Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Parks, Open Space and Retail

Nur is an Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Here in New York we are fortunate to have parks and open spaces all across the city – from the core of Midtown Manhattan to the outer borough neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. Like shopping malls, these open spaces range in scale from neighborhood parks that primarily serve residents within a four- or five-block radius to destination parks whose trade areas are much greater, attracting 40-60% visitors from outside the local area. In fact, these destination parks often attract tourists from all around the country and the world.

It’s not surprising then that when we take a closer look at the retail mix in and around these open spaces, we find that they’re almost directly correlated to the park type. After all, customers of the park are also customers of retail.

The Neighborhood Park Retail Mix
The neighborhood park’s main ‘customers’, or users, are families with young children, pet owners, high schoolers and young professionals (depending on the neighborhood’s demographics). As such, the retail tenant mix on the periphery of the park features more convenience-related businesses such as grocery stores, bodegas, take-out restaurants, and cafes that meet the day-to-day needs of the surrounding residents.  
Source: ESRI Business Analyst Online 2017; LOA

Sunset Park and Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn both have a similar share of businesses (~10%) belonging to the retail category ‘Food and Beverage Stores’ within a 0.25 mile radius. This NAICS category runs the gamut from small delis to full-service grocery stores. On the southwestern corner of Maria Hernandez Park in the neighborhood of Bushwick, for example, sits City Fresh Market. The grocery store measures about 9,000 SF and is complemented by a number of other smaller format grocery stores and specialty food stores such as Foster Sundry and La Orquidea – a specialty grocer and butcher shop and a tienda selling authentic Mexican and Hispanic produce.

Other than grocers, the local kiosks that are set up in these neighborhood parks also offer snacks like ice-cream and grilled corn for the kids in the neighborhood.

The Destination Park Retail Mix
The customers, or users, of destination parks however are very different, resulting in a very different retail mix around these open spaces. Central Park, Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, and the High Line are some of the destination parks we have here in the city. Since its opening in 2009, the High Line has experienced rapidly climbing visitor numbers year-on-year with over 7.6 million visitors estimated in the year 2015. Of this, 32% of visitors were from outside a 45 mile radius of NYC and an additional 28% of visitors were from outside the US.

The same trend in users can be observed with Central Park.  In 2011, it was reported that Central Park received between 37-38 million visitors (this has climbed to 42 million in 2016!) and of that number, 12% were from outside NYC and the greater NY Metropolitan area and an additional 16% of visitors were from outside the US.

The spillover of millions of national and international visitors have therefore drawn a wider mix of retail to the immediate vicinity of these destination parks that cater specifically to tourists who are seeking a uniquely ‘New York experience’. When compared with the retail mix around neighborhood parks, the destination parks have far greater shares of retailers selling miscellaneous items (including book stores, souvenir/gift stores), clothing and accessories, and sporting goods/ hobby merchandise. Even retail kiosks within the park and along the periphery of the park offer miscellaneous items such as books or souvenir t-shirts and tote bags.
Strand Bookstore, an iconic 86-year old independent bookstore in NYC, operates a kiosk just outside Central Park on the corner of 60th St and 5th Avenue. The kiosk not only curates its merchandise to offer books and materials related to the history of New York City and Central Park, it is also a piece of NYC’s cultural history itself. The Strand is the only surviving retailer of Fourth Avenue’s historic ‘Book Row’ shops from the 1890s to 1960s and has seen a number of artists amongst its employees including Patti Smith. The book kiosk by Central Park indeed offers tourists a flavor of old New York.
Meanwhile, at The High Line, you can find a kiosk in the park selling exclusive High Line merchandise with everything from apparel and accessories, to placemats, water bottles, coloring books, and tea towels. These items are all uniquely designed for the High Line and go towards supporting the park’s operations and programs.  

While we must acknowledge that there are still residents in the immediate vicinity of these destination parks, the share of convenience-related businesses serving them is much smaller compared to that near neighborhood parks. For example, within 0.25 mile of the High Line park at 14th Street, only 2.76% of businesses are food and beverage stores and within 0.25 mile of the East 59th Street entrance of Central Park, an even smaller share of 0.5% of businesses are food and beverage/grocery stores. Residents are therefore likely getting groceries and convenience goods 0.25 mile in the other direction, away from the destination park.

