experience-first retail environment happened to be a lot of those brands. That’s where we see retail moving, and those are the brands we see connects best with the community we’re serving in the Seaport.”
Smaller brands such as Booty by Brabants, a leggings company founded by Kelly Brabants, has also found success in the Boston Seaport. Brabants said she was originally noticed by WS Development due to holding outdoor classes at the Seaport when her company was strictly ecommerce and a few trunk pop-ups. She decided to open a store in the Seaport in May 2018. This year’s holiday activation marked her fifth pop-up with the WS Development group and her third time hosting a pop-up at The Current.
Brabants declined to state any revenue numbers, other than revealing the company has sold more than 200,000 pairs of leggings in five years, and that the pop-ups are profitable.
“It’s almost like my brand and Seaport are growing together, and I think it’s only going to get better and it’s only going to be more profitable,” Brabants said.
Placer.ai, a data analytics company, found an average visit to the Seaport is about four hours and nearly half of visitors spending more than two and a half hours there. Ethan Chernofsky, vp of marketing at Placer.ai, described the Seaport as a great example of how brands are expanding a retail presence without repeating mistakes of legacy brands.
“It’s providing a home where these DTC brands can thrive in,” Chernofsky said. “But at the same time, these DTC brands are also bringing in something fresh and unique to the retail scene especially when they’re in limited locations.”
Chernofsky added that it isn’t just the brands rethinking a retail presence but also the property owners that are adapting to the times and creating a mixed-use retail space that draws people in over and over again—from both visitors and locals.
“When you look at something like the Seaport, they’re coming from everywhere,” Chernofsky said. “When you have optimization toward a specific community, you actually create a lot more room to succeed.”
As the Seaport continues to grow, Smith said there’s no “hard and fast formula” for brands. However, Smith added she’s seeing more brands think about pop-ups, programming and an actual retail space as a brand awareness play and not merely a conversion tool.
“The partners with whom we’re doing business with see tremendous value in the consumer down there,” Smith said. “Their success begets commitment to the neighborhood and allows us to continue what we’re doing.”