Friday, December 17, 2010

Are you using social media to drive "real" traffic to your downtown?

Your position as a commercial district manager is about utilizing economies of scale. District management entities are in an excellent position to serve as the portal for social media - serving business owners who don't want to have to deal with learning how to effectively use and maintain relavent social media context. I came across a recent news article [Read more: How Eight Major Franchises Are Using Social Media For Customer Service] about how franchises are using social media for customer service. The same concept can and should be applied to commercial district managers in their social media efforts. Franchisees pay franchise operators for the marketing support they provide - making it easy for individual franchise owners to particate and benefit from the social media strategy that their corporate parents manage and maintain on their behalf. There is no reason that these strategies can't work for commercial district managers.

Some examples that are particularly appropriate include:
  • Tasti D-lite offers "treatcards" that allow customers to accumlate points that can be redeemed at the store. This is linked to Foursquare and Twitter. Customers who register their card get extra points with every purchase.
  • Dunkin Donuts offers occational specials and free items via it's Twitter account
  • Church's Chicken launced a Twitter account. Customers who signed up were matched by a $1 donation to a pledge fund. This sounds like a great way to build a Twitter account quickly, and give to a local cause at the same time. I'm sure this could be leveraged to get some good local PR as well.
In general, these franchise operators are using Twitter and Facebook to send out marketing information, specials and other benefits on behalf of their many franchisees. The same concept can be applied to a commercial district social media strategy on behalf of its many businesses. Here are a few downtown's that have Twitter accounts for some ideas...
Go ahead and post a link to your downtown twitter account for others to view!



Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More Holiday Promotion Ideas...

These just keep on are a few additional holiday promotional ideas. I like these promotional programs because they suggest good relationships with local retailers and are specifically designed to drive traffic into stores. Both are from Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in New York City.

Holiday Coupon Book
Union Square Partnership works closely with neighborhood businesses to offer promotions through a holiday coupon book available at a local information booth and at participating restaurants and retailers. Shoppers can also go directly to the BID website to see the wide variety of specials available and download discounts directly. From discounts on meals to eyeglasses to yoga…each retailer defines the promotion they are comfortable with.

Barcode Promotions
The Downtown Alliance is taking their holiday marketing to a whole new level. They are using Scanbuy 2-D barcode technology to direct shoppers, diners and other visitors to their shopping destination of choice. Posters for the promotional event are located throughout the district—as well at bus stops and on the Downtown Alliance’s free bus service, the Downtown Connection. 2D barcode technology allows shoppers to scan bar codes using their smart phones. Users can download the ScanLife code reader app texting SCAN to 43588. These bar code direct users to shopping and dining guides and a special holiday page featuring specials, event listings and more on the Downtown Alliance’s holiday Web page.

The Downtown Alliance is also offering a “Downtown Culture Pass.” The pass offers three-day unlimited access—with gift shop discounts—to local museums and tourist destinations. A good idea for increasing visitation to the district, with the added benefit of a spillover effect for local restaurants and retailers.

Any one else have good ideas to share with readers?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Did "Small Business Saturday" Make a Difference?

I came across a decent balanced analysis of American Express' Small Business Saturday campaign on . The response from small business owners seems mixed. It certainly seems like a good idea to raise awareness of the impact of spending in local stores - but I do wonder whether the campaign did anything to change customer shopping habits or if it was just good PR. What do you think? Did the campaign work? Or do you have suggestions for how American Express can improve next year?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

More Holiday Promotions: Boston's "Holiday's on Main Streets"

The City of Boston has always been ahead of the curve in its efforts to support traditional neighborhood commercial districts. This holiday season is no exception. This week Mayor Thomas Menino announced the "Deck the Windows of Boston Main Streets" contest in an effort to recognize the best holiday window decorations by small business owners along their twenty designated 'Main Street' districts. For a look at the flyer, click here.

I like how the City is encouraging business owners to decorate their windows and create a festive holiday atmosphere in traditional business districts. This is just one component of its expanding "Holidays on Main Streets" program. In addition to the contest, the city has established free holiday parking and maintains a website announcing local holiday events along each of the Main Street districts.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Holiday Marketing: Beyond the Basics

Christmas Tree. Check. Menorah. Check. Holiday lights. Check. Businesses have come to expect these basic services over the holidays. They know that a festive atmosphere helps drive sales - and holiday sales are critical to making sure they end the year in the black.

Beyond these holiday basics, what else can a commercial district management entity do to help local businesses thrive over the holiday season? In the neighborhoods of Kingsbridge, Riverdale and Van Courtland in New York, a local community development corporation, KRVC, is taking holiday marketing to the next level with a holiday shopping guide and shuttle bus betwen the districts. Piggybacking on Black Friday, which is traditionally the Friday after Thanksgiving, KRVC is encouraging residents to shop local on Sunday, providing dedicated parking donated by Staples, the national office supply retailer, and offering a free shuttle with dedicated stops throughout the three participating districts. Sponsors include State Farm Insurance and Chase Bank branches in the neighborhood. Participating businesses recieve promotion, and in return, do something special that day in their stores. The event has recieved local news coverage, and local businesses express high hopes that these new customers convert into return sales. This is an exciting event and an extremelly proactive way for a local commercial district management entity to help drive sales over the holiday season. Take a look at the event poster by clicking here or cutting and pasting the following link [].

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Target goes 'Urban' and Big Box vs. Small Box

This is a follow-up blog to a previous post on Walmart’s emerging ‘urban strategy’. Target has also announced that it will be focusing its efforts on urban areas, including remodeling existing stores and focusing on smaller format stores more appropriate for urban markets.

How small is small?
Target has indicated plans to introduce a smaller store formats in the range of 60,000 to 100,000 square feet. Compared with its typical format of 125,000 to 180,000 square feet, this is small, but for most urban markets, finding that much square footage can still be a challenge, if not downright impossible. They plan to open the first small-format store in Seattle in 2012 – with plans to expand to at least 10 additional cities, including San Francisco and Baltimore, in the coming years. The stores will continue to carry a smaller selection of everything from fashion to home furnishing, but will focus on daily needs. These new Target stores will also include groceries. Target is rolling out a store within a store concept called “P-Fresh” that offers groceries within a 10,000 – 12,000 sf format.

Will this format work for or against traditional business districts?
Not every business district can support, or wants, a Target in their vicinity. The square footage requirements, not to mention the parking requirements, do not make this concept suitable for most traditional business districts. Where smaller format ‘big box’ stores do work are dense urban areas where parking can be reduced because of high mass transit usage. In New York City, Target has successfully development new stores – very profitable ones at that – where parking is limited and in some cases non-existent. In other markets, this is simply not possible.

Big box or small box on our commercial corridors?
A recent "Livability" survey by the Municipal Art Society found that far from shunning chain stores, most people want a healthy mix of retail in their neighborhoods – including chains stores. Not only that, but they actually prefer chain stores to mom-and-pops when shopping for certain goods, including food and apparel.

But not all chains are alike. Smaller chains, like Dunkin Donuts, Subway, Walgreens Drugstores, etc. are more in keeping and appropriate in traditional commercial districts and often help draw more pedestrian traffic to commercial districts – helping mom-and-pops increase sales as well.

