Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The top 5 things that urban planners and designers usually get wrong about retail

The other day I got into a heated argument with an architect/urban designer over what it would take to get people to shop in a district we were studying. The architect argued that giving people a place to sit - in this case a small pocket park - would attract people to the district. I argued what I know from customer research, business mix plays a more significant role than amenities in driving customer visitation, by a factor of 3 to 1. Moreover, a poorly maintained public space with no steward (and therefore more likely to attract trash and quite possibly vagrants) might actually backfire and hurt local businesses. 

While we resolved our differences, the conversation got me to thinking about the myths that urban designers - who may or may not know the science of shopper preference - sometime propagate. We have all seen "those" renderings - the ones that designers use to help people envision what improvements will look like. I love those renderings, I do! They help people get excited about ideas an concepts - and they are always filled with bustling retail and people. Always. That's the problem - because sometimes reality doesn't quite work out that way. So here is my list of personal pet peeves, with apologies to the architects, urban planners and urban designers in my life. (And full disclosure...I am an urban planner!)

The MYTH: Creating a great "sense of place"will get people to shop.
I hate to break it to you. But people don't shop because of cute lamps. Or brick sidewalks. They do appreciate those things, but they don't shop BECAUSE of those things.

And on the topic of brick sidewalks. For most communities, this is a huge "don't". The maintenance is taxing (pun intended), the bricks pop and sink and actually freeze more quickly than regular asphalt, which means you are setting yourself up for trip and fall lawsuits. Insurers have figured this out, so getting insurance can be a challenge. This is why the City of New York no longer endorses brick sidewalks (although with a change in administration...memories and lessons learned sometimes fade). 

My personal pet peeve. Brick sidewalks. 

The MYTH: If you build it, they will come

First of all, let's deconstruct who "they" is. This age old maxim does not hold for retailers. With no previous sales data for comparison, retailers can be gun shy about new projects, especially in untested markets with untested partners. As for customers, if you build something for customers who don't exist (or who are further away than your primary customer) you are flirting with disaster.

Atlas Park, a shopping center located in densely populated Queens, NY, has struggled mightily with vacancies after the first mix of tenants failed to reflect local consumer demand. After bankruptcy and sale, the new owners seek to gather intelligence directly from the community using creative signs like these. 


The MYTH:  The retail mix can be changed. 
A few years ago we did some work for a city economic development agency who asked us to deconstruct why their facade improvement program wasn't working. The goal of the city's facade program had been to offer retailers grants to upgrade facades, to make them look nice and quite frankly more upscale. But what happened surprised everyone. Once the new facades were in place, retailers would cover up the upscale news signs with their old vinyl signs that once again screamed "sale", "we buy jewelry", or "discount!". The city's planning director was going mad. Why was this happening? Why didn't businesses know that they could be attracting more upscale customers if they improved their looks? When we dug into the data, we found that although high-end residential development was happening (think Frank Ghery buildings), it was a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of middle-income civil and government office workers who were more interested in convenience and value-oriented shopping. The businesses in the area were concerned that a high-end look would scare off their bread-and-butter customer, and many were not willing to take a chance on the slowly emerging high-end customer who had other, higher end shopping options. Not to mention the fact that the product, merchandise mix and price point of many of these businesses was not appropriate to the high-income resident looking for luxury goods. At the end of the day, the district business mix was not going to change as long as the majority of the customer base remained the same. 

As much as city planning wanted to eradicate this kind of business from an increasingly affluent business district, these businesses are there showing their wares in the way that is most effective for their customers. 

The MYTH: The radial circle is the standard way to define trade area. 
In theory, the idea behind a radial is not a bad one (and to be honest, we sometimes do use this methodology depending on the community and the audience). Sometimes the area from which a community pulls the majority of its customers may approximate a radial circle, in which case pulling data in that way can make sense (and can help you see your community the way retailers see your community), but often times there are geographic, psychological barriers, or gravitation forces that distort a radial trade area. Presenting your community data this way isn't wrong - but it doesn't help YOU or your merchants understand who your real customers are.

That said, keep in mind that retailers use radial trade areas in order to make initial side by side, apples to apples comparisons when selecting sites. 

The MYTH: Parking is overrated. Reducing parking requirements won't hurt local businesses.

The answer really is "it depends". This is not to say that many retailers don't overestimate the amount of parking they need, particularly if they are not familiar or comfortable serving dense urban markets. But in many communities (excluding dense urban communities where public transportation is the norm) parking availability is unfortunately a simple requirement, particularly for convenience districts. Because many customers still depend on cars to reach their destination point, retailers concerns are justified. This is not to suggest that you can't and shouldn't beef up alternative forms of access to the district if parking is a challenge. Or that you shouldn't actively manage parking to make it more efficient.If you are a convenience-oriented district, convenient parking is even more important. 

A bus rapid transit lane along Webster Avenue in the Bronx resulted in the reduction of available short-term parking spacing in front of a number of local establishments (places with quick in-out service, Chinese take-out, convenience stores, etc), effectively hurting business.  
So, now that I've said that, let me contradict myself. Destination districts are a little more interesting, because when there is a unique offering people will often overlook the inconvenience and drive around looking for parking. Go figure.

Federal Hill in Providence, RI is a destination for outdoor dining in the region, attracting customers from as far away as Boston. Parking is a pain...but the businesses are still packing them in. 

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