Monday, April 26, 2010
A complaint I often hear from commercial district managers and customers is that merchants are lacking in basic hospitality and customer service. Not all merchants (and certainly not the successful ones) need lessons in customer service. But the archetype merchant who has been on a district for decades through changing neighborhood demographics (many times both racial and ethnic) and who can barely disguise the disdain they have for their customers…well, unfortunately I have come across this merchant too many times in my work. These merchants are ready to blame anyone else but themselves for the sorry state of their businesses. As commercial district management professionals, we can usually spot them right away. Their merchandise is usually dusty, business is slow, they have an attitude and they are the first to tell us that we are wasting our time because nothing will change… “these people” don’t want quality or good service, all they want is “cheap”. The only thing you can do is walk away from those individuals and keep them from bringing you down.
As easy as this merchant is to identify, commercial district managers also need to practice hospitality and customer service towards their merchants – and sometimes they don’t do this. In this field, our work is all about relationships. But the challenge is that many district management organizations are hurt by frequent staff turnover, making it hard to build trust with local merchants, property owners and residents over time. That said, building relationships and demonstrating hospitality towards your merchants is THE MOST VALUABLE thing a district manager can do. Every successful initiative is based on merchant engagement. From cooperative marketing, to participation in promotional events, to creating a more appealing shopping environment…successful outcomes are based on merchant engagement. Here are a few things that district managers should be doing a regular basis to build relationships with their merchant community.
1. Participate in local events, particularly when working with an ethnic community. Go to their religious events or special holiday events. Offer to help with expediting street closures for their parades and activities or help them develop better relationships with public officials. Gain their trust by being available and helpful.
2. Walk the street EVERY week (every day if possible) and walk into every store on a regular basis (not just the ones who are receptive towards you). Even if you get attitude, say hi, offer your help, hand out your newsletter and walk out. In one city I was in recently, city officials expressed frustration that in many cases the local district managers didn’t know their local merchants. This has serious ramifications in that city programs such as façade grants and loans never made it out the door. Although these managers spent their time putting on events – they avoided the messy work associated with engaging merchants. The result? The events did little to help merchants grow their retail sales.
3. Be flexible. If you get a last minute request from a merchant or local elected for help – do what you can to accommodate. You never know what kind of good will you are building and how it will come back to you.
If you start with these three activities you can raise your own Hospitality Index Quotient!
Thursday, April 15, 2010
What should text messages include?
Text messages are short, simple and more often read by recipients than the average email. Restaurants that have been using text report higher redemption rates than those that soley rely on email. And there are lots of ways text messages can be used - a local restaurant might send out a 'daily special' text to regular customers telling them about a special meal or dish, or the text might include information about evening entertainment or Tuesday night early-bird specials.
How do restaurants collect phone and/or email information?
But you can only use these cheap marketing tools if you collect data on your customers. One way to do this is to distribute a small form with the check. Interested customers can opt-in by providing their phone or email address to recieve information about events, specials and discounts available only to those on the mailing list. You can also ask customers to drop business cards to enter a raffle for a free meal. Be sure you are getting their consent when you do this - the last thing you want is an annoyed customer getting what they consider spam in their in-box.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Although some say that the market is rebounding, customers are still looking for value in their purchases.
Research conducted by RBC Capital Markets and Retail Lease Trac on retailers planning store openings in 2010 finds that of the top ten retailers planning to expand in 2010, three are dollar store concepts (Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar) and four are value-oriented food concepts (Quiznos, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, A&W Restaurants, and Burger King), with the number one retail spot going to Quiznos. [Retail Traffic, “Quiznos Leads List of Retailers Looking to Expand”]
For commercial district manager, the nice thing is that a majority of these retailers can be found along both pedestrian and automobile oriented commercial corridors.
Discount Apparel and Merchandise Remains in Vogue
Retailers that peddle discount apparel and merchandise are still finding opportunities to expand, and fortunately for us they are not shying away from urban areas. Kohl’s, a Minnesotta-based national discount retailer recently opened a new LEED-certified store in Rego Park, Queens, and they are looking for other opportunities in the New York market. They have developed a multi-story urban prototype store – Rego Park is three stories – and are flexible in store layout to meet local market demand.
Experts agree that expansion is still not that easy for many retailers – banks are still a bit queasy these days about lending money - but retailers that are well capitalized can take advantage of vacancies in the market. Many are signing leases or purchasing real estate at a fraction of the price they would have paid in the past. As long as property owners in your commercial district are comfortable with some form of market self-correction, they can position themselves to be competitive with retailers looking for well-priced space. But the bottom line is, landlords need to be flexible. If they speculate, their spaces may remain vacant for longer than is good for your district.
It’s Not Just the Chains
Smaller retailers are also looking to expand. In the New York market, Energy Kitchen, a mini-chain offering affordable healthy food ‘fast-food’ options, is looking to expand from 15 stores in the New York tri-state area to 100 stores in the northeast by 2014. They are looking for smaller spaces, from 1,000 – 2,000 sf that are already vented for cooking in and around gyms. Now may in fact be the time to approach regional mini-chains like Energy Kitchen looking to expand in your market.
Non-profits have been prioritizing grocery store access for years - so this news is very exciting. In 2008, the Bay Area office of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC has been championing grocery store access in underserved urban areas now for over a decade) sponsored a day-long symposium on this subject. A manual was created for that symposium, called "Grocery Store Attraction Strategies" that is an excellent primer for communities looking to attract grocery stores.
Grocery store attaction is also a growing priority for the City of New York (see my previous blog: New York City to Promote Grocery Store Development).
Monday, April 5, 2010
We all know the familiar story: artists and the institutions they serve move into a community bringing excitement and activity. With more people comes more commerce, including restaurants and retail. The cycle of activity often has the unintended affect of displacing the artists who started the effort. To counteract this trend, some of the Ford monies will be dedicated to creating affordable housing for artists. Ford recently granted Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects $1 million for an East Harlem-based project.
The story of many successful commercial districts often starts with artists who take the bones of struggling urban neighborhood, take advantage of affordable studio spaces and housing, and create a community. It's good to see an organization like Ford making sure that the artists themselves benefit from the economic activity they create.