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retail watch | May 7, 2020 |
Why 10 Corso Como would have failed in New York, pandemic or no

The 10 Corso Como store in Milan is considered one of the best, most innovative retailers in the world.

The late, little-lamented 10 Corso Como store in New York, not so much.

Lost in the current coronavirus pandemic headlines was the news that the Italian retailer’s Manhattan store in the South Street Seaport was not only closed, but would never reopen. Its closure was originally part of the massive shutdown of American retailing space as the country hunkered down and shopped for only the most basic essentials.

Founded in 1990 by editor-turned-retailer Carla Sozzani (sister of late Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani), the Milanese store began as an art gallery and bookshop, with design and fashion being incorporated the following year. Eventually, dining spaces and a small hotel were thrown in the mix as well, expanding the shop into a full complex.

The retailer’s decision not to reopen marks the end of a sad, misguided and all-too-brief episode on how not to run a retail business. Opened less than two years ago, 10 Corso Como—the street address of the original Italian store—arrived in New York with great fanfare. As the anchor of the recently revitalized Seaport development, it was seen as the linchpin for the resurgence of what was once a prime destination for locals and tourists alike, but that had fallen on hard times—a victim of bad management, bad business, and bad weather once Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. Under a new developer, Howard Hughes Corp., the Seaport was relaunching as an upscale dining, shopping and entertainment property. At 28,000 square feet and occupying virtually the entire ground floor of the Fulton Market Building, 10 Corso Como was poised to bring in luxury shoppers as well as diners for its Italian restaurant.

But from the start, there were problems. The rest of the Seaport complex was still a work in progress, and indeed the nearby restaurants and retail locations were still under construction and only opening well into the second year of 10 Corso Como’s stay. Maybe the business could have held on until the entire development was finished, but even that would not have solved the fundamental problem: It was the wrong store in the wrong place.

The Seaport district is, first off, very out of the way of most other tourist neighborhoods—it’s even off the beaten track for many locals. Unlike other neighborhoods like SoHo, Chelsea or Columbus Circle, where the streetscape and tall buildings offer some shelter, the wind and weather coming off the East River in the winter does not make for great shopping and strolling conditions.

The Seaport was no longer on most tourists’ shortlists, but New Yorkers were an even harder sell. They had seen the deterioration of the complex over the years as stores and restaurants shut down, leaving behind questionable businesses selling T-shirts, souvenir trinkets, mystery-meat hot dogs and stale pretzels. They weren’t buying the headlines and hype of the new Seaport.

Worse for 10 Corso Como, the neighboring retail businesses that did open were not exactly a match for its mix of designer apparel, home and accessories. Yes, Sarah Jessica Parker opened her first SJP shoe store there, but most of the other retailers, including IPIC Movie Theaters, Guess apparel and other lesser-known clothing brands, had a decidedly middle-of-the-road mix of goods. And while 10 Corso Como had an array of affordable novelty items like pens, key chains and disposable lighters for the tourist trade, no amount of $7 sales was going to pay the rent. The expensive women’s fashions, footwear, perfumes, candles, lighting, china and glass were only likely to move if a backpack-toting tourist bumped into something and broke it.

On a number of visits, I noticed most storegoers—not to be confused with shoppers—didn’t quite know what to make of the offerings. The biggest reaction an item often got was when somebody looked at the price tag and shrieked, “This thing costs how much?!”

Some people will group the store’s closing into the same trend that saw Barneys and upscale multilabel fashion retailer Opening Ceremony shut down around the same time, while the legendary Colette closed in Paris. Others will point to 10 Corso Como store closings elsewhere around the world, including in Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. But don’t buy it. The circumstances surrounding all of those closings were unique to their individual situations, just like the New York location’s failure.

It’s not that 10 Corso Como was a bad store, even if much of the merchandise was predictable and not particularly cutting-edge. It’s more that the store had no soul, if you will: a big open space that made little attempt to distinguish itself in the way the Milan flagship does. The pandemic was the final straw, but it likely only hastened the inevitable.

Even if everything had gone right, if there had been no pandemic and the weather was unseasonably nice, 10 Corso Como ignored the cardinal rule of retail real estate strategy: location, location, location.

Arrivederci, 10 Corso Como. We hardly knew you.

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For big-box lifestyle retailers, the store is the brand—until it’s notWarren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. He was also a guest on the BOH podcast, and his Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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