Food, drinking, and the outdoors
Source: ESRI Business Analyst Online 2017; LOA
In comparing the retail mix across both neighborhood parks and destination parks, however, one retail category maintained a constantly high share of businesses within 0.25 mile – food services and drinking places. From McGolrick Park to Washington Square Park, food services and drinking places including restaurants and bars share between 10-18% of the total retail mix within 0.25 mile radius.

The High Line Summer Terroir Pop-Up. Photo: The High Line
In many instances, these restaurants and bars are located in the parks themselves, have direct views into the parks, or are easy to take out and consume in the park. Connecting the outdoors to food and drinking, as is possible near neighborhood and destination parks, can be a winning formula for many restaurants and bars. In the restaurant industry, anecdotal accounts from restaurateurs report elevated dining experiences amongst customers by offering al fresco seating options, resulting in increased sales.

The Synergy between Retail and Parks
Even with non-food service and drinking businesses, the connection to the park and the outdoors can be a winning formula to driving greater traffic into stores. One example is Union Square Park, which hosts fitness events outside in the warm months to drive traffic to both the park and its neighboring businesses. Sponsored by and organized with local athletic apparel stores and yoga studios and gyms, the SweatFest event illustrates the possible synergies between a park and local businesses.  

Overall, it appears that parks can make great co-tenants of certain types of retail because they increase dwell time in the neighborhood or area, and can increase potential sales. However, the synergy works the other way too.
Union Square Winter Market. Photo: TimeOut NY

Retail can prove beneficial to parks by activating them in the colder months. Many destination parks in NYC that see drastic drops in visitor numbers in the Winter have introduced outdoor holiday markets with retail to drive foot traffic into the parks. Parks like Bryant Park, Union Square Park and even Central Park (at its Columbus Circle entrance) are opening their arms to retail as they find ways to maintain visitation throughout the cold months.

Finally, retail in and around parks may also have positive impacts on park safety at night. After dusk, many parks – neighborhood and destination – get dark and quiet. Having retail that opens later into the evening along the periphery of parks, and facing them, ensures that lights stay on later in the area and potentially improving the perception of safety for those walking at night.

Planning cohesively for parks and retail
Given that both parks and retail can stand to gain from being closely situated to each other, it’s important that we plan for or make it viable for the two to co-exist. This might mean ensuring that zoning near and around parks allows for various types of retail businesses and outdoor seating options to flourish or it might even mean planning for Park Concessions areas and ensuring that the application process is easy to navigate and not costly (Strand Bookstore only pays around $46,305 annually to the Parks Department for its Central Park kiosk).   

Sure the tenant mix may differ between park types, however, the park should be used creatively as an extension of the retail and vice versa.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Best Practice: Shrinking Brick-and-Mortars and DGX

Dan McCombie is a Research Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

For our recent blog post on 2018 retail trends, number seven on our list was the phenomenon of shrinking retail footprints and the opportunities they provide for both retailers and for downtowns. I thought it helpful to highlight one such retailer, perhaps an unexpected one, who has adopted this strategy. Who is it?

Dollar General. (Really?)

Really. (Tell me more!)


In January of 2017, Dollar General announced the opening of its new urban format store entitled Dollar General Express (or DGX) in Nashville Tennessee, just a ways south of the company's base of operations in Goodlettsville. It differed largely from existing stores in that it occupied a paltry 3,400 SF compared to traditional store sizes of 7,300 SF, presenting a small, clean, modern and sleek aesthetic. Its usual 10,000-12,000 SKUs were traded in for a more limited assortment of grocery, pet supply, snacks, paper products, and home cleaning supplies, but complemented with a coffee bar, refrigerated grab-n-go food offerings, an expanded health and beauty section, and a “carefully-edited assortment of home, electronics and seasonal offerings.”[1]