Additional research into commercial districts suggests that there is a marked difference between  the impact of ‘big-box’ chains like Target and ‘small-box’ chains like drugstores on traditional commercial districts. A seminal study of all of Philadelphia commercial districts - completed two years ago by Philadelphia-based Econsult - found that while big box stores do increase trips to the district, they do not always help surrounding businesses grow their retail sales [For more on the study, click here for the Executive Summary]. The study also found that “big-box stores…are moderately harmful for real estate values” and “large-scale national chains are associated with lower retail sales in some circumstances.” It seems that people want to shop at big-box stores, but don’t want to live too close to them. Which means that most urban districts might want to take care before putting out the welcome sign for big-box stores.

On the other hand, small-box stores, and pharmacies in particular, were found to play a positive role on commercial corridors. The study found that “chain pharmacies are beneficial by all measures in a corridor, and are most beneficial when they are in, not near, a mixed corridor. Chain pharmacies …should be seen as an amenity to a neighborhood.”

What is your take on the chain store?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"One" Approach to Commercial District Revitalization

Managing commercial districts where multiple properties are controlled by a bevy of different owners is a little bit like herding cats - difficult to say the least. Successful district management is further challenged by absentee owners that are difficult to reach and engage in the commercial revitalization effort. One alternative strategy for commercial revitalization is the 'single-owner' model. This is when a one developer begins amassing a critical mass of buildings along a commercial district. This approach allows the owner to manage the area much like a shopping center asset - taking great care with tenant mix, controlling improvements to the public realm, varying leasehold rates to attract and keep a good mix of tenants, and creating and marketing a unique district identity.

This week, the New York Times highlighted New York developer, Greg O'Connell in his efforts to apply this strategy to Mount Morris, New York [Resurrecting a Village by Buying Up Main Street], a rural town in upstate New York. In the case of Mount Morris, O’Connell is following in the well tread footsteps of urban visionaries such as Dana Crawford, who started buying property in downtown Denver in the 1960's and created Larimer Square. Or Rosyln Hill (pictured right), who is credited with turning Northeast Alberta Street, in Portland, Oregon, around starting in the 1990's.

This approach is not for the faint of heart. It requires significant vision, not to mention a healthy amount of capital for investment. Besides that, when does this approach work and why?
  • An undervalued district with good bones. These visionaries often begin by surreptitiously buying undervalued assets - primarily attractive historic buildings in pedestrian-friendly commercial districts. The trick here is to buy the properties very cheaply. The only way to off set the expenses associated with renovating historic buildings is the low cost of purchase. 
  • Great care crafting a distinct tenant mix. A visionary owner who takes great care attracting and retaining a unique set of businesses. In Larimer Square, Crawford started by leasing spaces to antique stores. In Portland, Hill focused on galleries and designers. This often means offering attractive rents and renting to non-credit tenants - i.e. mom-and-pops that offer distinctive goods and services.
  • Requiring tenants to adhere to a set of rules and regulations. In Mount Morris, O'Connell requires his tenants to remain open one evening a week, leave their lights on at night, and change their window displays at least four times a year. In Portland, Hill did not allow her tenants to use metal bars on their windows or lock their doors during business hours. These rules are often similar, in spirit at least, to the rules that tenants must abide by in local malls, where open and closing hours are often written into leases and fines can be levied if tenants do not comply.
As appealing as this approach may be - not every property owner can pull off this kind of transformation. When owners lack vision and see their properties as cash cows, renting to the highest bidder without thought to the quality or the balance of tenants, they effectively undermine the value of their asset.
The single-owner approach is also not one that can easily be replicated in high-value urban environments. When property is expensive and overvalued, it can be difficult for a single owner to purchase the critical mass of properties necessary to make a difference in crafting tenant mix or managing district identity. It can also be difficult for developers, who may have paid dearly for these assets, to invest and improve the properties as they require. The need to produce cash flow through rent begins to trump the ability to keep rents low to encourage interesting and creative retail in the spaces.

While the single-owner approach is not for everyone, there is alot to learn from those visionary urban pioneers who are able to pull it off.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Do's and Don'ts on Pitching Stories to the Press

Media saavy commercial district managers know how to turn their good work into free press. And free press for your district beats paid advertising any day. The Commercial District Advisor turns to Anat Gerstein, of Anat Gerstein Inc., to help us learn how to effectively pitch stories to the press.

Anat's firm serves the non-profit sector, and she recently moderated a panel discussion on how to get the press to cover your story. Panelists included Fernanda Santos from the New York Times, Beth Fertig from WNYC Radio, Gail Robinson from Gotham Gazette, and Shannon Troetel from NY1 News. The workshop was sponsored by the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee and hosted by the New York Times. Here are some of the do's and don'ts discussed by the panelists:

  • Give reporters a heads up about upcoming events so they can plan accordingly  
  • Have clients/real people available to discuss the issue (they want to hear from these people more than they want to hear from the Executive Director)  
  • Your homework! Make sure you know what the reporters cover and how they cover it before you pitch and tailor your pitch to fit the reporters needs, not your own! Click here for a simple guide on creating a targeted media list
  • Provide a background for the story. Location isn't only important for TV stories, its also important for radio and print reporters like Fernanda Santos who want to get a broader understanding of the story and the people
  • Follow up only to ask if the reporter received your email
  • Pitch old news  
  • Call when reporters are on deadline (usually the late afternoons and early evenings)
You can find more tips on pitching the press here. For daily communications news and tips for non-profits, follow Anat on Twitter @anatgerstein

Helping New and Old Businesses Ride the Wave of Neighborhood Change

Like many commercial districts, Astoria, a tight-knit urban neighborhood in Queens, NY, ["A Small Business Barometer", New York Times, Nov. 8, 2010] is a changing neighborhood. Yesterday's immigrant residents make room for today’s mix of residents – who often arrive with a different set of spending habits. Helping local businesses ride the wave of change is often part of a commercial district managers job.

Change can be difficult - and the recession has helped speed up the cycle for some businesses who were already facing a shrinking customer base. I sometimes get asked by commercial district managers how they can help existing businesses keep up with these changes in demographics. Part of the answer is helping local businesses keep their finger on the pulse of these changes – which may mean reworking their product mix and repositioning their stores to meet a new segment of growing demographic. Commercial district managers can serve as intermediaries in this effort, sharing important market and demographic information via newsletters and/or regular presentations to business owner's where critical information and market data can be shared and used to grow retail sales.

