Just a half-mile from the soon-shuttering Macy's on Nicollet Mall is a small men's boutique that is part of a wave of newer companies disrupting the retail world. Bonobos, where customers try on possible purchases and then place orders online, opened a bright, 1,000-square-foot showroom in November in the North Loop.
The retailer is among a dozen-plus showrooms, boutiques and specialty stores that have sprouted in the trendy North Loop in the past few years. The neighborhood, which already has staked its claim as a hot spot for chef-driven restaurants, is increasingly becoming a shopping destination for people from around the Twin Cities and visiting from out of town.
"A lot of people drive down to the North Loop now to do their shopping on the weekends," said Gail Lewis, marketing manager of Russell + Hazel, a stationary and lifestyle shop that moved there in October from the Galleria in Edina. "The North Loop seemed to fit where our brand is heading — it's really vibrant."
In particular, the neighborhood has become a hotbed for higher-end men's shops, with the mazelike Martin Patrick 3 store offering an eclectic mix of apparel, furniture and interior design as well as having a barbershop in the store.
Within Askov Finlayson is a 250-square-foot Warby Parker showroom, one of 46 and counting that have been popping up around the county. The small space where customers can try on glasses — or get them adjusted — has been bustling since it opened in August 2015. Like Bonobos, though, customers do not leave with their orders. They place orders there to be shipped to their doorsteps.
The North Loop also has attracted local shops that are fixtures in other prominent shopping districts in the Twin Cities such as from 50th & France in Edina.
Longtime Edina women's boutique Grethen House, for example, added another location in the North Loop a couple of years ago. Cooks of Crocus Hill, which has locations in St. Paul, Edina and Stillwater, opened a space down the street from Bachelor Farmer and Spoon & Stable in September.
While the North Loop is still finding its legs, the hubbub of activity is a striking contrast to the struggling retail scene nearby in the heart of downtown. Nicollet Mall is in many ways a monument to the titans that once ruled retail and have now fallen on hard times amid rapidly changing consumer habits. The massive Macy's store is closing in March, to be followed soon after by the two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore. A short-lived Sports Authority store also sits vacant since the chain went under last year.
Meanwhile, the fact that niche, innovative brands on the upswing such as Bonobos, Warby Parker and Shinola, a Detroit-based watch company, have chosen the North Loop for their first Minnesota outposts are signs to many that the neighborhood is finally reaching a tipping point.
"Not that we need outside validation, but I think there is something to be said that this is where the fastest-growing, hottest national brands and companies want to be," said Eric Dayton, who owns Askov Finlayson and Bachelor Farmer.
With their arrival, they have brought more traffic and customers to other shops.
"To me, one of the things that's so important about the North Loop is that it really is a neighborhood," said Dayton. "This is a place where people live, and it's a place where people are out walking around on the weekends."
Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said the residential base is one reason the North Loop has been so successful compared with downtown. Another is that its physical spaces are more appealing to smaller, up-and-coming brands and shops.
"There are smaller footprints," he said. "Rents, until recently, have been a little more affordable. So smaller operators are able to settle in there. It's a little harder in the core of downtown where some of those retail spaces in the tall towers are 10-, 20-, 30-thousand-square-foot footprints."
New York-based Bonobos has about 30 showrooms around the U.S. and plans to nearly double the number this year. Chief Revenue Officer Erin Ersenkal said his company uses a variety of factors when deciding where to locate its shops such as where its current online customers already live.
"We also look at what other retailers are in the vicinity," he said. "Being near like-minded retailers who are pushing the envelope and innovating is certainly not a bad thing."
Bonobos executives also walked the Mall of America when they were scouting out the right space.
"For us, it didn't feel right for our brand," he said. The North Loop, he added, "is such a cool neighborhood. The bones of the buildings are really great."
The North Loop now also has a baby store. Pacifier, which has locations in Edina, Highland Park and a small shop in the downtown skyways, relocated its flagship store there from northeast Minneapolis a year ago. The retailer has been surprised by how well it's taken off and recently added a ramp to help make it easier for parents with strollers to navigate it.
"We knew we were moving into a hot neighborhood, but we didn't expect it to be as happening as it is," said Jensen Enz, the store's manager. "The weekends are fantastic. Our stroller sales have been through the roof."
The trendy Hewing Hotel, which opened nearby in November, already has been bringing in more customers who swing by the shop, she added. Furniture retailer West Elm is also eyeing the neighborhood for one of its new hotels.
Tadd Brindley, co-owner of Grethen House, said his store in Edina still does more in sales than his North Loop shop. But that flagship store has been there for decades and is more convenient for some people.
"You can park at 50th & France," he said. "At the North Loop, it's a pain. But the North Loop is growing and will keep growing."
His North Loop shop, he added, gets more out-of-town visitors. He's happy with it, he said, especially with sales rising every year. That's why he just extended his lease there.
"And it has the raw element of the city," he said. "I'm not going anywhere. I have faith in the area."
Still, there are signs that North Loop still has a ways to go. Chrome Industries, the popular San Francisco-based biking gear brand, thought the North Loop would be a good fit, especially since Minneapolis is considered a biking capital. A couple of years ago, it opened one of its handful of stores around the U.S. on Washington Avenue, but closed it in September.
"The North Loop is a great neighborhood — it's up and coming," said Ronnie Hart, Chrome's retail director. "I just think it was a little bit too early. The traffic wasn't enough yet to sustain our business."
Kit and Ace, a relatively new "athleisure"-inspired brand from the son and wife of the founder of Lululemon, opened one of its first stores outside of New York and San Francisco in a second floor space in the North Loop in June 2015. It also is closing when its lease expires this spring.
Anna Cordon, a company spokeswoman, said the firm's second Minnesota location at the Mall of America will remain open. She added that the company saw a "positive" response to its North Loop spot, but has purposefully sought out a strategy of short-term leases.
"The North Loop is very much on our radar and we hope to be back soon," she said in an e-mail.
And women's boutique Roe Wolfe is closing next month, but not by choice. It is being pushed out of its spot by a developer who bought the building. Owner Ashley Kilcher moved to the spot last year from a space a few blocks away after her landlord wanted to raise the rent.Now she's taking her shop to a temporary space in the Galleria.
Kilcher said she has felt the challenges of the neighborhood. For example, the stores are spread out, which is not always appealing in subzero temperatures. Still, she hopes to return.
"A lot of new developments are happening and hopefully we get to be a part of it," she said.
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113