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. 

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