Opening new businesses is yet another challenge, made more difficult by some of the very typical problems that businesses face in communities across the nation. Below are some of the challenges cited by business owners in the NYTimes article, coupled with a few suggestions for how commercial district managers might help overcome them.
  • Difficulty getting banks loans and finding affordable financing. Can the commercial district manager identify non-profit lenders or government agencies who can provide financing where private banks cannot?
  • A lengthy and unpredictable permitting process. Small business owners are often cash strapped - and the longer the doors are closed with expenses piling up and no revenue coming in can cripple a business before it is even open. Can the commecial district manager, through existing relationships with governement officials or knowledge of the process, help facilitate permitting, or at least educate a new business owners on what to expect so that the process doesn't take any longer than it needs to? Can the commercial district management entity and it's board of directors advocate for a streamlined permitting process to help small businesses?
  • Deciding what merchandise mix makes sense for a neighborhood means knowing the community. As one business owner asked “The big question for us is, are people going to buy a $100 frame or a $300 frame?” Can the commercial district management entity commission regular marketing studies and share this data, and an analysis of how to interpret and act on the data, with local business owners?
  • Help managing the vagaries of community approval, including in community resistance to a liquor license, slowed opening of a restaurant by months and added significantly to legal costs. Can the commercial district manager, who likely has cultivated a good relationship with community leaders, help anticipate challenges to permit requests and thereby help the business prepare adequately for public presentations and meetings?
These are just a few ways in which commercial district managers can help grease the wheels of economic development in the district. We'd love to hear other suggestions from our readers.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Seeds of Trendy Districts

A colleague just sent me this must read piece in Crain's New York called "Musty Streets Now Hot Strips". These great images tell the story of once seedy districts that have all turned the corner towards 'cool'. Here are some of the elements that helped seed the beginning of these great commercial district turnaround stories...

Food First:
"Fashion follows food,” says Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman's retail leasing and sales division. “These are the [two] that add the sparkle that creates the buzz and excitement.”

Cheap Rent: 
In almost every case, these districts saw a confluence of low rents and landlords willing to make deals. Low rents allow small business owners to take risks they otherwise would be unable to take in other locations. The challenge is often how to maintain affordable rents once the area has become a hot destination.

Proximity to a Cultural Draw:
In more than one case, the proximity to cultural institutions and events helped ensure steady traffic among potential patrons. When entrepreneurs see growing demand for complimentary goods and services, low rent allows them to pounce.

A Growing Residential Population:
A growing residential population is not only a source of customers, but in some cases a source of local entrepreneurs as well.

Merchants Giving Back and Building Loyalty:
A local merchant community that is connected to the local residential community is also a good sign (in one case, local merchants helped put together a fundraiser for a local school). This helps to reinforce customer loyalty and suggests that excellent customer service is an expectation, not an afterthought.

Resources: The CDA Facebook page is a great resource for images of commercial districts from around the nation. Check out the album for Fort Greene, Brooklyn, one of the districts covered in the Crain's article. Consider sharing pics of your own district!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tenant Mix Can Make or Break Your District

Today I share with you the cautionary tale of Atlas Park in Queens, New York, a promising outdoor mall that is now in bankruptcy proceedings. Although a mall, the lessons here are important to commercial district managers, who often overlook the importance of tenant mix to the overall success of their districts. They focus instead on marketing, promotional events and improving the public realm – all important elements of a commercial revitalization strategy - but at the end of the day, even when all of those elements are in place, the wrong tenant mix can make or break a district.

What Happened to Atlas Park?
The Shops at Atlas Park was built in 2006 as a high-end, open-air mall located in a decidedly middle-income neighborhood in Queens, NY. In the beginning, management likely targeted high-end stores in the hopes of differentiating the mall from nearby malls with a more workaday appeal.

When it opened, expectations were high. The mix included an eight-screen Regal movie theater, and high-end retailers Jos. A. Bank, Florsheim and J. Jill, as well as a gourmet specialty food store. As a resident of nearby Jackson Heights, I was excited to discover Atlas Park. The landscaping and aesthetics, including a beautiful outdoor plaza with lush landscaping, were like something out of a movie set. On our few excursions, my husband and I were pleased to see live outdoor music performances and a small carousel for the kids. We looked forward to visiting again and enjoying outdoor dining during the warm months. But our excitement quickly soured when we realized that besides food, there was nothing else there for us. The shops missed the mark – they seemed to be targeting a crowd that didn’t reflect the reality of who their shoppers really were. Every time we visited Atlas Park, we saw more and more vacancies. As attractive as the shopping center was, there wasn’t enough interesting retail to keep us window shopping, much less buying, for more than 20-minutes. Not good.

Today, the shops are in bankruptcy proceedings. The vacancies meant that the owner couldn’t keep up with his debt service payments, and according to recent news articles, the new owners are desperate to reposition the property with a whole new tenant mix more in keeping with the local resident demographic. A recent article in Crain’s Business [Queens mall is getting re-stored: Shops at Atlas Park, far too upscale for workaday Glendale, will start over again] quotes a local community leader Gary Giordano as saying “some of the thought process was that these would be high-end stores”…”but they're in a middle-income, working-class neighborhood. I'm not sure there's much of a demand for those types of stores there.”

Although it’s not quite possible to ‘start over’ when you don’t own or control properties in your district, the message here is that you can’t underestimated power of tenant mix to make or break your efforts to improve your commercial district. And while more challenging, it is in fact possible to influence tenant mix through a variety of strategies. For example, my firm is currently working with a Business Improvement District to execute a leasing and retail plan we helped devise. We took a good look at what the district was already known for, identified the market dynamics and likely shopper profile, and defined a strategy to position the district as a destination for great ethnic food and, interestingly enough, a good selection of home goods stores. Today we are working together with a few key property owners who have bought into the concept, and have begun to identify and reach out to a set of qualified prospects that will help round out and improve the retail categories and tenant mix we have already identified. This level of proactive tenant recruitment for private properties is sophisticated and a bit unusual – but is a critical component of driving retail sales and increasing shopper visits to the district – something that will help all district businesses in the long run.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tailoring Merchandise to Meet Local Demand

It should come as no surprise that even a successful department store like Macy's is still learning and implementing what many would consider a lesson from 'Retailing 101'. ["With Stores Nationwide, Macy's Goes Local: The big department store chain lets each store cater to local tastes", Bloomberg Businessweek]

Recently, Macy's announced that it would begin working more closely with its stores to allow managers to more closely tailor store merchandise to individual markets. For those of us working in urban markets - the failure of many national retailers to meet the needs of the local market is legendary, and sometimes humorous. I have heard stories from corporate executives themselves about how their stores are sometimes off the mark when it comes to meeting the demands of local clientele. Take the Payless Shoe store on 125th Street. Payless executives had high hopes for the store when it opened. They thought they had done their research. They hired bilingual staff and had bilingual signage to attract what they believed was the core customer base. When the store was not meeting sales projections, no one could understand why...that is until they visited the store. The local clientele was primarily African-American, and while the store was located close to "Spanish Harlem", in New York, a few blocks can mean skewing towards a completely different type of customer. When Payless took these differences into account and changed their tactics, store sales started meeting expectations. I love this story because it exemplifies the challenges that national chains face, despite their deep pockets, and the opportunties that local retailers have if they pay close attention to their customers. Nothing beats a deep knowledge of the market and the ability to give customers exactly what they want, when they want it, at the right price point.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Best Chains on Main: Deadline Extended to December 1st!

The Commercial District Advisor, in partnership with LISC MetroEdge, is still accepting nominations for the ‘Best Chains on Main,’ a nationwide competition that seeks to recognize those chain (and chain franchise) businesses that are making their urban business districts better places. Not only do they provide excellent service and maintain clean and attractive stores, storefronts and merchandise displays, the ‘Best Chains on Main’ help other businesses by attracting customers and contributing positively to the overall shopping environment. These quality businesses have a strong positive influence on how their neighborhoods are perceived, how safe people feel, and whether residents choose to spend their dollars locally. In particular, we are seeking chains that do not shy away from investing in more challenged business districts that other retailers typically avoid. These stores have a ‘chain effect’ on the neighborhoods they serve and help form the foundation of healthy and thriving commercial districts nationwide.

