Twice a year for the past 13 years, milliner J. Richard Tucker has traveled to hat shows in Canada and Europe, searching for the latest and best styles to hang in his family’s Connecticut boutique.
An even more difficult task during that period was trying to find the ideal venue, where customers of The Hat Place could drop in to try on the women’s and men’s couture and casual headwear. The owners’ search has taken them from a suburban store in Rocky Hill to downtown Hartford — on an upper floor of 99 Pratt St.
The shop’s arrival is another sign of downtown’s appeal to merchants like The Hat Place who covet the customers who work and live in the city hub.
Being nearer to their ideal customer demographic also opens new marketing doors for the millinery shop specializing in hat making, sales and repairs, experts say.
“You just get more traffic, more visibility,’’ said designer John Callanan, of Dorfman Pacific Hat Co. in New York, one of The Hat Place’s leading sources of quality men’s and women’s hats. “It’s a much more professional move.’’
The new location’s 800 square feet, carved out of what had been file storage for an adjacent insurance agency, has afforded the room to expand their displays of chapeaus. The former Rocky Hill shop, which closed in December 2007 as sales slowed, had 500 square feet.
“Our dream always was to have a men’s section,’’ said co-owner Charlene Russell Tucker, standing in a room lined from floor to ceiling with dress and casual covers for men.
The Hat Place’s new home is notable for another reason: It’s well concealed on the second floor of 99 Pratt St., unlike many of the shops, boutiques and restaurants lining street level.
Most of the Pratt Street landlords they talked to about space required retail tenants be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, to accommodate downtown workers. That, however, didn’t fit a boutique where few sales are impulse buys.
The Hat Place has limited store hours Thursdays and Saturdays. The shop opens the rest of the time by appointment.
“People don’t usually come in and do this kind of shopping every day,’’ Russell Tucker said. “This allows us to still have business hours, but we can really customize our hours as we see fit.’’
The family’s hat business grew out of a craving Russell Tucker and her sister, Maisie Russell, had for collecting hats when traveling.
It was on their return from a trip to British Columbia in the mid-1990s that the Russell sisters got the idea to parlay their penchant for hats and contacts into a business. Drawing on Richard Tucker’s retail background, the three opened The Hat Place in 1996.
“The hat business is a very small business, but it’s a very passionate business,’’ said Callanan. “You have to love hats to sell them.’’
Within three years, the boutique had settled into its niche selling ready to wear and custom head coverings. Women’s hats range from $150 to $2,000 from Philip Somerville, milliner to the Queen of England. Men’s casual and formal headwear range from $75 to $700.
Unfortunately, hats haven’t been immune to the slowdown in retail sales caused by the economic slump. U.S. hat sales have flattened out at $1 billion annually since 2007. Sales had climbed from $966 million in 2005 to $981 million in 2006, according to www.accessoriesmagazine.com.
The Hat Place watched its gross margin shrink to 32 percent in 2007 from 41 percent a year earlier on declining sales, said Maisie Russell, who runs the financial side of the business. The industry average is 23 percent. The closing of the Rocky Hill store was part of the belt-tightening.
With about 80 percent of hats sold in department stores and specialty chains, The Hat Place has gone to unusual lengths to get its name in front of potential customers.
Through its thehatplacellc.com Web site, the shop has drawn customers from across the U.S. and abroad. Women are its biggest market, but the shop sees opportunity among males, especially those following the hat-wearing trend embraced by actor Johnny Depp and pop singer Justin Timberlake.
Last November, the shop did a direct mailing to every downtown Hartford law firm announcing its opening on Pratt Street. Richard Tucker attends MetroHartford Alliance meetings as a member, handing out promotional cards.
“If you’re not on the first floor,’’ said Charlene Russell Tucker, “you have to be innovative in getting people to find you and come in.’’