Monday, January 23, 2017

Macy's stores are closing. Now what?! Eight strategies for downtown practitioners facing new retail realities

Macy's recent announcement that it will close approximately 100 stores over the next few years came on the heels of announcements that Sears and K Mart will close 150 more stores (they closed 78 stores last year). Other stores like Kohl's posted disappointing holiday results. These general merchandise anchors have struggled in recent years to remain profitable, and the closures are intended to focus their resources on more profitable stores. So what do these trends mean for Main Street? We think the news offers challenges and opportunities for downtown business districts. Here are a few ways we think our downtown communities will be affected in the coming years...

More competitive leasing environment. With more and more SF on the market, malls in lackluster markets will struggle to lease space, and in some cases they will be competing for retailers who might also be considering a downtown retail space. This means that you have to be more aggressive in your leasing efforts, and get better at communicating the value add of a downtown location. You should ask yourself a few questions. Are your downtown vacancies easily found on on-line listing services? If not, are you working actively with your property owners to ensure their properties are listed and available for easy viewing? Do you maintain demographic and market data for retailers who are considering your market? There are a myriad of ways - some that require more investment than others - to ensure your district's vacancies are on a retailers radar. But either way, supporting retail leasing efforts will take some concerted effort and investment. On that note, don't forget to downtown our book, "Improving Tenant Mix: A Guide for Commercial District Practitioners" for free from ICSC's website for ways to take a more hands on approach to your district's leasing efforts. 

Omni-channel retailing will become more and more the norm as mainstream retailers invest in their on-line presence. Main Street retailers will need to find a way to follow suit. Yet asking small retailers to carve out resources for a robust on-line presence is a lot to ask many of them. As a result, communities and BIDs may have to step up their efforts to educate businesses on the strategies the tools they have available to them to ensure survival. Many businesses, particularly those that make their own products, may not be aware that they can sell on platforms like Amazon, Zappo's or Rue La La. We recently met a business owner who gave us the skinny on her on-line selling strategy, telling us she had abandoned Amazon because their requirements were "too much of a pain", but that she has had a great experience with Zappo's. This kind of intelligence will be useful to share with your local business community. And for those interested in selling directly to customers through an on-line platform, there are more and more options for them out there. (Read our recent post "On-Line Selling - An Option for Smaller Businesses" for more info.)
A retail website powered by Shopify, one of a number
of  on-line platforms that makes on-line selling
accessible to small businesses.

Programming and creative usage of public space (i.e "place based strategies") will increase. Commercial districts, like malls, are increasingly trying to offer distinctive experiences that cannot be found so easily on-line. Cooking demos, craft classes, exercise classes, etc. will all become more critical to engaging with customers. In downtown, that means activating and programming public space in a way that will drive downtown visitation. Consider the Meatpacking District's free outdoor yoga program. They teamed up with a local store to offer programs on the street during the summer. This is a great way to highlight a local business while also bringing activity to open spaces. These activities also reinforce a well thought out strategic position for this market based on the segment of the businesses that are there - a place where young, active people congregate. We love it.

The Meatpacking District BID in NYC
sponsors "Downward Dog Yoga Days" in the Summer
in partnership with a local business. 

Food will continue to drive leasing in many downtown environments. When food is in the mix, shoppers increase their dwell time, which increases the amount of money they are likely to spend in the district. A panel on Urban Retailing at last year's ICSC Recon emphasized this trend. Restoration Hardware Executive David Stanchak was on hand to discuss RH's recently opened new store in Downtown Chicago that includes a food operation - The RH Chicago Three Arts Club Cafe. According to Stanchak, "for every dollar we do on food-and-beverage sales, we're generating $2 on increased gallery sales."  The good news is that downtown environments already do food quite well, but will need to begin to find better synergies between food and shopping. In some communities, the hours that retailers are open do not necessarily overlap with the hours that restaurants are open, which diminishes opportunities for cross-patronage. Correcting this misalignment, perhaps through a well-promoted once a month late night effort could help address this issue. That said, care should be taken not to overtax small business owners who often have limited staff capacity to do this on a regular basis. Promoting the event sufficiently, and to the right customer audience, is key to ensuring the success of late night shopping strategies.
The 3 Arts Club Cafe, a food concept within
Restoration Hardware's new downtown Chicago location.

Food kiosks, food trucks, and seasonal food offerings will also continue to grow. Some communities might not be able to support a full time bricks-and-mortar food retailer, but can instead focus on developing a temporary set of offerings that may be associated with an event. We are working in a community in Long Island right now that has a small municipal beach. Last year they started a very successful food truck and movie night. It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that they sold many, many more beach passes over previous years - adding to the town coffers while also building community. These investments clearly also pay dividends.
Downtown Raleigh BID puts on the Food Truck Rodeo
over a weekend in the early Spring with more than 50 food trucks. 

Leasing to specialty businesses will rise. The downtown environment has an element of authenticity and interest that makes is a great place for some of these more interesting retail concepts. In some cases, lower rents and a lower hurdle to entry make downtown storefronts an enticing alternative to malls. Consider Muse Paintbar in Providence, RI, a business that bills itself as "the premier art and wine experience". Located on Main Street in a historic building, Muse Paintbar offers a wide array of classes for adults and families too.

Property owners and merchants will request higher transparency around BID spending. In the mall world, payments by retailers to cover common area maintenance (CAM) are critical to ensuring shared spaces are well maintained. The International Council of Shopping Centers recently posited that 2017 will see a more "widespread effort by retail rein in or set limits on CAM costs." We believe that the same economic forces driving retailers to second guess CAM charges are not limited to businesses that lease storefronts in malls. As many of you know, in a downtown environment, the equivalent of CAM charges are BID assessments, which in a similar manner to CAM charges are obligatory contributions by property owners and/or merchants that support the enhanced maintenance of shared public spaces and help to advance long term district improvements. While getting a BID off the ground may become more challenging as businesses and property owners double down on keeping costs down, we do believe that existing BIDs will have to make sure their members understand the value they are getting for their investment. This means getting much better at bench-marking impact with measurement tools like pedestrian counts. And while BID members may balk at increasing BID budgets, doing away with these additional charges is not an option either. As one analyst indicated, it "costs money to create experience". And given how important experience is going to be to shoppers in the future, downtown's with BIDs are going to be better positioned to weather competition from on-line retailers than those that don't have the resources to program and maintain the downtown environment. 

Retailers, especially at the high end, are open to thinking outside of the box and customizing their stores to unique urban spaces. According to Richard Johnson, a senior real estate specialist who spoke at Recon in May, urban locations are appealing despite the higher costs, "“There is always a lot more cost, and we do more work for urban locations,” he said. “You want to give your best face to your best clients, and urban does that. The goal is to create something unique that has our customers coming back time and time again.” 

Overall, we think downtown is well positioned to compete in the coming years. As people look for authentic experiences, the kind of things that simply cannot be done on-line, we are confident that many downtown's can and will rise to the challenge.

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