Help us Find and Recognize Great Businesses!
Nominated businesses will be judged on the following criteria: Exterior Appearance, Interior Appearance, Customer Service, Willingness to Locate in Low- and Moderate-Income Communities, and Donation to Local Causes. Nominations for both smaller regional chains as well as national chains are welcome. Franchise chains are also eligible. To be nominated, a store must have at least two locations.

To nominate a business, simply click here! For your nomination to be complete, you must also submit two or more pictures of the business that show it at its ‘Best.’ Photos can be sent to us at with the subject line, ‘Best Chains Contest Photos.’ Nominations will be accepted until Wednesday, December 1st.

A Top Notch Panel of Judges
Submissions will be judged by an expert panel of retail, real estate, design, and economic development professionals, including:
To download the press release for this competition, please click here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In-Fill is Hot!

Everywhere I turn these days I read about retailers and developers 'discovering' urban markets. ["Developers, Retailers Focusing on Infill Areas," The Arizona Republic]. For those of us working in these communities for over a decade now, the opportunities were always there. We called these placed 'underserved', or in the case of grocery stores, 'food deserts'. So it's exciting to see communities with higher densities now seeing interest from retailers and developers who frequently overlooked these neighborhoods, citing safety concerns, too few customers, lack of purchasing power and high construction costs as impediments to development. What those of us in the field always knew is that density equaled buying power, and while national retailers often eschewed these locations, regional chains were often gobbling up real estate and doing very well - albeit under the radar. Now that the big guys are interested...I wonder how the dust will settle.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Walmart Seeks Aggressive Growth of Smaller Stores in Urban Markets

More and more retailers are seeing sluggish US growth and beginning to tap opportunities in urban markets - markets that have previously gone underserved. Hold your breath...Walmart is now among them. (Wal-Mart to Aggressively Roll Out Smaller Stores). The national retailer seems to "scouring" urban communities looking for spaces of less than 20,000 sf - a far cry from their typical protype of around 150,000 sf. Their recent small prototype is called "Marketside" and includes a focus on fresh food. According to the article, there are now four of these prototypes and they average 15,000 square feet each. It seems Walmart isn't letting "Fresh and Easy" (a 15,000 sf grocery store developed by British-based Tesco, the third largest retailer in world) get away without a run for its money. Another Walmart prototype called "Neighborhood Market" includes a mix of food, pharmacy, beauty, etc. in about 42,000 square feet.

Watch out for more retailers trying to tap underserved urban markets. This Friday Target plans to detail it's own urban strategy...I'll be sure to keep you updated!

Great Professional Development Resources (some free!) for Commercial Revitalization Newbies

There is no single path that leads to a career in commercial district revitalization. People end up in this field from a myriad of backgrounds. As a result, practitioners may come from marketing, communications, urban planning, or law, to name a few of the more common ones. So how do we make sure that these commercial district management professionals all speak the same language and have the tools and information necessary to achieve results? One of our goals at the Commercial District Advisor is to support the creation of a nationally recognized certification in commercial district management – but we recognize that is a long term goal. In the meantime, what do you do if you are a ‘newbie’ to the field. What are the best books and articles that can help you get started? I’ve compiled a few books below (some of which are available for free on-line) as a starting point. But readers should be sure to share their own favorite books. ..

  1. LISC Commercial Markets Advisory Service, “Commercial Revitalization Planning Guide: A Toolkit for Community Based Organizations”. This is probably the best free resource out there. It is a basic “how-to” manual for practitioners based out of community development organizations. The manual includes practical step-by-step instructions and a good set of document templates for use.
  2. Fannie Mae Foundation, “Revitalizing Commerce for America’s City’s”. The author, Karl Siedman, is a professor/practitioner based at MIT. Karl is also my go-to guy on economic development policy for commercial revitalization. What I appreciate about this book is the recognition that a single framework for successful commercial district revitalization is elusive. Karl defines district revitalization efforts by four types of orientation: “development-oriented”, “retention-oriented”, “promotion-oriented” and “organization-oriented”. Knowing what kind of district you are can help you determine how to allocate resources more effectively.
  3. “Making Business Districts Work” Ed. Feehan, Feit This book is a very good summary of the set of skills and information that newbies need when they start work in this field. Feehan was the former president of the International Downtown Association. Available via and other on-line outlets.
  4. Larry Houston, "Business Improvement Districts". Larry Houston is one of the granddaddies of the field. While this book could stand some updating, it is a good basic read that withstands the test of time. Available via

These are some of my favorite, but I'd love to hear other suggestions from readers...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Larisa Ortiz named one of the "Top 50 Urban Policy Wonk Bloggers" for The Commercial District Advisor!

It's always good to get a smidge of recognition! Our editor and top blogger, Larisa Ortiz, was just named one of the Top 50 Urban Policy Wonk Bloggers by The Public Servant blog. She's in great company. The list includes other good bloggers that you should definitely check out.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New Resource for Town-Gown Issues

I just heard about an interesting new resource for communities trying to build relationships with their local educational institutions. The International Town-Gown Association was recently started by Clemson University and looks to be a good (and hopefully growing!) resource for commercial district practitioners. The site includes information best practicies and information that looks very promising.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Attracting Huge Crowds with Unique Events on the Cheap

What a great idea! A young entrepreneur in Grand Rapids, MI is generating tons of buzz with his popular, creative and highly original events that draw thousands to downtown. Honestly, I'm thinking about jumping on a plane just to slide down a 500 ft water slide!

What is also interesting is that these unique events are marketed only through Facebook. Read more about it in today's New York Times..."Putting a Different Kind of Urban Decline to Use".

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Flowers are Good for Business - Especially if you are a Florist!

Selling is an art. Unfortunately, not every business is good at presenting their merchandise in an way that will attract buyers. Take your local florist. Who doesn't get drawn to an attractive display of flowers? Flowers are often an impulse purchase - so a great sidewalk display can play an outsized role in driving retail sales. Not to mention the fact that flowers are a great way to adorn a sidewalk. And what commercial district manager doesn't want an attractive sidewalk?

Below are two images - one is a florist on a street that gets over 25,000 vehicles passing every day. Yet the business owner is struggling to make ends meet. The other display is from a flower shop that is doing fairly well - despite being on a less busy street. So, which one is which? Did the drawn gate and fake flowers arranged in underwhelming bouquets give it away? Why would a busy commuter stop by the store on the left at all? Despite the fact that there are beautiful flowers displayed inside the store - the display does little to suggest that their is anything of interest inside the store. A passing driver could easily go by this florist for years without noticing it. In fact, while I was working in this district I interviewed a local public official who had an office up the street didn't even know this store was there. Not good.

If your commercial district has a flower shop, take the time to talk to the owner and work with them to make sure they are placing merchandise on the sidewalk. Sometimes the concern is that merchandise will 'walk away'. If that is the case, you can offer to help with the purchase of planters that can be filled with flowers (instead of easily lifted bouquets). These planters may need to be brought inside in the evening by a handcart - but together with a nice sandwich sign announcing some sort of promotion - an improved display could really help drive retail sales and improve district aesthetics at the same time. What a nice way to kill two birds with one stone...