What explained the reasoning behind the new DGX? Dollar General representatives explained what we all already know, that the retail business is changing and shopping is increasingly moving online. The new DGX was felt to be a way to anchor their brand more in their brick-and-mortars by reaching a new audience of urban and Millennial-aged shoppers—thus the reason for choosing Nashville as their first location. The Nashville metropolitan area is expected to reach a population of 2M by the year 2020, signaling a trend of urbanization that is not likely to abate anytime soon. A quick look in ESRI Business Analyst found that within a fifteen minute walk shed of the store’s location, over 40 percent of the population was classified in the “Dorms to Diplomas” tapestry segment, an inherently budget-conscious demographic of college students with low rates of car ownership. An additional 38 percent of residents were characterized as “Metro Renters,” college-educated Millennial 30-somethings with a preference for single household urban living. Dollar General seems to be gambling big on these cohorts by opening its second DGX location in Raleigh, North Carolina, within the famed Research Triangle region.

What DGX is seeking to do goes beyond what was discussed in our 2018 trends blog post, where we pointed to stores like City Target and Neighborhood Nordstrom in the general merchandise category. These retailers are shrinking store sizes and reducing inventories in order to focus on more experiential components—in essence responding to a market correction that saw an oversupply in retail space across the country. But Dollar General is really continuing a retail strategy that has historically served them well. They have always been a small format chain compared to their big-box competitors. With a smaller footprint, they’ve been able to locate closer to budget-minded shoppers, competing on convenience and access, such that they claim they currently serve 75% of the US population. This strategy has fueled their consistent growth with Q4 2017 sales rising at the fastest pace seen in the past three years.  

What is different is that the Dollar General site selection strategy has grown from a focus solely on the rural customer to include the urban. In short, Dollar General has not changed their value proposition, which is providing affordable and accessible convenience goods. What they have changed is their focus on primarily rural demographics to now include a growing urban demographic. This is not to say they’ve been absent from urban areas until now, but the new DGX stores can be shoehorned into smaller spaces in denser environments in a way they haven’t been able to prior. That has tremendous implications for addressing vacant spaces, improving tenant mix, and creating engaging downtown environments.     

Source: dollargeneral.com

[1] https://newscenter.dollargeneral.com/our-story/blog-posts/dollar-general-unveils-new-dgx-concept.htm

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Age of the Selfie

Greetings from Austin Mural, TX. Photo: Yelp
Nur Asri is an Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates.

Whether we care to admit or not, we’ve all taken one or been forced to take one. I'm talking about selfies. Selfies are digital self-portraits that began to really take off when smart phones became equipped with the forward-facing camera. The photos themselves haven’t radically changed retail or downtowns – believe me, people were taking self-portraits even when they had film cameras. However, when the digital self-portraits are uploaded to social media platforms and tagged and shared by users across the world, that’s when it starts to have an impact on the brand and identity of a retailer or an entire downtown.

The selfie is now a common tool that people – young and old – use to share their individual experiences with others and to self-brand. The marketing power of the selfie cannot be understated. A HTC survey in 2013 of more than 2,000 mobile phone users in the UK found that about 51% of the UK had taken a selfie, creating about 35 million photos every month. Although a greater share of those aged 18-24 had taken a selfie, almost a third of those aged 65 and older had also taken one, indicating that the selfie can work on a wide range of customer segments.

Just to understand the magnitude of selfie-taking, we took a look at the number of selfies taken on Instagram.

Sure, selfies are often criticized for being associated with vanity or narcissism but selfies are often the first and last step a customer takes in their purchasing journey. Selfies provide inspiration for those seeking to make purchases and selfies provide validation for those who have already bought products – it’s a near instant feedback loop for customers. Selfies have indeed increased sharing of product information and resulted in more educated and conscious consumers. Today, customers search for authentic peer recommendations for a range of products and even for travel decisions so information shared on social media has in many ways surpassed the influence of magazines and newspapers. A 2016 TopDeck Travel Survey in 2016 found that in choosing where to travel, 76% of Millennials surveyed said that friends’ recommendations…and social media came far ahead of travel-agent advice.

