Monday, February 27, 2012

Own up. 30% of a shopper's experience belongs to you...

It's time to face the hard, cold truth. Shoppers visit a district to shop. No one ever says "I shop there because the street lamps are AMAZING!" or "Man, you gotta go to that district, those brick pavers are HOT!" Ultimately, people choose to shop, not because of good lighting or decent signage, but because of the retail offerings and merchandise. The research, and not to mention good ole common sense, back this up.

Yet a shopper's decision to visit your district is based on multiple factors - a big part of which you DO in fact control.  Customer loyalty research, some of which is being done by the Verde Group, sheds light on what makes shoppers loyal versus recoil. What they have found is that 70% of a shoppers decision are based on "inside the store issues" - things related to merchandise mix, price point, customer service, etc. These are all issues that often can only be addressed by the merchant.
Yet its not all bad news, the balance, or about 30% of customer loyalty, can be attributed to "outside the store issues" - the location, the convenience or accessibility of the district (aesthetics, safety), the look and feel of the district, district amenities (are there activities for kids?), entertainment offerings (street musicians? general ambiance?), retail mix (is there a good balance of stores, a nice place to grab a bite after a day of shopping?), and the physical conditions of the street, etc.

Whenever I share this concept with groups of commercial district managers, I get responses that range from relief to frustration. Relief because I have better defined their role - or better yet the limitations of their responsibilities - but also frustration because it becomes clear that they do not control the majority of issues that affect shopper choice. Yet when you know WHAT you control - and make no bones about it, 30% of a shoppers decision is a big chunk - you can be better at doing your job.

In this competitive environment, your work on that 30% becomes even more critical. It can make the difference in that split decision when a shopper decides whether to turn left or right out of their front door, that is, between spending money in your district versus another.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Using Murals to Reinvent the Roll Down Gate


One of the winning murals. Love it!

About a year ago, Lauren Elvers Collins, Executive Director of the Church Avenue Business Improvement District, called me up to chat about ways to spruce up her district for a grant proposal. She mentioned how the look and feel of the district changed so abruptly the minute businesses rolled down their solid gates - not an uncommon challenge in many urban commercial districts. The discussion reminded me of a great program that I was familiar with from my work at LISC. The Excelcior Action Group (one of my all time favorite organizations!) has a wonderful Mural Program that works to beautify the district's numerous solid roll down gates while also reducing the incidence of graffiti. Lauren took the idea and ran with it, turning this simple concept into an exciting program that included significant community input, and a competition that spurred media input.

UCA Exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library
Church Avenue BID's Uncover Church Avenue initiative is a great example of how BIDs are carrying out this type of program with maximum community input at every step of the process. Thanks to this initiative, Church Avenue in Brooklyn, NY will have five new colorful and vibrant additions to the neighborhood this spring.

Uncover Church Avenue is a public art competition that was designed to bring attention to the district. What it also does is beautify the street (particularly in the evening) with artwork by local artists, while also abating graffiti in the district. The contest engages artists, residents, children, and merchants to take an active role in deciding the look of their neighborhood. The five winning designs - selected from over 50 submissions from Brooklyn-based artists and students, will be installed on commercial gates along the Avenue. The goal is to encourage vibrant commercial activity along a stretch with the most abundant vacancies, and to highlight and promote the unique character of the neighborhood. Merchants see the potential in promoting their business, local artists have a new venue to display their work, and curious residents have a new reason to walk down the street.

Visit the program's blog to see the winning designs, learn step-by-step how the project developed, and to stay current on the murals' progress.

And if you're in the neighborhood - visit the Flatbush Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library through Feb. 24 to see images of mural sites and all submitted mural proposals.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

LISC Seeking Nominations for MetLife Foundation Community-Police Partnership Awards Program

LISC and MetLife Foundation are seeking nominations for the MetLife Foundation Community-Police Partnership Awards. This awards program is a great opportunity for communities to receive recognition for their work improving community safety.

Previous winners provide examples of how commercial revitalization programs can partner with their communities to address safety issues that may be affecting the viability of their districts.
Commercial corridor-specific winners of this program include King Drive Public Safety Initiative, which focused on maintaining a Business Improvement District along the historic Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in Milwaukee, WI as well as Uptown Consortium, Inc. & Cincinnati Police Department who partnered to revitalize Cincinnati’s Burnet Avenue business corridor.

The awards are the result of a partnership between the MetLife Foundation and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to recognize, sustain and share the work of innovative partnerships between community groups and police that promote neighborhood safety and revitalization.

The submission deadline for 2012 applications is March 11, 2012. Download the application here.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Malls draw inspiration from downtown

Today's New York Times covers a phenomenom that has been evident to those of us in the field for many years - the oversaturation of retail square footage and the trend of underutilized malls, or "grayfields". The recession has only made the problem worse. Mall owners and managers are now struggling with many of the same challenges that faced downtowns over the past twenty years...significant vacancies and disinvestment. What these owners are now doing is trying to reposition their mall assets by replicating the mix of uses found in traditional downtowns. [Making over the mall in rough economic times, NYTimes, 2/6/12]

Many owners recognize that shopping habits are changing...and not in their favor. People are shopping on line. When they do finally choose to venture away from their computer screens, they expect something more than simply a retail transaction. The article suggests that Americans today,"rather than going to big, overwhelming malls...prefer places where stores can be entered from the street, featuring restaurants, entertainment and other Main Street mainstays." A representative from Simon Properties, one of the largest mall owners in the nation, reflects on this trend, saying malls today have to “provide a unique set of shopping, dining and entertainment experiences”.