Retail Insights: Summer 2010

As retailers ready up their merchandise and storefront displays for the busy "Back to School" season, it’s time to take a look at what’s hot in retail and cool for Fall.

Mobile Commerce Creates Opportunities for Collaborating Marketing
This season, what's hot is “mobile commerce.” Reaching customers, especially younger customers, is increasingly about getting in front of them via their smart phones. “Mobile Commerce” or "m-commerce" is the buzz word these days – and the use of social media platforms like Twitter is growing in popularity. Yet successful and appropriate uses of these social media platforms by businesses and commercial district management entities remain few and far between. One commercial district manager whose district Facebook page I recently joined uses it to announce the city meetings he is attending. I’m not quite sure how that is helping district businesses, but maybe that’s just me.
Despite some inappropriate uses of social media, there are instances of businesses that successfully use these platforms. I was recently in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts and I was pleased to see a local café using Twitter to communicate daily specials to their customers. “Get your soup and sandwich specials sent right to your phone” read the small placard by the register. Finally, a business that truly understands how to use Twitter.
Helping retailers learn how to use Twitter wisely is one idea. But as social media becomes more ubiquitous, and people become more selective about where they get their information and who they give access to their phone info, the opportunity for commercial district managers to launch cooperative marketing campaigns will only grow. Instead of getting multiple messages from multiple retailers, customers can sign up for "district alerts" and receive information about specials from multiple stores at once – in a single message. In this case, the district manager can serve as the conduit for retailers - collecting information about specials and posting them once or twice a day on the district's Twitter account.
Besides Twitter, other options include apps especially designed for smart phones. Simon Properties, one of the largest mall owners in the country, is currently experimenting with a mobile application by Shopkick Inc that will allow retailers to send ads and coupons to shoppers based on their proximity to the store. Simon is launching this program in 25 malls nationwide at the end of the month. The difference between Shopkick and Twitter is that Shopkick is location-based. Retailers install a small device inside their store that emits a signal. A shopper then has to launch take the additional step of launching the application from their phone to pick up these signals as they enter the store. While this method is a bit more sophisticated than Twitter – the additional hardware costs and steps required make it a more difficult option for commercial district managers to replicate.
Another application is Peekaboo Mobile. Instead of relying on an in-store transmitter, this application uses GPS technology to communicate deals and specials when a shopper is in the vicinity of participating stores and restaurants. Together, these options offer a set of inexpensive and exciting ways to use m-commerce to drive retail sales.
Retailers that Sell Children’s Clothing See Sales Growth
While other retail categories continue to struggle, retailers that sell children’s clothing have seen impressive sales despite the recession. Adults can survive an aging wardrobe, but children outgrow their clothing relatively quickly. And the low cost of value-priced children's clothing makes this necessity an affordable one. Carter stores, a line of affordable clothing stores, have seen increases in comparable store sales for 13 straight quarters. This past Spring, they announced plans to open 100 more Carter stores and OshKosh stores in the coming year. Children’s Place, a retailer that doesn’t shy away from urban markets, is also doing well. Last year they opened 38 stores.What we found is that even when shoppers stop spending money on themselves, they continue to spend money on children’s clothing. So even in communities where the demographics scare traditional retailers – children’s clothing remains a strong spot in the market.
I've seen this trend take hold first hand. In my community of Jackson Heights, NY, the past year has seen the opening of a new small toy store as well as the slow evolution of a specialty gift/card shop into a children’s themed store. These retailers clearly have their pulse on the market. Commercial district managers can support these market dynamics by working closely with the retailers serve the children's market in an effort to develop collaborative marketing campaigns that target the local parent's community. They can also coordinate a district wide sales event that includes free or low-cost activities for families. These might include getting a local children's band to perform for free or secure a face painting artist for the kids. This kind of 'ambient' entertainment can really help drive pedestrian traffic, and ultimately sales in the direction of retailers that offer clothing for kids.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Buffalo Commercial District Benefits From a Visionary Businessowner

The Grant-Ferry neighborhood is one of those neighborhoods you find in many shrinking East coast cities. It was once – and continues to be – a place where immigrants call home. First Italians, now Burmese, Somalian, Puerto Rican, etc.

Like other similar urban neighborhoods, the community has suffered from disinvestment and blight. But scattered among the vacant lots and boarded up buildings, things are happenings. Slowly but surely, new businesses and urban pioneers seem to be discovering the area. During my visit, I had the opportunity to interview one of those pioneers. Prish Moran is the owner of Sweetness 7 – a coffee shop/social meeting spot in Grant-Ferry. When Prish moved to Buffalo, she didn’t know about Grant-Ferry. Maybe that was a good thing. The neighborhood didn’t have the best reputation, but she didn’t have any preconceptions. Amazingly, she and her son bought their first house in the neighborhood for $11,000! With hard work and sweat equity they renovated the home. Amazingly, others followed.

Prish's most recent acquisition was a run down building at the corner of Grant and Lafayette. The building Prish purchased now houses an art gallery and artist coop, a flower shop, and apartments above her wildly successful coffee shop. Her hard work is evident in every nook and cranny. She clearly put to use her skills as a decorative artist/restaurant interior designer and used it to re purpose what others consider ‘junk.’ This allowed her to turn her coffee shop into a unique space – done afford ably but with an aesthetic of high design.

The coffee shop is just one piece of the commercial district revitalization puzzle - but an important one. Successful businesses are the best marketing tool for a community looking to attract new businesses (and inspire old ones to clear up their act!). Here are some tidbits of insight I culled from my chat with Prish. These are great lessons from an inspirational lady making neighborhood change a reality in West Buffalo.

  • “People are sick of predictability” - Differentiate yourself in the market. Early on, Prish bought a $15k espresso machine. Coffee aficionados were impressed and according to Prish, starting blogging about it even before the place opened. In a market like Buffalo, this was a risky, splashy move that gave her immediate ‘street cred’. It was a risky investment, but it worked to differentiated herself from other coffee shops.

  • Word-of-Mouth is the way to build a successful business – and Prish has thrived on word-of-mouth. Local bloggers and internet sites were buzzing about Sweet-ness 7 even before it opened – and they continue to do so. The day she opened doors – there was a long line waiting to buy coffee. And it didn't hurt that she had one of the best espresso machines in the entire region!

  • Looks Matter. “Many don’t understand the aesthetics of people who have money to spend” says Prish. She mentioned that she often gets approached by other local business owners who ask her how she is attracting so many customers. In her frank manner, she simple says they need to invest in their storefronts and look better.

  • Take a risk and be the first one to try something. According to Prish, “everywhere I have gone and taken a house on a block and turned it into something beautiful. People start by calling me crazy, and then others start doing the same.”

