E-commerce Brands Find Value in a Jump to Bricks-and-Mortar Locations


Amy Waltz handwrites notes to her customers. | Photo by Brent Holland

The move into bricks-and-mortar is becoming a sign of growth for smaller e-commerce brands such as Santa Barbara, Cal­if.–headquartered Catherine Gee, a womenswear brand that on July 1 launched a boutique shop located next to The Mill on the city’s burgeoning East Haley Street.

According to Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor of The NPD Group, Inc., this trend from e-commerce into bricks-and-mortar is gaining traction due to the maturation of online retail, a need for internet brands to fully infiltrate the market and the importance of experiential shopping.

“Online retailers are now saying ‘We have to change the way we bring product to market,’ which opens up the opportunity to sell through traditional retail,” he explained. “In reality, touch and feel are important, particularly in fashion.”


Catherine Gee | Photo by Jacqueline Pilar

Catherine Gee’s eponymous label enjoyed an e-commerce presence on her website and partnerships with a handful of retailers. After securing 50 new doors at the beginning of 2019 and receiving attention from major wholesale accounts, Gee decided to enter the bricks-and-mortar space with her own boutique.

“The business has to rely on wholesale. While we’ve been building that aspect, our e-commerce has been picking up, but I learn the most and understand who my woman is when I face direct-to-consumer clients,” she said. “For us to jump into bricks-and-mortar, you have to create an experience that is memorable, with quality products.”

For Gee, building her retail space included growing her brand as well. While she relied on a Mediterranean and Santa Barbara aesthetic during her e-commerce days, she is expanding her designs while maintaining her core elements.

“We’ve expanded from resort into more ready-to-wear,” she said. “A lot of people don’t like to wear silk blouses, so a high-quality Pima-cotton T-shirt allows you to be casual, which I want to infuse into our elevated styles. We’re also doing some cotton-twill trousers and denim out of Lima—it’s very different, but it’s still a made-in-L.A. brand.”

In addition to selling her own brand, Gee is partnering with other luxurious lines that share her brand’s values and commitment to quality. One of those partners is Los Angeles luxury handbag brand Altaire, which Gee discovered through Instagram.

Gee approached Altaire’s owner, Kayla Schwartz, to enter into a wholesale partnership. The handbag designer has relied on e-commerce through her own website and was picked up by online retailer Shopbop in April. But she wants to maintain a small presence in bricks-and-mortar.

“I want to keep it exclusive regarding the store presence and extremely selective,” she said. “Working with another female designer who also manufactures in Los Angeles and to be featured through another channel is great.”

For her launch, Gee blended her social-media sourcing with a more traditional approach to partnerships. Working with Sonia DeMello offellow Santa Barbara, Calif., brand So De Mel,a swim-and-resort collection that has been sold in shops at The Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons, Gee has found a partner who believes in the return of the boutique presence.

“Catherine and I are both into quality, and people should be aware of what they’re buying. We are operating on the belief of quality pieces rather than quantity,” De Mello said.

Life after Etsy

As an artisan who creates sustainable, handcrafted jewelry, Amy Waltz began her business by creating pieces for her friends. In 2011, she opened an Etsy shop from her home in Chico, Calif. At the time, the online marketplace was a popular destination for unique goods crafted by artisans and was a perfect fit for Waltz’s self-named brand of pieces made from eco-friendly and recycled materials.

“Around 2015, Etsy changed its platform. It shifted from sourcing handcrafted goods created by authentic artisans to overseas sourcing,” she said. “I needed to diversify if I was going to continue. I started my own website and different revenue streams. I started opening myself up to local retailers and bricks-and-mortar establishments.”

While Waltz moved her business from her home into a fabrication facility at the Chico Municipal Airport in 2014, her intention wasn’t to launch a bricks-and-mortar presence. As an increasing number of customers started to stop by the space, Amy Waltz Designs began to expand its business hours until it had a consistent schedule.

“Everyone in town always thought the airport was far to travel, so I was surprised when locals would show up,” she said. “My customers are everything. I live and breathe their satisfaction. It isn’t about creating the cheapest product that I can to have the widest margin.”

This personal approach to bricks-and-mortar born from an e-commerce model has helped Waltz maintain a healthy business, allowing her to bypass many of the issues that stem from an exclusively online-based business.

“Our return rate is so incredibly low because the quality is such a big component,” Waltz said. “I don’t skimp. It’s not in my fiber.”

In addition to her own bricks-and-mortar presence, Amy Waltz Designs is also offered at Made in Chico, a local shop that sells a variety of goods made in the area. The single-door store has been in business since 1982 and relies only on the bricks-and-mortar model, bypassing an online presence in favor of traditional retail.

“People are now over the novelty of having something just shipped to their doors, and they want something special and unique,” said manager Aimee Anderson. “This leads them to drive downtown and have the experience of connecting with a product.”

While Waltz continues to maintain her e-commerce presence, she is interested in cultivating a stronger retail presence to strengthen her relationship with customers.

“It’s worth it to have bricks-and-mortar. I don’t want to lose the beauty of connection, and with e-commerce you don’t have it,” she said. “This store is a necessary component of my business.”

This need for a traditional-retail-store presence to forge a substantial connection with customers is a move that more online retailers will make, according to The NPD Group’s Cohen.

“What we have now in front of us is the great equalizer,” he said. “The stores are catching up to what made online unique and online now has to catch up to what makes stores unique.”