How are retailers making use of selfies?
Retailers in a wide range of categories have used selfies as a leverage to raise brand and product awareness, and also boost in-store traffic.
1. Drug stores/ Beauty
Interactive mirrors placed in UK drug store, Superdrug Beauty Studio, allow customers to experiment with hair colors virtually and take selfies after getting hair or make-up done. This helps the store’s customers to share the quality of services being offered in-store while also providing free marketing. To make the sharing of the selfie easier, the store features iPads that enable customers to send the selfie to Facebook or Twitter with the official campaign hashtag, #TreatYourSelfie.

2. Apparel
Many apparel stores from Victoria’s Secret to French Connection and Ted Baker have used selfies as part of their marketing campaigns. These stores encourage shoppers to take photos in-store by creating a perfect backdrop or setting for taking selfies. These include special installations, interactive selfie booths and attractive storefront displays. The stores then encourage shoppers to share the selfies on their personal Twitter and Instagram profiles using official campaign hashtags by providing incentives like free gifts for anyone that uploads the photo to social media or by displaying the selfies on a public screen or storefront window.

By displaying the selfies publicly, passersby became very engaged with the store. They were able to vote for favorite selfies using hand sensors and were then more likely to walk into the store.  

3. Food
Even with food, selfies can happen. The phenomenon known as foodstagramming is the act of taking photos of one’s food and posting them on social media. Restaurants are certainly taking advantage of it because it can be free advertising (depending on the photographer’s comments!).

How can downtowns use selfies?
Speaking of food, this week is Restaurant Week across New York City and sure enough many business improvement districts are using food selfies as a way to raise awareness of the district events and drive greater traffic to the restaurants in these areas post-event. Grand Street BID in Brooklyn, for example, is offering foodstagrammers a chance to win $50 to their favorite Grand Street Restaurant if they upload a picture of their Restaurant Week meal with the hashtag #DineOnGrand and tag the BID in the photos.  

Beyond food selfies, commercial districts can also use iconic art and signage and interactive sculptures to encourage selfies by visitors and to reinforce their identities. In the past, we’ve featured the I Amsterdam sign as one example of a way that signage can drive popular images posted on social media. Many other downtowns have driven high visitation rates with iconic selfie spots. Here are some examples:

In Austin, murals across the city have become destinations in themselves and visitors are taking selfies in front of them and sharing images on social media with hashtags #Austin #ATX

In San Diego, the gateway signage to the Gaslamp Quarter has also become very iconic as a selfie spot for visitors to the area.

Creating a selfie moment in your downtown, like in a retail store, can do wonders in attracting more visitors and customers. The rapid sharing and outsourcing of opinions amongst consumers today can either make or break your downtown so make sure you provide positive moments for visitors to snap a quick and pretty selfie.

How to create a successful selfie moment downtown

First, remember to create a backdrop for the selfie to happen. This means good lighting, mirrors and attractive or significant art. Holiday lighting displays are often great backdrops, as are large sculptures, murals and gateway signs. The backdrop should also reflect the identity and brand of the downtown in order for the retweets and sharing of social media posts to be fully effective in driving interest and traffic to your downtown.

Second, make uploading the selfie easy. While stores and retailers can easily provide ipads and devices to customers, downtowns should instead think about providing free public wifi. From personal experience, I’m always more likely to upload and share content when I can easily get online. If I’m not able to instantly upload images after taking them, I’m likely to forget doing so later.

Third, provide incentives for visitors to take the selfies. With some visitors, you’ll need to nudge. Offer a chance to win a shopping trip or discounts at downtown stores if someone takes a selfie in the area and uploads it to social media. Featuring selfies taken downtown on outdoor advertisements and interactive platforms may also nudge some visitors to take photos. It’s always fun to see a photo you’ve taken up on a public platform!

