Thursday, July 20, 2017

Retail in Coastal Towns

The season for sun, sand and sangria is upon us. As families and young professionals along the coast flock to the nearest beach towns for weekends or even a few months, retailers are also following suit. The latest trend in these coastal summer towns is the clustering of pop-up retailers and restaurateurs that have already established themselves in the nearest metropolitan city.

In Montauk and the Hamptons, for example, we’re seeing brands and restaurants that we’re already familiar with here in New York City. In a 2017 Hamptons Guide released by Guest of a Guest, a NYC lifestyle site, more than half of the featured retailers and food and drinking places were outposts of NYC stores. Arbor, for example, an outdoor bar and dining area has reportedly returned to Montauk for a second summer. It is run by Den Hospitality and is an expansion of the Manhattan bar The Garett. Likewise with Eleven Madison Park Summer house, the outpost of Eleven Madison Park restaurant by Michelin-starred Chef and Co-Owner Daniel Humm. In apparel, go-to women’s summer clothing brand The Reformation opened this season in East Hampton. Here in NYC, it has stores in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and SoHo.

These retailers unfortunately are driving short-term leases in these coastal summer towns through the roof and while this has been helpful for property owners and landlords that struggle in seasonal markets, the retailers disappear after Labor Day for the next 8 months leaving empty storefronts… and less-than-happy residents.

We all know that coastal summer towns are popular areas for second homes and while this leads to high housing vacancy rates*, they also often affect the retail and commercial markets. When the part-time population leaves the coastal summer town for 8 months of the year, the full time live-in population left behind can barely support the retail square footage that is available in town. On a visit to Montauk on a surprisingly warm weekend in April, I was welcomed into town by closed or vacant storefronts being renovated for summer tenants. I could not imagine being a resident of Montauk in the autumn and winter months with almost no retail offerings available on Main Street. (Of course, the picture is much different now in the middle of July.)

To make matters worse, seasonal customers often have very different lifestyle preferences, median incomes, and median ages than the live-in residents, which results in a segmented market demand in these coastal summer towns. This means that retailers that are solely attracted to coastal summer towns for the trendy young summer customer may often overlook the needs and preferences of the live-in residents –driving an even greater divide between the customer groups. A quick look at the demographics of Montauk NY, Chatham MA and Block Island RI, all popular coastal summer towns, quickly showed that live-in residents in these places are much older, more car-dependent, and more traditional in taste and “stick to the brands they know” (not exactly the experimental pop-up brand supporter).

Furthermore, live-in permanent residents by default need year-round convenience goods and services versus temporary art galleries or summer clothing stores that strive to entertain the visitor for a couple of weeks. Balancing the retail mix in these towns is hard but when retailers follow migratory habits of customers, it is often the resident that loses the battle.
The light at the end of the tunnel for these coastal summer towns, however, lies with the abundance of experience-based businesses. Food and drinking places, personal care service facilities, indoor fitness studios, and entertainment venues still make up the lion’s share of the retail mix in these towns and for the most part they stay through the year.

These businesses support the tourism and accommodation sectors, and more importantly contribute to an overall experience of relaxation and retreat that even residents crave on weekends. Through rain, shine, or snow, the live-in residents continue to eat, drink and play at these coastal towns’ niche seafood restaurants and indoor fitness studios. In Montauk, even Gurneys Resort and Spa has introduced indoor stand-up paddleboard yoga in the heated seawater pool of the hotel available in the cool seasons.

The experience-based businesses certainly are more apt to modify their services and amenities in these seasonal coastal towns and certainly can sustain the vibrancy of the towns year-round. The coastal towns themselves however need to ensure that their zoning codes and ordinances are supportive of such experience-based businesses especially when new and innovative indoor activities are introduced along commercial corridors of these towns that may not be an allowable use in the ordinance, such as yoga studios or art studios. In fact, in East Hampton, residents have complained that restrictions on establishments that serve food or drinks have dampened the opening of the more experience-based restaurants on Main Street.

In light of the constantly changing retail environment of coastal summer towns, flexibility for retailers is important. Outdated land use restrictions – particularly those that prevent businesses from testing new concepts and incorporating new offerings – limits the ability of retailers to diversify their revenue streams in the cooler seasons and to meet the demands of the year-round live-in residents of these coastal towns. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Food Glorious Food

Last week, my dad came into town and I managed to grab dinner with him in the Flatiron District. After dinner, however, my dad was craving cappuccino. But by 8:30pm all of my usual coffee spots were closed and I was at a lost. I did a quick search for something other than Starbucks in the area and chanced upon a Toby's Estate Coffee & Espresso on google maps, around the corner from where we were.

When we got to Toby's, we realized the cafe was part of an even larger retail concept which included an outpost of Strand Bookstore and Club Monaco. I can drink coffee, read a book and buy a dress- the full experience! As retailers continue to modify and adapt their store formats (especially in urban areas) to offer more than just products, food and drinks are fast becoming the go-to formula to introduce a unique experience to customers. By outsourcing these types of services to other businesses, as in the case of Toby's, retailers are also sharing rent burdens.