Prish has hopes for what else can happen in Grant Ferry. Can the empty lot down the street become a weekend market? Can the community harness the creative energies of the local immigrant communities and help them sell arts, crafts and ethnic goods? Can they rent outdoor movie screens and show films in the evenings? All great ideas that deserve careful consideration given who they are coming from…

Friday, July 23, 2010

Roundup: Sandwich Signs

Love 'em or hate 'em (in New York City they nearly banned them after a blind man tripped over an ill placed sign), sandwich signs are a tried and true method of attracting customers. They can be used in place of blade signs to catch pedestrian/motorist's attention. Eye-catching sandwich signs are an effective (when legal, of course!) way to draw customers into a store. Here are some examples of sandwich signs across the nation (Chicago, Grand Rapids, Queens and Brooklyn). I tend to think that simple chalk sandwich signs are the best solution, but for the more ambitious, creative painted signs really provide a 'wow' factor. But like all things, too much of a good thing can also result in visual shown in one of the images below.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

University-Community Partnerships Are in Everyone's Interest

We recently attended the Community Preservation Corporation's Hudson Valley Main Street Summit, which featured several great presentations on revitalization efforts in Poughkeepsie, NY and elsewhere that utilize successful university partnerships. In Poughkeepsie, a local nonprofit called Hudson River Housing has leveraged the resources of nearby Vassar College to increase their capacity for commercial district revitalization while also providing an enriching educational experience for Vassar students. Most recently, a geography class at Vassar spent the entire semester working with Hudson River Housing on their Middle Main corridor, conducting a detailed property inventory and producing a library of GIS maps that will aid Hudson River Housing in future projects. This work allowed the Vassar students to view and interact with their surrounding community in a new way, practice their Spanish language skills, and gain experience working with a real-life client. This direct experience cannot be synthesized in the classroom and is immensely beneficial to everyone involved.

In addition to class projects such as this one, Vassar also runs a Field Work program that provides students with academic credit and a stipend to intern with community organizations and government agencies. As many as 500 Vassar students participate in this program in some years, many of them in the city of Poughkeepsie. Vassar also runs a free shuttle through Poughkeepsie that stops at fieldwork sites such as Poughkeepsie Middle School and the Family Partnership Center as well as downtown. According to Jeff Kosmacher, Vassar's Director of Media Relations & Public Affairs, strong community partners are the true foundations of these projects. It just may not be obvious to community organizations, such as commercial district managers, how to find the right person or department at a college to connect with. As an example, Mr. Kosmacher has compiled a list of some of the varied departments at Vassar that participate in community partnerships:

Africana Studies, Biology, Education, Geography, Hispanic Studies, Mathematics, Political Science, Sociology, the Vassar Student Association, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Office of Health Education, and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (campus museum).

If you are a commercial district manager with a nearby college or university, spend some time reaching out to different departments until you find a good fit. Tailor your efforts to match your corridor: those with ethnic restaurants, for example, are great for trips by language and cultural studies classes. Be sure to follow the academic calendar and be respectful of student timelines if you agree to do a project--it can be very difficult for students to continue a project after the semester ends. Strong community partners have a lot to offer nearby universities, and with a little effort and the right message, you can form long lasting connections that increase your capacity.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Shame on Family Dollar! Is it really that hard to be a good corporate citizen?

I am now in year two of my quest to find a decent Family Dollar that contributes, rather than detracts, to the physical aesthetics of the street. By decent I mean ANY Family Dollar with decent window displays that contribute to an appealing retail environment. Why is this important to those of us concerned about urban communities? In many lower-income urban neighborhoods, Family Dollar serves a real need – they are often one of the few general merchandise retailers selling to neighborhood residents. With over 6,000 locations nationwide, they are also ubiquitous in lower-income urban communities, and they are growing quickly, with over 140 new stores slated to open in 2010 alone. Moreover, in many places Family Dollar effectively functions as the prime retail anchor, attracting customers and driving traffic to the street. Unfortunately, what I have found over and over again is that Family Dollar turns its back on the communities where they are located. Their window displays are not just poor, they are often downright atrocious. And their utter disregard for basic retailing principles results in stores that undermine any attempt to improve district aesthetics, the perception of district safety, and set a positive example for other businesses in the commercial district as a whole.

My quest to find a Family Dollar with decent window displays began while doing work in Newark, NJ. After conducting a number of shopper focus groups for a client, it became clear that residents and local employees desperately wanted a more appealing and ‘safe feeling’ street. Specifically they wanted more attractive storefront displays from local merchants. In our efforts to improve the shopping environment, we identified the local Family Dollar as ‘low hanging fruit’—the store in question had great, large windows facing the street, and the location was visible to more than 20,000 cars a day that passed through the district. But instead of filling these windows with appealing merchandise to entice shoppers, the spaces were filled with faded signs, empty cardboard boxes and provided no visuals into the store. Instead, shoppers were graced with the backs of display cases. The utter failure of local management to take advantage of such an obvious selling opportunity, not to mention their lack of concern for how their stores looked to pedestrians and drivers, was difficult to understand. How could a retailer with over 6,000 stores ignore such an obvious selling opportunity? At the time, I thought, “there has to be at least one Family Dollar out there with decent window displays”. And so began my quest.

By now, I have seen Family Dollars in over a dozen urban communities from Philadelphia to New York to Chicago. Yet not a single Family Dollar seems to put even a modicum of thought into its window displays. How can that be? Is it corporate policy to ignore the face they present to the street? Is Family Dollar simply making so much money that they can disregard these obvious selling opportunities? Do they have so little respect for their customers that they feel they don’t need to even try to sell to them? Do they understand the links between their storefronts and the shopping environment that they helping shape? Perhaps they know that their customers often have few alternatives to Family Dollar – so why bother? I have come to conclude that they simply don’t care. They must be doing so well that they can ignore good retail practices in the communities they serve. In the process, their clear disregard for the public face they present to the street hurts community morale and is a real detriment to the shopping environment overall. This is partly why so many communities see them as unwanted additions to local retail mix. And I can’t say that I blame them.

What can Family Dollar Do?

Family Dollar is in an excellent position to be a better corporate citizen. This would not only improve their bottom line and market penetration; it would help improve the street environment from both an aesthetic and safety perspective.

For starters, most chain stores of that magnitude train their management staff in visual merchandise techniques. They can also take the extra step and develop retail ‘planograms’ {} for their managers. These are basically visual guides that define how merchandise should be displayed and are an excellent way for Family Dollar to ensure consistency and quality across their stores. At the most basic level, Family Dollar can encourage managers to review sales data and develop seasonal displays that help move merchandise.

Improving the look and feel of Family Dollar accomplishes a double bottom line – one for the company and another for the community. By turning stores that are often eye sores into pleasing storefronts that contribute to the aesthetics of the street, they also help improve people’s perception of the safety of the district, which helps all businesses.

Overall – getting Family Dollar to become a better corporate citizen would ultimately improve thousands of commercial corridors across this country. Seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Roundup: Sidewalk Cafes

Like many urban planners, I often find myself taking pictures of what others consider mundane, like street signage, street lights, garbage cans, banners, sandwich signs, etc. By now I've amassed quite a library from my work and personal travel and thought I would begin sharing some of the good, the bad...and of course, the ugly. I'll call these 'Roundups'. For this Roundup, I've chosen some nice sidewalk cafes. Can anyone guess where these are?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Street Fairs - do they help or hurt neighborhood businesses?

Street fairs are not unique to New York City. But a recent report by the Center for Urban Futures explores how to improve upon New York's venerable street fairs, many of which have become staid, boring and, just like the local mall, exact replicas of one another. The lessons and ideas presented in this report are helpful way beyond the boundaries of New York City. This report is a great read for folks looking for new ideas or new ways to develop interesting, unique street fairs that support local businesses and help develop your commercial district brand more effectively.