Finally, make sure you aggregate the selfies and build your downtown brand through a common hashtag or downtown social media account that visitors can tag in their posts. This can help you drive traffic to your downtown website or even directly downtown! Make sure everyone on social media ‘liking’ or ‘retweeting’ posts is able to connect the selfie to your downtown.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The obscure zoning regulations that might be undermining your downtown revival

We have all heard the news. Retailers are increasingly experimenting with new business formats that blur the lines between uses that have never previously existed side by side. Things like education/instruction, production and retail now regularly occur in the same facility, making it difficult for planners to categorize these uses and creating the need for businesses to apply for expensive discretionary zoning actions for combinations that planners never dreamed of decades ago. By making it harder and more costly for businesses, particularly smaller, mom-and-pop (and often less capitalized) to open, cities are diminishing their competitive advantages and making it more likely that these businesses will locate elsewhere. As retail footprints shrink, a trend unlikely to change in the near future, successful commercial districts will be those that aggregate a diverse, robust set of uses in one place. Cities can't afford to lose interesting and unique retailers if they want to remain relevant to shoppers who can easily purchase the same goods on-line.

Table of Uses and Use Group Designations
Most cities have tables or use group charts that define, with great precision, the kinds of businesses that are allowed or restricted in certain areas. This made sense when noxious manufacturing uses were not anything you wanted around residential communities, but we have come a long way since then. Consider "Maker Spaces" that allow people to collaborate, build and create products. Or consider the new Nike store along Broadway in Soho. The entire first floor is dedicated to building your own pair of sneakers. Zoning restrictions in some communities might have prevent one or both of these concepts - yet these are precisely the kind of uses that downtown managers are looking to as they try to fill vacant spaces.
The Nike Store along Broadway in Soho dedicates the entire
first floor to the production
of sneakers. Would this use be allowed in your downtown?

Other examples include things like gyms, yoga studios and artisan specialty food manufacturing and breweries, all downtown friendly uses that are blurring the line between retail, service and manufacturing and frankly causing havoc in the zoning world. This is because most zoning codes do not often recognize the nuances inherent in these business models and as a result businesses are often required to enter expensive legal processes for permitting their businesses.

Here are a few concrete examples from our work that highlight the challenges...

Gyms and Spas
Times Square in the 1970's was not a place for the weak of heart. The problem, according to many, included the many adult massage parlors that operated with impunity. To fix it, the City amended the Zoning Resolution to prohibit "Physical Culture Establishments" and to require that these businesses obtain special permits to operate. Many parlors operating as gyms or health spas were closed and many credit the permit process with speeding up improvements to Times Square.

Fast forward forty years and the well intention special permit now exists in an environment in which healthy living is an important part of the urban lifestyle. Uses that we now consider normal parts of our everyday lives, including gyms, spas, martial arts schools and yes, legitimate massage studios, must apply for a Physical Culture Establishment permit that takes many months and according to Crain's New York Business cost $50,000 or more in fees and legal costs. While the code was later amended to allow as-of-right, art, music, dance or theatrical uses under 1,500 sf, this still leaves alot of legitimate uses open to the vagaries of the discretionary permitting process.

It should also be noted that as brick-and-mortar retail shrinks its footprint, these kinds businesses are precisely the kinds of uses filling many of the vacant spaces left behind. Yet expensive roadblocks like these make it harder for property owners to fill vacancies. Instead the spaces lie fallow.

While your downtown may not have a permit restricting gyms, you may have other impediments to retail businesses that are interested in locating downtown but may be scared away by permitting or restrictions that will cost them significant time and money.

Breweries, Bakeries and Furniture Makers
Another area of contention are retailers that do light manufacturing of some kind on-site. One of the most common is the brewery. More and more downtown's are seeing breweries as a real opportunity for downtown revitalization. We recently did some work in Morganton, NC, where no less than three popular breweries have set the stage for a full-scale downtown revival.
Brown Mountain Bottleworks
is located in a historic building in
Morgtontown, NC.

However many downtown zoning codes do not allow for this use. This recently happened in the City of New Rochelle, NY.  According to a local councilman, in the past year alone at least three breweries considered opening locations in downtown and all have chosen other locations. Under the prevailing zoning at the time, breweries were relegated to certain industrial zones or in new buildings, which effectively prevented them from locating downtown, which is where many want to be. To remedy the situation, the City Council amended the zoning code to ease regulations for breweries and other artisan shops that also include elements of manufacturing, including jewelers, bakers, furniture makers and coffee roasters.

