Rising rents, a changing customer base and the Fiesta Bowl’s upcoming move to the West Valley are chasing longtime Mill Avenue merchant Duck Soup out of Tempe and out of business.
"Last Fiesta Bowl, we did $25,000 in that one week," said Duck Soup owner Stuart DeMar. "That’s a month’s worth of value in a week’s worth of business. If you lose that, it’s a lot to lose."
Duck Soup — the name is curious but was picked just because it sounded catchy, DeMar said — sells a potpourri of gifts, cards, collectibles, T-shirts and knickknacks. The chain had swelled to five stores in its mid-1990s heyday. The others are gone, and the flagship Mill Avenue store will close in May or just after Mother’s Day, DeMar said.
Signs advertising, "Everything 30 percent to 50 percent off," fill the windows and walls. Everything from the neon duck signs — the chain’s logo for 17 years — to the shelves and display cases are for sale.
DeMar and his partners — his parents, Arthur and Joyce DeMar — opened the first Duck Soup in a smaller Mill Avenue location in 1987. The downtown Tempe shop moved into its current spot at Sixth Street and Mill a few years later when the business started to boom.
But a $2,000-a-month rent bump and Mill’s changing retail environment led to the decision to fold the biggest, the last and the most expensive version of the onetime chain, Stuart DeMar said.
By the mid-1990s, Duck Soup had shops in three malls — Scottsdale Fashion Square, Mesa’s Superstition Springs Center and Paradise Valley Mall — as well as the downtown Tempe location, plus a Card Trends shop, the family’s first retail venture, in an older east Phoenix mall. Eventually they shut down the mall shops when leases came up for renewal, DeMar said.
"For a small business owner who buys from a wholesaler and resells merchandise, it’s almost impossible (to pay regional mall rents)," he said.
The lease tab kept going up in downtown Tempe, too, and the unusual shops that have long attracted the tourists were giving way to the deeper-pocketed chains — especially bars and restaurants.
Tourists make about 25 percent of the Duck Soup purchases, DeMar said. When the customer mix on Mill started changing, it hurt sales.
"We feel the town is going through transition, and we are losing a lot of what we had," DeMar said. "(Current Mill retailers) are trying to appeal to college students who like low drink prices and hip fashions. Our customer base is 70 percent women with an average age of 25 to 55."
Duck Soup is still in the black, but not far enough to justify the long hours DeMar and his family — he and his wife take turns running the shop in the evening — were putting in. The impending loss of the Fiesta Bowl crowd in a couple of years is the crowning blow, he said.
"I’ve known this was coming," he said. "The best time to close a store is when it’s still busy. We have an opportunity to end Duck Soup with grace and style."
Assistant manager Sandy Steele, who has been with DeMar for 12 years and managed the Superstition Springs store before it closed, said the shop still has regulars, including many from out of town.
"We have customers who come every year during Cactus League (baseball spring training)," she said. "You get to know them. They’re like family. Once we are gone, we’ll be missed."
Retail neighbors, who have watched other longtime merchants like Changing Hands Bookstore leave for similar reasons, also lament the loss.
"We’ll miss them. I go there on a regular basis and buy cards," said Vic Linoff. Linoff and his wife have owned antique - oriented book and gift shop, Those were the Days, on Mill since 1973.
"There’s been a definite change on Mill Avenue," Linoff added. "It’s become more of an entertainment district than a generalized business district."
Linoff said the push to renovate has led to the tearing down of most of the older buildings on Mill. A mix of old and new buildings meant a diversity of rent options and kept an eclectic mix of retailers on Mill. With only high-rent properties available, it’s the bars and eateries and the big national chains that can afford to stay there.
The Linoff’s bought their building in the 1980s.
"We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t own our building," he said.
But Linoff said he believes Mill is wrapping up "an unsuccessful experiment to attract the big chains." The Gap and Lucky Jeans stores closed. Others could follow.
Empty buildings might lead landlords to lower rents to a more affordable levels so the mom-and-pop shops can move back in.
For Duck Soup, there’s not much likelihood.