In New York, street fairs are an industry that has increasingly become controlled by a few companies, who roll out the same tube sock vendors and crepe vendors over and over again. This report includes interviews with experts who explore ideas, and share best practices, for creating great street fairs. Some of the interviewees mentioned my own pet peeve - the fact that street fairs often turn their back on neighborhood businesses. In fact, many business owners hate street fairs for that reason. The booths typically turn their backs to the businesses, close the streets to traffic, and as a results end up hurting business for the merchants that are there all the time.

A few tips for street fairs to keep in mind:
  • Engage local merchants, artists and vendors in a street fair is what gives the fair flavor and authenticity and should be encouraged. Help local businesses drive sales by encouraging them to set up a table and sell on the street along with other vendors.
  • Quality matters. Tap local vendors and businesses who offer great quality food and products. Consider starting small and being selective with who participates at first. This is how to ensure your fair is differentiated from others - and how to make sure it grows over time.
  • Don't ignore the businesses! Instead of setting up vendors so that they face the street (and therefore their backs to local businesses), set up the vendors so that you have two aisles with the vendors in the middle of the street. This set up helps ensure that foot traffic during the fair also benefits the formal merchants. The picture that accompanies this article shows The Castro Street Fair in San Francisco. Note that the vendors occupy the middle of the street - not the sidewalk side of the street.
  • Consider the fair an extension of your brand. Street fairs are also a great way to brand your community. Consider 'Pickle Day' by the New York Food Museum on New York's Lower East Side. This fair plays upon the area's history and heritage as a destination for wonderful pickles. What could be more unique than that?

Here is a link to the report...."New Visions for New York Street Fairs"

Friday, June 18, 2010

New City and State Programs Encourage Grocery Store Retention and Attraction

This morning, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall hosted a panel to unveil new incentives at the city and state level in New York to retain and attract neighborhood grocery stores. Commercial district managers in urban neighborhoods are well aware of the challenges faced by grocery stores in urban neighborhoods--higher land costs, logistical difficulties, and thinner profit margins than other retail uses that compete for space. These new incentive programs, FRESH and the NY Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund, aim to make grocery store retention and attraction financially viable and thereby increase fresh food access in urban neighborhoods.

The creation of these programs was inspired by a recent study conducted for the Mayor's Food Policy Taskforce, which found that nearly all NYC neighborhoods are under-served by supermarkets based on national standards. Additionally, some neighborhoods are acutely under-served and feature high instances of diet-related diseases as well as residents with limited mobility. The national standard is at least 3 square feet of grocery store retail per resident; no community district in Queens meets this hurdle.

On the city level, two types of incentives are available: financial incentives from the NYC Industrial Development Agency and zoning incentives from the Department of City Planning. Currently, the zoning incentives are only available in neighborhoods with the most acute need according to the study (Jamaica, Central Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan, and the South Bronx), while the financial incentives are available in distressed census tracts citywide. On the state level, the New York Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund provides a variety of construction and rehabilitation loans as well as some grants for supermarket operators and developers. This program is run by the Low Income Investment Fund and is based on the successful Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

To qualify for these incentives, the supermarket must fulfill the set of criteria that are outlined below. These incentives can be used both to attract new and renovating existing businesses. If you have a food retailer in your district that meets the space requirements, these programs may be a good resource to help them make adjustments and carry more fresh food options.
  • Provide a minimum of 6,000 square feet of retail space for a general line of food and nonfood grocery products intended for home preparation, consumption and utilization;
  • Provide at least 50 percent of a general line of food products intended for home preparation, consumption and utilization;
  • Provide at least 30 percent of retail space for perishable goods that include dairy, fresh produce, fresh meats, poultry, fish and frozen foods; and
  • Provide at least 500 square feet of retail space for fresh produce.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

ICSC Releases Phase II Report on the Recession's Impact on Consumer Spending

The International Council of Shopping Centers just released Phase II of a consumer tracking study designed to show how consumer attitudes and spending habits are affected by the current economic climate. The study measures shopping and saving habits, customer perceptions about financial well-being, Internet shopping behavior, and social media use as it relates to retail. It compares the responses of US and Canadian consumers to those recorded in Phase I of the study, which was conduced in October 2009.

The following is a description of the report from ICSC's President, Michael P. Kercheva:

"While consumers overall financial perceptions remain fairly flat from Phase I to Phase II, there have been some positive changes in shopping behaviors as 28% of consumers show an inclination to spend more money, reporting that their wallet or purse strings were starting to loosen when it comes to shopping. Additionally, consumers are saying that they are visiting shopping centers more often now than in the past year and more importantly, their purchases of discretionary goods, and spending on apparel and casual dining has increased."

The report can be downloaded here.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ideas for Harnessing the Artist Entrepreneurs in Your District

When properly cultivated, artists can be a powerful force for economic development. Many communities have found ways to help artists find venues for selling their goods directly to shoppers while simultaneously enlivening their commercial districts with energy and activity.

I’m currently working in a community where there are lots of artists living and creating art, but very few places for these same artists to sell their goods directly to consumers. Meanwhile, vacant stores front riddle an otherwise attractive commercial district…could this be a marriage made in heaven? Can these storefronts be temporarily occupied by pop-up retail stores that allow artists to sell their goods?

Here is a round-up of resources and ideas from other communities that have found ways to marry artists and econoimc activity, while simultaneously reviving their commercial districts.

One caveat that perhaps should go without say – don’t try this at home if you don’t have a genuine artist community to work with!

Tacoma, WA: “Artists to Use Vacant Retail Space in Tacoma”

New Haven, CT: “New Haven’s Department of Cultural Affairs Announces Storefront for Artists Pilot Program”

Chicago, IL: “Trading commerce for art: In the face of retail vacancies, Pop-Up Art Loop creates temporary galleries”

St. John, Virgin Islands: “Entrepreneur Series: Creative Collective”
This article discusses different models for how artists can set up cooperatives to pay for operating costs for retail space, including basic cost sharing, consignment or membership fees.

Brooklyn, NY: “Artists and Fleas”
This market, based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is called “Artists & Fleas”, and has been wildly successful. Open only on the weekends, spaces are rented to emerging artists, designers, collectors, and crafters who set up shop and sell directly to customers.

Santa Fe, NY: “International Folk Art Market”
This market has achieved international acclaim and began as a way to provide folk artists an opportunity to generate income and sell their goods where they live.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Broadening Customer Appeal in Ethnic Commercial Districts

Opening a neighborhood retail store is a common path for immigrant entrepreneurs, and these stores provide needed goods and services for both local and regional immigrant populations. In 2007, the Center for an Urban Future released a report that identified immigrant entrepreneurs as key engines of growth in cities from New York to Los Angeles, where their economic impact can be felt along thriving ethnic commercial districts that feature immigrant-owned restaurants, stores, and professional offices. In New York, vibrant examples of these districts can be seen along 30th Avenue in Astoria (Greek and Eastern European), 74th Street in Jackson Heights (South Asian), and 8th Avenue in Sunset Park (Chinese and Latino).

