Judaica shop ModernTribe, which began online and expanded into brick-and-mortar retail, is returning to an online-only existence.
Owner Jennie Rivlin Roberts is closing her Auburn Avenue store in Atlanta. The last day of sales to the public is Sunday, March 6, and she’ll be out of the space either by the end of March or by the end of April.
“It’s really sad for me,” Rivlin Roberts said. “It brought a dimension to our brand and the relationship with our customers we can’t get online.”
The store operated under a lease that gave ModernTribe and the landlord a termination option by Dec. 31, 2015. If the landlord found a replacement tenant willing to pay more than Roberts, she would have the option to pay the higher amount or leave.
That’s what happened, Rivlin Roberts said. She received notice Dec. 29 that she had to pay a 50 percent increase in rent or close, and after a hard evaluation of the store’s prospects for profitability, she decided to return to online-only retail.
The boutique, which specializes in fun, quirky approaches to traditional Judaica, thus finds itself in a similar situation to many retailers facing competition from online operations such as Amazon, which now offers same-day delivery for many products in the Atlanta area. The pressure has taken a toll not only on small stores, but also on big chains, from Macy’s and Kohl’s, which are closing locations, to the Sports Authority, which is going through bankruptcy reorganization.
Since opening in June 2014, ModernTribe’s brick-and-mortar store has produced a tiny percentage of the business’s overall sales, Rivlin Roberts said. Comparing June to December 2014 with the same period in 2015, the store’s sales fell 30 percent, while online sales rose 20 percent, she said.
Rivlin Roberts said the store’s location in the Sweet Auburn district, away from Atlanta’s Jewish population centers, may have contributed to the slow sales, and she said the excitement about the opening of the nearby streetcar line didn’t translate into much of an increase in foot traffic. But the Candler Park resident said that from a lifestyle perspective, it’s not worth it to her to open a location in the Dunwoody/Sandy Springs area or in Toco Hills, where Judaica Corner operates.
Even if the store doubled in revenue, its sales wouldn’t compare to what ModernTribe does online, she said. Even with the store, locals have shopped through the website, making Atlanta the No. 3 area for ModernTribe’s online customers, behind the much larger communities of New York and Los Angeles.
Rivlin Roberts’ sense is that the era of thriving small gift shops is over, with the exception of a few places across the nation where independent stores are part of the culture. So other than such special events as Chanukah bazaars, she expects to remain online-only “unless something really strange happens and people become somehow more interested in having their local store as opposed to shopping online.”
ModernTribe also has ended its brief experiment as a self-serve synagogue gift shop.
A small version of the store with a limited selection of essentials — Kiddush cups, menorahs, other simcha gifts — opened at the start of November in the coffee shop at the entrance to The Temple. With an iPad-based credit card system, people could make their selections and pay for their purchases any time the synagogue was open except Shabbat.
The idea was to provide Temple members the service of a simple Judaica shop with additional convenience, possibly establishing a model Rivlin Roberts could repeat at other synagogues. But she said sales were tiny, so she pulled the plug.