Last week, Fung Global Retail and Technology wrote a cool article summarizing the different types of food services found in many of London's stores. From cafes to sushi bars in Topshop and Selfridges, I decided to look for the New York equivalents and here are a few popular examples of food experiences in traditional store formats:

In the UK, food service has been shown to play an effective role in encouraging shoppers to “stay longer, spend longer”. Brits who eat during a shopping visit dwell on average 27 minutes longer, and spend 18% more per visit, according to property management firm JLL. In London—where many shoppers are more affluent and the choice of casual dining is countless—stores that offer foodservice can see shoppers dwell only 10% longer, but spend 38% more on average, according to Intelligent Business Systems.

If the same effects were to apply here in the US, retailers searching for ways to drive sales might be well off finding a food and beverage concept that aligns closely with the existing brand and products in-store. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Distance decay and other reasons why planners overlook the obvious when planning for retail

There is a universal premise in retail - if people can’t get to stores, they can’t shop. It’s a very simple concept, yet time and again this principle fails to get considered during the planning process - especially when it comes to retail. Through our work at LOA, we have come across our fair share of projects that left us, let’s just say, confused. There was that 14,000 sf isolated retail in a mixed-use building located about .2 miles from a nearby shopping district. If that distance wasn’t bad enough, the space was located at the bottom of a hill on a street that dead-ended at a highway. Or what about that urban grocery store adjacent to a major expressway? While it was certainly visible, it was not accessible because there was no nearby exit ramp. So every day thousands of cars would see the big sign for the shopping center and drive right by because they couldn't get there. Let’s just say that the developer of that project skirted bankruptcy. 

Over twenty years we have witnessed our fair share of “don’ts”. Over time, our experience has led us to the conclusion that planning strategies are often based on an imaginary trade area, rather than a real trade area. Trade area is the area from which a store or district will pull (think "gravity" here) the majority of their customers. We take the question of trade area very seriously because it under girds every single piece of data a market research firm will provide to you about your district. Get this wrong and you might as well throw that report away.

At the most simplified level, the ability to predict a district's gravitation pull – or trade area – is directly related to two characteristics. One is the distance (or accessibility, but I'll get to that in a minute) of a district to its customer base. The other is the number and total square footage of retail offerings - what can also be referred to as mass. These two principles, mass and distance, are taken from science. In science we know that the greater the mass of an object, the more of a gravitational pull it has on other objects. The same goes for commercial districts. A district with a greater number of offerings (whether it be in the number of businesses or total SF) generally correlate to a larger trade area. I often say that people will travel 1 minute for every 4 minutes of activity. This 1:4 ratio means that if someone travels 30 minutes, they want at least two hours of activity to make the trip worth while. This is simply another way to discuss the relationship between mass and distance. 
120 linear feet of law office creates significant distance
decay between one end of Main Street and the other. 
Conversely, the shorter the distance between two objects, the greater the gravitational pull and higher interaction between those two objects. More recently we’ve been studying how these ideas relate to “distance decay”. Distance decay refers to the idea that the farther apart you pull two objects, the less interaction you are going to get between those two objects. Here are a few examples of distance decay in practice.
  • The distance between a shopper and a store. The farther a customer has to travel, the less likely they are to patronize a business. We should also keep in mind that “distance” is a loaded term. Lots of things impact how far people perceive a place to be. If going somewhere requires driving around in circles looking for parking, there will be a perception that a distance is greater than if parking is easily available. 
  • The distance between two stores. The further apart those two stores are located, the less likelihood a customer will shop at both during a single visit. 
  • The distance between a parking lot and stores. If there are things to do and see along the way, this distance feels shorter. 
The perception of distance is important here too. More than a few things can make distance feel longer to the average shopper, including:
  • Feelings of insecurity - loitering, trash that make a walk uncomfortable and therefore feel longer
  • Lack of shade trees on a hot day
  • A street pockmarked by parking lots 
  • Nothing interesting to look at - blank walls along the sides of buildings
  • Lack of transparency in storefronts - nothing to see as you walk down the street
The list goes on. 

Our work often centers around ways in which we can reduce distance decay - whether that distance is real or perceived by the customer. This might include way finding or storefront signage or mid-block crossings to name a few. 

Robert Gibbs, author of “Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development” likes to say that people stop walking if there is 50 feet or more of a dead zone. Just 50’ can create significant distance decay such that two businesses will be unlikely to share the same customer. This distance is incredibly short – much shorter than most people realize. As you can imagine, this issue comes up extremely frequently in our work. We recently did some work in a community in North Carolina where a rapidly expanding law firm was taking over storefronts along the most vibrant stretch of Main Street – ultimately occupying 120’ linear feet of storefront(!) with office space. This precise issue came up for me many years ago when, as a Project Manager for the NYC Economic Development Corporation during the 125th Street rezoning (2008) we incorporated a restriction that would limit banks to 25 linear feet of store frontage. Since then other communities have followed suit, including Cambridge, MA where we recently completed a retail study. They too limited banks to 25' linear feet in some commercial districts. 

So while there are solutions to the very real problem of distance decay, many planners first have to recognize that this is a problem worth addressing.