Some of these commercial districts have developed a popular brand identity around their ethnic retail that allows them to attract a broad range of visitors, while others are less successful in attracting customers of different backgrounds. In some cases, this can be traced to the level of individual business owners, who may need guidance or support to appeal to an expanded customer base. In one such district, a Colombian retail corridor in Elizabeth, NJ is very successful in attracting regional Colombian customers but has not been able to reach the large student population from two nearby colleges. The local merchant association on that corridor is eager to improve this situation and has identified several key steps that businesses should follow to reach a broader audience:

  • Ensure that all stores have English-speaking staff, which could be met by hiring bi-lingual students from the nearby colleges. Restaurant menus should be bi-lingual and include images.
  • Broaden the merchandise mix. For sit-down restaurants near the college, this means offering more take-out options; for clothing stores, this means carrying some mainstream brands.
  • Market your existing merchandise to a broader customer base. Many of the Colombian restaurants specialize in fresh fruit juices and smoothies that could be very popular with college students. A simple A-frame sign to advertise these juices could have a big impact.
  • Be open to trying new business models during traditionally slow hours, such as providing a café atmosphere for students looking for a place to study and have coffee between lunch and dinner. Providing free wi-fi can be another useful addition.
  • Collaborate to organize events that make students more familiar with Colombian Cuisine--a "Taste-Of" tour of different corridor restaurants that shows how to best eat a tamale and find your favorite Colombian baked good.
While these steps are relatively straightforward, they show one way in which district managers can re-position any commercial corridor to increase sales: Define your niche, determine whether this niche could appeal to unmet markets, and identify barriers and opportunities to reach these markets. These steps can be tried with a few willing businesses and then expanded over time--when one store tries a new approach that produces positive results, others will quickly follow suit. As places with unique retail offerings, ethnic retail corridors are particularly well-positioned to follow this model.

If you are interested in these issues, you may want to attend the upcoming Hudson Valley Main Street Summit on Thursday, June 10th, which will feature our colleague Paul Grygiel of Phillips Preiss Grygiel speaking on a panel, "The Role of Colleges & Universities in Redeveloping Diverse Downtowns." For more information and to register, click here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Increasing Retail Sales by Increasing Length of Stay

There is a maxim in the retail world that states what many commercial corridor managers often overlook…there is a direct correlation between how much time people spend along a commercial corridor and how much money they spend there.

So how do you extend the duration of a shopper visit to your district?

  • The first question you need to ask is ‘who’ is your typical shopper? Families with children, young adults on an evening out, a tourist from another city? Extending the duration of a visit requires different strategies depending on who the customer is.
  • Think about your district in terms of an itinerary for each of these shoppers. Do you have enough for a four hour visit for a family of four? In addition to shopping, is there a place for the kids to grab an ice cream cone? Are there any kinds of family entertainment options? Can you encourage family entertainment programming on the street (street performers, jugglers, etc.)? Do you have a small theatre where you can establish family based performances? On the other hand, if you thinking about attracting young adults, do the bars and restaurants in your district offer live entertainment? Do they offer wine tastings or book readings? These are all ways to create itineraries that extend the length of stay of your target market.
  • In-store events and activities are another way to keep shoppers shopping. Why do you think Home Depot or Michael’s (an east coast-based craft store) offer in-store classes to their customers. Because they know if they keep folks in their stores longer, they will increase sales. Do you have a fabric or craft store on your street? Do they offer classes? Can you help them promote these classes in conjunction with a lunch discount at a local café so that both merchants benefit from the increased traffic? Length of stay also affects parking patterns. That is because the longer people stay, the more likely they are to visit a few stores, and the less important it becomes to park in front of a particular store.

Before you begin tackling this challenge, you need to take stock of your district and understand who your current shopper is. First, consider issuing a customer survey to find out how much time, on average, customers spend in your district. Second, think through 'who' your target shopper is. Do you know where they live? Do you know what kind of leisure activities they like to participate in? For instance, I am currently working in a district that lies right along a well used regional bike trail. Creating itineraries for cyclists is very different than creating itineraries for a young couple out on a dinner date. Our efforts to create a set of activities to lengthen stay will therefore look different depending on which customer is our target customer. And finally, take stock of what you currently have to offer the customer and consider developing a few new itineraries using the resources you have on hand - notably the existing retail stores, restaurants and opportunties for activities that already exist in your district.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Power of Community Relationships

As commercial district managers, we sometimes forget how critical it is to build trusting relationships with community leaders. We go about our days dealing with the logistics of getting a street closed or managing our next big event without realizing that our work would be easier and more successful if we took the time to reach out and network with local community leaders, religious leaders and government officials. These relationships can help grease the wheels of many projects, and when nurtured can reap rewards in terms of higher attendance at your events, expeditious approvals, additional funding for projects...the list goes on. Not every commercial district manager is adept at building these relationships. I have seen many district managers spend days holed up in their offices doing office work when they should be attending to relationship building with critical community stakeholders. It takes a certain kind of person to do this kind of outreach, and district management entities are often stymied in their efforts by frequent staff turnover, which makes it difficult to establish the relationships that ultimately help the organization become more effective. So, what are some strategies to building these relationships over time? There are a few simple often overlooked ways in which district managers can begin to develop and maintain relationships over time.

  • You have to give something to get something. Doing someone a favor or going out of your way to help is a surefire way to make friends and gather ‘chits’ that you can get back later. If someone invites you to an event, do your best to stop by. If you can use your email lists to help others promote or drive traffic to an event, do it.
  • Support community events and non-profit causes. Develop relationships with local non-profits by helping them raise funds. For instance, you could help facilitate a fundraising event in a local retail store. In one instance, I worked with a locally owned bookstore that hosted wine/cheese fundraisers for local non-profits. They found that these events not only generated sales, but also raised awareness of their store – not to mention helped build customer loyalty. In other cases, a non-profit event in your district, such as a 5k run/walk for charity, is another way to drive retail traffic and sales. In return, the local non-profit will be on board with helping promote your events and activities when they happen.
  • Develop relationships with local religious leaders. The built-in constituency that attends local services can be very helpful. When you need to announce events, or need to conduct consumer surveys, having the local pastor mention this during announcements can make the difference between collecting 50 survey responses or 400.
  • Attend political events as an individual and advocate for your organization. Many political leaders have discretionary funds or influence funding decisions that can help your organization. Attending political events – yes, even in the evening – meetings and gatherings can help make sure that a local political leader is in your corner when you need them to make a call, expedite approvals or even push for funding on behalf of your organization.
  • Identify civic institutions and participate, if possible. Where I live, there are local community boards that have the power of approval or influence over certain things like street closings and sidewalk eating permits. Knowing who the players are on individual committees and spending time explaining your organization and your efforts BEFORE you need an approval can be helpful in the long-run.

No one said that relationship-building wasn’t time consuming. It often doesn’t happen during regular 9-5 working hours and can't always be done directly on behalf of our non-profit organizations that are required by law to remain apolitical. But there is no point ignoring the fact that our organizations live and breathe in the local community and political realm. This means that our jobs sometimes take us to evening meetings that we don't get paid for, sometimes require personal investment and contributions to organizations (and maybe even political campaigns). At the end of the day, the rewards in terms of your organization's success are well worth the effort. In the end, you look better by being effective at getting things done, your organization is more effective, and your board is happy - a win/win for everyone.