Educational Establishments
Many downtowns thrive off of the presence of educational institutions that attract students. "Educational" designations can increasingly be applied to retailers who also offer instruction in their stores. In fact, some storefronts are predominantly places for classes that support minor accessory retail, rather than the other way around. In Watkins Glen, NY where we are working on the New York State Downtown Revitalization Initiative, a collective of 19 local knitters purchased a downtown business whose owner was retiring and turned it into Fiber Arts in the Glen, a gathering space for knitting groups, classes, and to a lesser extent the purchase of yarn. In fact, someone who enters the store is often surprised to find that many of the lovely knitted goods are not for sale, they are simply samples to show off the yarn that is being sold.

In some places this is precisely this kind of use that triggers changes parking requirements. Practice Space, a small business in Inman Square found this out the hard way. During our work with the City of Cambridge, MA, we found that when an existing use changes and the new use is thought to increase the intensity of use, additional parking is sometimes required. Practice Space could function in its location as a retail establishment, but when they added classes they quickly found that their location in an older building along a traditional commercial corridor offered limited to no opportunities to add off-street parking. This kind of parking requirement assumes a suburban context and therefore it can effectively kill the kind of new retail concept that many retailers are exploring.

As on-line retail increasingly results in stiff competition for customer dollars, our responsibility to downtown is to make sure that zoning codes and regulations do not stand in the way of innovative retail concepts that will ensure businesses survive and thrive during these challenging times.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Good apps are hard to find

Capital Riverfront BID, Washington DC
Are you considering developing an app for your downtown to promote local businesses and events? If so, it might be a good idea to take a moment to think through the pros and cons. Today we talked with Jim Blakeslee of Geocentric, a web software and interactive services firm in Bethesda, MD that works with over 30 downtown districts.  We discussed website development versus app development for downtown business directories and events marketing – his firm does both with their Citylight product, a web-based and data-driven system that tracks and maps all kinds of data within downtown boundaries. Below are some highlights from our conversation that might make the app decision easier to make.

Why you might want to pause before developing a native app
Jim cautions BIDs to think twice before developing an app for the following reasons…

Cherry Creek North BID, Denver CO.
  • Apps can be duplicative of a good website. Geocentric already finds over 50% of the web traffic to downtown district websites is coming through mobile devices. Therefore, your downtown website already needs to be optimized for a phone anyway. There is limited value to creating an app that just duplicates what is already visible in browser without adding additional value.
  • Many customers start their journey of information-gathering on the web. Geocentric notes that up to 75% of web traffic to district websites comes directly from Google search. Unlike websites that live on the Internet, apps are a closed system, making it more difficult for people to find the information tucked within an app. In addition, apps need to be downloaded by users before being of use to anyone – this is yet another hurdle for customers to get simple information such as what’s happening downtown this evening.  Geocentric has found that more than half of all pageviews on their clients’ downtown websites go directly to business directory and events calendar pages.
  • Apps are a lot of trouble and more expensive to maintain. Native apps can be expensive. Jim quoted estimates in the range of $20-40k for a native app, compared to $10-20k for a good website. Keep in mind these estimates reflect an average range, there are apps that can cost up to $100k, and websites that can cost as little as $5k. Either way, the additional cost and time associated with developing and updating/ maintaining an app is significant. Remember, the Google Play and Apple App Stores often require apps to go through an approvals process before being made available in stores.

If you do decide to go with an app. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Midtown Alliance, Atlanta GA
  • Make sure you have a good website first. A good app starts with a good website, one that feeds information into the app and prevents the need for double entry of importation information.
  • Integrate supportive tech infrastructure downtown. Take a tip from the shopping center industry and offer free public Wifi downtown. Once the customer has signed in or connected to free Wifi, download prompts for your downtown app on the Wifi landing page can easily be created.
  • Make sure the app offers something above and beyond what your website does. Apps do have the capability to do more than simply duplicate the information found on a good website, so if you are going to use it make sure you enhance its functionality by allowing for push marketing and offers/deals. This is what will help make the app useful and more appealing to download.
  • Marketing is key. An app that is not promoted properly is like a tree that falls in a forest. Does it make a sound? Not if no one hears it. Make sure every business in town is actively marketing the app – one of our clients has given window clings to every business to promote the app and raises awareness of its existence.
  • Measure success. According to Jim, positive growth trends in app usage and downloads is a good indicator that your downtown app is doing well. Of course, like websites, it all depends on the level of competition for news and information in your locality.  

