How Metro Detroit's retailers are diversifying their offerings to grow their business

Shopping malls closing. Department stores closing. Online retailers like Amazon opening distribution centers all over the place. At first blush, it might seem like traditional retail is in trouble. And perhaps some of it is. But not all.

"People say that retail is dying," Detroit boutique clothing store owner Rachel Lutz says. "I say that mediocre retail is dying."

Lutz, by all accounts, is thriving. With four retail storefronts in the city's Midtown and New Center neighborhoods, Lutz has figured out a formula for success. And she’s not the only one.

Pop-ups and partnerships. Events and experiences. In order to better understand how to make it in retail today, we talked to four Metro Detroit retailers to find out what it takes as a business owner in the 21st century.

Rachel Lutz, Detroit: The Peacock Room (Two locations), Frida, and Yama

Detroit boutique clothing store owner Rachel Lutz
Rachel Lutz maxed out her credit card to open the first Peacock Room in 2011. She has since opened three more women’s clothing and accessories boutiques, each with their own style and personality: Frida, Yama, and the Peacock Room flagship store in the Fisher Building.

She says she surpassed $1 million in revenue for the first time this year.

Lutz insists that she's not doing anything to reinvent the wheel. Instead she's sticking to a traditional retail formula that she defines as selling interesting products while providing excellent service in a beautiful environment.

But despite her established success, Lutz continues to push against the confines of her storefronts in order to reach more customers, forming partnerships throughout the region.

"The more boutiques do to educate their customers, the better off we'll be," Lutz says. "We have to put ourselves in the path of customers."

Regardless of her envious position in two of Detroit's architectural gems — her four stores are split between the Fisher and Park Shelton buildings — Lutz continues to reach out and form partnerships that make sense for her brands.

Interior of the Peacock Room
The Peacock Room, a women's clothing and accessories boutique inspired by fashion from the 1920s through the 1950s, has a pop-up location at the Detroit Opera House downtown. It's a mutually beneficial pairing, one that Lutz hopes will bring glamour back to live theater and encourage people to dress up when they go to the opera.

She has also taken to inviting outside brands into her stores, hosting a pop-up store for Metro Detroit's only Vespa dealership at her Peacock Room location in the Fisher Building. The iconic Italian scooter company is a branding marriage made in heaven, she says, with the scooters as much associated with fashion as they are getting around town.

"With the retail experience, partnerships like these definitely factor into the future of retail," Lutz says. "What can you offer customers that's new and exciting and keeps them coming back to your door.

"It's important to keep an element of surprise. People want a sense of wonder."

Dan and Katie Merritt, Dearborn: Green Brain Comics

Dan and Katie Merritt
A fashion boutique and a comic book store may seem worlds apart, but often the same rules apply. It's all about devising ways to keep people coming back and drawing new customers into the store.

Dan and Katie Merritt, owners of Green Brain Comics in east downtown Dearborn, have run their business on Michigan Avenue since 1999. Though a lot has changed over the past 20 years, the Merritts have been able to keep Green Brain running by creating an experience bigger than comic books.

"We saw the way the wind was blowing with online shopping a few years ago," Dan says. "If we want to be successful as a brick-and-mortar business, we have to make a unique experience for customers every time they come in the store. Not just the tactile experience of shopping but one that also appeals to the senses."

To reach a wide range of customers, Green Brain hosts some events targeting hardcore comic book fans while others reach out to a broader base, whether a fan of comics or not.

Upcoming events include the Halloween ComicFest, which is akin to Free Comic Book Day but with Halloween-themed giveaways and activities; a live painting and book signing event co-hosted by Motor City Black Age of Comics, a group for comic books and graphic novels by people of color; and the monthly board game day, an open gaming day where people can select from Green Brain's gaming library or bring their own.

Event board at Green Brain Comics
That's just a smattering. Dan says they're thinking about bringing back movie nights and getting their podcast up and running again, too.

One recent event was the latest iteration of the monthly series Brain Candy. Not even necessarily having anything to do with comics at all, Brain Candy is more of a salon, each night featuring live readings from writers of poetry and prose, an artist's talk, and performances from a local musician.

"We're always looking for ways to bring in crowds that aren't regular comic readers. We hope that they come in and we can break their preconceived notions of what a comic book store is," Dan says.

"We want to break the stereotype of a comic book store being insular, of not being welcome to outsiders. We want to break that stereotype in as friendly a way as possible."

Katie and Nick Forte, Berkley: June + December

Nick and Katie Forte
Like Lutz and the Merritts, Katie and Nick Forte of Berkley's June + December incorporate a multi-faceted approach to their retail business. Except they have a name for it.

Dubbing it "omni-channel," the Fortes run June + December as the retail storefront for their studio. Katie makes the store's nature-inspired crafts in the back studio, producing a wide range of items including kitchenwares, homewares, and stationary.  Customers can also experience the studio and take workshops there.

But unlike Lutz and the Merritts, the Fortes got their start as an online retailer. Upsetting the idea that online retail is the future, the Fortes realized early on that a brick-and-mortar storefront was necessary for further success.

"With shopping online, you lose that customer interaction," Nick says. "They want to touch and see the products and hear the stories behind them.

"Retail done right is with a meaningful story."

Interior of June + December
And the Fortes have proven that. They chose downtown Berkley and opened there in 2017. Just a year later and June + December is doubling in size, having celebrated the grand re-opening of their newly adjacent storefront on Oct. 20.

With the expansion of their gift shop, the Fortes also stock outside products that complement their own, like books and candles. They've been able to hire several new full- and part-time employees.

Lutz, the Merritts, and the Fortes credit their neighborhoods for each of their successes. Urban, walkable downtowns with quality shopping options clustered together where customers can go from shop to shop. Quality retail begets more retail.

"Having that downtown feeling brings people in. It feels more connected," Nick says. "People can park and walk to different stores. It makes it more shoppable."

Clare Fox and Wayne Maki, Detroit: POST and Mutual Adoration

Wayne Maki and Clare Fox
On Detroit's far east side, Clare Fox and Wayne Maki operate POST, a makerspace-retail storefront hybrid.

The duo got their start in 2012, making furniture out of reclaimed wood under the Mutual Adoration brand. With a presence in more than 50 stores nationwide, Fox and Maki decided they wanted their own store, obtaining a 12,000-square-foot former post office built in 1940.

The front of the building houses the retail section, the back the woodshop and studio. They also sublet studio space out to other local makers.

"We do all of the design and production in-house. It's kind of an open concept, like a restaurant where you can see the kitchen," Fox says. "You can be up front with all of the beautiful retail displays and then go to the back with all of the sawdust."

Assembling plants for sale at POST
The duo has branched out into creating smaller products in addition to the furniture, everything from frames and mirrors to candle holders and trays. POST now also carries more than 100 outside brands from like-minded makers, and roughly 75 percent of them Michigan-based.

Also drawing people into the shop are the workshops. POST hosts two to three scheduled craft workshops a week, including classes on woodworking, printmaking, screen printing, and more.

POST celebrated its one-year anniversary party on Oct. 21 with an open house, artist demonstrations, door prizes, custom-crafted cocktails, cake, and free make-and-take crafts.

And they're not stopping there. Fox says that the duo would like a mobile POST, where they can do craft pop-ups and on-the-go workshops.

Yet another example of metro Detroit retailers going beyond what's expected of them.

"We're not interested in trying to run just a boutique," Fox says. "What makes it interesting is being an experiential destination."

Photos by David Lewinski
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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.