Station Square, a Forest City owned property on
Pittsburgh's South Side is home to a mix
 of tourist oriented retail...and a trade school.
Dying malls that have made the plunge into mixed use are now home to a diverse blend of users, from schools to other civic, religious and cultural institutions. In fact, in one mall, the Galleria in Cleveland, mall owers hide the food court with a curtain and rent the space for events and weddings. Getting creative about filling space is critical to ensuring the long term value of these assets. On a recent visit to Pittsburgh's Station Square, an old school "Festival Marketplace" located within an old train depot, I noted that a significant part of the main retail floor was occupied by the Bradford School, a small school offering associates degrees and diplomas in the health care, design, technology and business fields. The execution of the concept needs a bit of help as the rest of the retail area felt old and lacked excitement, but the mix of uses helped to ensure a steady stream of customers for the food court businesses, if not for the other more tourist oriented businesses.

Downtown is really no different - and our approach to filling spaces needs to be similarly creative. Of course, the greater challenge is the fact that downtowns have multiple owners who are not necessarily on the same page when it comes to vision, and seldom coordinate their actions in the same way a single mall owner can. But the real take away here is that downtown is the model for what many malls strive for these days - and it is up to us to take advantage of the authentic downtown brand that is already ours for the taking!

Friday, February 3, 2012

From High Streets to Main Streets...reinvention required

A typical "high street" in England...
In England, "High Streets" are the equivalent of "Main Streets", and their problems are not so different from our own. Many are marred by significant vacancies, and the recent global economic downturn, coupled with fundamental changes in how people shop, has not helped. In a recent article in the U.K's Independent, Phil Wrigley, a prominent fashion retail executive called for the "reinvention" of high streets. He goes on to say that "retailing will never be the same again, but there is much to be gained from facing up to this fundamental, and irreversible, truth. In doing so, we might just create the space in which we can re-cast and revitalise our town centre communities."

Wrigley advocates for shrinking the commercial and retail square footage along high street, and turning these spaces into residential units. There is something to be said for this argument. In many urban areas, commercial zoning has not been updated in decades, and still operates under the assumption that downtown is the regional shopping hub of yesteryear. New commercial square footage, much of it in the form of enclosed malls and shopping centers, has replaced the need for all the commecial square footage that used to be necessary downtown. Yet many downtowns have failed to shrink their commercial districts in a thoughtful way. Instead, the dwindling number of stores are seperated by vacant storefronts - hurting the downtown's overall image and making it more difficult to attract new businesses. This is the "death spiral" that Phil Wrigley speaks. He suggests that a vacancy rate of 20-30% is the tipping point for vacancies that make it difficult for any community to recover from.

Wrigley's recommendations are an excellent strategy to prevent further demise of these districts. With more residentail housing comes more demand for retail and perhaps the "death spiral" should instead be called the "opportunity for reinvention" spiral....

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Power of the Scribe: Sharing Your Stories and Building Buzz

In this field, the work we accomplish in a community is sometimes difficult to quantify. The metrics can be hard to define - and even more difficult to collect. Metrics like new businesses attracted, growth in pedestrian count, new jobs created, etc are valuable. Yet sometimes what has the most impact on investors and potential funders are those stories that communicate the impact of revitalization efforts, not only through numbers, but through a strong narrative.  
I am currently in the final stages of a project with LISC and the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development (ICCD) called "Corridors of Retail Excellence" or CORE. Together with my colleagues at LISC, we have been working with two commercial corridors in Rhode Island to analyze the market, diagnose challenges, and recommend short term, high impact action projects. What has been particularly nice is that throughout the process we have had a designated scribe documenting the outcomes and helping us develop a strong narrative as the new programs and changes taking shape. A scribe is a writer who follows the process as it unfolds - someone whose editorial insight and writing skills help us tell the story of the impact of our efforts.  What ICCD has found is that scribing plays a powerful role in not just communicating impact, but in building buzz that is so critical to leveraging additional funds towards the local commercial revitalization efforts. [For more examples of scribe reports, check out ICCD's website by clicking here]

Writing about (and photographing) the community's progress, and posting it as we go, has been both a communication strategy for sharing results, and a way to evaluate our performance. I encourage practitioners to adopt this practice as a way to share your projects with planners and community members, and most importantly, to have as a resource to inform your future projects.

Read about how our work has progressed in Rhode Island, written by our wonderful scribe Pamela Thomas, over the past few months:

'Eyes on the street' in Providence

By Pamela Thomas, Dec 5, 2011
In the West End neighborhood of Providence, RI, new security cameras might just help local merchants prosper and encourage area residents to be more physically active.

Working in Rhode Island to improve state economic efforts in cities

By Pamela Thomas, Dec 5, 2011
Rhode Island LISC is aiming to improve local economy in two cities and raise the quality of life of their residents. And that's just what Gov. Lincoln Chafee wants to do.

Experts helping to boost commercial strips in two Rhode Island cities

By Pam Thomas, Aug 29, 2011
Two Rhode Island cities are currently the targets of a new program to revitalize urban commercial corridors.