Monday, January 22, 2018

Retail Value in Walkability

Nur is an Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates
Franklin Street/ NY -14 (Watkins Glen, NY). Photo: LOA

On a recent site visit to various towns in upstate New York, we experienced main commercial streets that, like many others around the country, also function as state highways. In one downtown we visited located directly on the NY-14 highway, or Franklin Street, sees an average of 11,000-13,000 vehicles passing thru daily. Although the moderate traffic count might appear to be a positive trait for retailers by increasing its visibility to potential driver customers, local business owners we spoke with expressed a very different opinion.

According to local merchants, without mid-block crossings and flashing pedestrian crossing lights, the street can be very hazardous to cross (once customers get out of their cars of course). Worse still, we found out from an anchor merchant that the state thoroughfare was also used as a shortcut for large vehicles and delivery trucks getting from downstate to upstate cities like Rochester.

Watkins Glen State Park visitors walking on NY-14. Photo: LOA
Unfortunately for downtown retailers, this unfriendly and uncomfortable pedestrian environment reduces customer dwell time and the chances of repeat visitors. Aside from residents living in upper story apartments on Main Street or in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to Main Street (i.e. captive customer base), it is less likely that a visitor who has experienced the hostile environment of walking up and down your commercial street will return for another visit. This is only compounded by the fact that the retail offerings are essentially halved when customers are unable to cross the street to get to other stores easily.

A poor pedestrian environment negatively impacts cross-shopping opportunities. A shopper walking on the eastern side of the street will find it difficult to cross west given the hostile street, even if he or she can see an interesting sign or merchandise in the display across the way. Without mandatory stop points and strong law enforcement, large vehicles passing thru frequently during the day are unlikely to make time for pedestrians crossing. In fact, on our site visit in Watkins Glen, we observed first-hand several pedestrians waiting longer than five minutes to cross near Franklin Street because vehicles turning were not yielding to pedestrians. The same goes for Main Street in Mount Morris, NY.

Although commercial districts and Main Streets located on state thoroughfares rely quite heavily on vehicle traffic to convert into paying customers, these shoppers who eventually get out of their vehicles to peruse storefronts become pedestrians themselves. Therefore, creating a friendly and comfortable walkable environment on Main Street is paramount to increasing dwell times of customers and store sales downtown.

The retail value of creating a more walkable downtown

Source: Bent & Shiga 2008
A survey conducted in San Francisco, an incredibly walkable city, found that those who walked to downtown San Francisco were spending more in a month than those driving downtown. Sure, walkers spent less per visit compared to those arriving by private vehicle (I mean, think about how much weight you can reasonably carry on your own versus in a car!). However, when accounting for the number of times per month they visited downtown, walkers came out to be the bigger spenders overall in a month. For retailers, this means making your downtown walkable and comfortable for more pedestrians will likely improve foot traffic and sales. In fact, a Brookings Institute study and a State of Place study conducted in metropolitan Washington and Houston respectively further support this, having found that each increase in level of ‘walkability’ translates to an 80% increase in retail sales.

How to create a pedestrian and bike-friendly environment downtown

NY-408 in Nunda, NY. Photo: LOA
Of course, transforming state or federal highways that your commercial districts may be located on is no easy feat. Often, state and federal objectives of moving vehicular traffic quickly and efficiently are at odds with the community vision for a walkable and vibrant downtown environment. In order to create the desired environment, close coordination with state and federal department of transportation representatives will be critical from start to finish.  Starting with smaller streetscape improvements (i.e. benches, sidewalk lights, and re-painting crosswalks) will be key to exploring bigger options such as building road medians at key intersections, bulb outs, and installing new crosswalk lights (perhaps, with leading pedestrian intervals).

