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?