Finally, be aware that one of the greatest battles to be fought with state or federal DOTs will be adjusting posted speed limits. In many downtowns and main streets, the 25mph speed limit has become a common traffic calming action to take to increase comfort levels for pedestrian shoppers. Lowering posted speed limits may prove to be a worthy battle to fight as a 2015 survey of shoppers by Schneider found that posted speed limits had a significantly negative association to walking within a shopping district. The lower the posted speed limit, the more survey respondents walked within the shopping districts, leading to longer dwell times.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

New Retail in 2018 - Changing Fashions and Impacts on Tenant Mix

Dan McCombie is a research associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

I’ve been listening to the Loose Threads podcast lately and absolutely loving it. If you haven’t had a chance yet, I strongly recommend it. Though the topics skew towards apparel and fashion, the broader underpinnings of the conversations apply more generally to the current retail moment, exploring experiential retail, the growth of ecommerce, and the various ways stores are fragmenting and reconstituting themselves to meet changes in consumer tastes and preferences. The first episode I listened to was Episode 50, in which the host of the show, Richie Siegel, sits down with his former business partner, Charlie Giannetti, and they reflect upon lessons learned founding and running a NY-based menswear line, Gioventu.

What struck me most about their conversation was when Charlie explained how the genesis of the company in many ways had its foundations in the Garment Center.[1] While as a student at NYU, he used Photoshop to create a graphic design for a t-shirt. Without actually making a physical garment, he uploaded a mockup to Tumblr where it promptly went viral. Given its reception, he knew he was on to something:
“And so from that point I was in New York, skating around the garment district, trying to figure out how to actually produce a piece of clothing, and that was where it all started. I ended up making them, and made a Squarespace site, did a photoshoot on a disposable film camera, and we sold 100 pieces in like 3 hours, at $150 apiece for this T-shirt that no one had ever seen in real life.[2]                                                                                                                                  
This story strikes me because we’re always thinking about how to improve tenant mix in commercial districts. And inherent to that is the question of what type of tenants are going to be the most successful. Especially in the current retail environment, success parallels an ability to adapt. Whether that’s by leveraging new tech and social media, creating frequent iterations of products, or staying abreast of consumer trends. My belief is that to really flourish in these respects, it certainly helps to have access to an ecosystem of supporting actors and institutions, much like the Garment Center is for burgeoning apparel companies. Consider another example, presented by Outlier, a company described as the “darling of nerdy, direct-to-consumer technical menswear.”[3] In an interview with tech commentator and columnist Om Malik, co-founder Abe Burmeister tells a similar origin story:

“I rolled into the Garment District in New York, which is a like an ancient technology center — you know, the Silicon Valley of the 1900s or really late 1800s, when the sewing machine was invented. Ninety percent of the clothes in America used to come out of the Garment District, and so very few of them do now. It’s much smaller than it used to be, but there’s still a lot of life there….I started asking questions and eventually I developed a pair of pants that I thought were just better [than what else was available]. And because I knew a lot more about making websites than about making clothes, I thought, what happens if I put these things online? Will people buy ‘em? You know, like maybe that’ll work, and somehow it did. People started buying ‘em.”[4]
The reason I think these stories are important to our practice is because by understanding how companies are forming, how they leverage different skills (especially in regards to e-commerce and IOT), and how they perceive their role within the larger commercial environment, we can develop a better understanding of how to position commercial districts to attract them. I understand that these examples are limited to a very specialized and niche area of the retail industry and within a very specific urban context. But again, the larger question still stands: In what ways can access to an ecosystem of supporting actors and institutions, whether that be a concentration of complementary industries, college campuses, business incubators, civic organizations, what have you—create a pipeline that yields real growth in successful brick and mortars? If the Garment Center is a resource for companies like Outlier (a direct to consumer brand), how can it be leveraged so that it turns into more active storefronts in Midtown? I think there are a lot of different answers to this question, and I hope to see it continue to be discussed more as we travel deeper into 2018.

The Garment Center -1955 [5]
Richie Siegel, cofounder of Gioventu [6]

Outlier's "Shelter from the Storm" field jacket - 2017 [7] 

[1] For those unfamiliar, the Garment Center is located in Midtown Manhattan and is the fashion epicenter of both the New York and greater United States, home to the highest concentration of fashion-related retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, and suppliers.