Driving Business Downtown
As millennials move back into cities, urban downtowns are undergoing retail revitalization.
A silent revolution in retailing is taking place in urban downtowns with many undergoing vibrant revitalizations. Janika Brenner, Vice President, Baum Realty Group, a Chicago real estate firm, has played a part in tailoring such growth for the city. Downtowns need revitalization sometimes due to stagnant economic growth but often also due to changing demographics in the city.
Barbara J. Crowhurst is CEO of RetailMakeover, a Toronto-based retail business-coaching firm that has worked on projects in both the United States and Canada. While the idea of revitalization is exciting, Crowhurst points out that in a downtown area, there are many fingers in the pie: city or town elected officials, as well as state or provincial governments, various organizations that participate in running the town or city, and the building owners. “By contrast, malls are usually run by one single company or group, that makes all the decisions and delivers the decisions to the stores. With a downtown area, it’s difficult to come up with a single vision for revitalization,” she says. “It’s important to not only upgrade the retailers, but the whole environment, such as creating wider sidewalks for strolling and beautiful flowers,” Crowhurst adds.
Growth is spurred by Chambers of Commerce of course, but Brenner says it can also be organic with major national players following the lead of established smaller businesses. She cites the example of the Bucktown neighborhood in Chicago, which has undergone a demographic shift over the past decade. “The neighborhood was traditionally artists, but then it started to transition—young professionals and young families moved in, and the housing costs increased,” Brenner points out. Strong local boutiques and coffee shops paved the way for bigger retailers to make their way in. High-profile retailers that came in include Scoop NYC, Urban Outfitters, Marc by Marc Jacobs, American Apparel and Nanette Lepore. Brenner says Baum works with landlords and tenants to make the transition easier and to encourage growth. “As Bucktown was transitioning, we educated both our landlords and retailers on the changes in the neighborhood; we had them walk the streets to see the people and housing changes, and convinced them to put money into their retail properties,” Brenner says, “It has paid off—it is probably the hottest retail district in Chicago.”
How does Brenner know whom to woo? “We look at retailers that have had success in other markets, particularly markets that have gone through similar changes and that have similar demographics. We look to the East Coast and the West Coast; a lot of retailers will not come to the Midwest for their first store—they will look to have a presence in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco first. For more local retailers, we look at retailers that have been successful in other parts of the city, that have a track record with two or three locations elsewhere. What makes these
up-and-coming downtown areas attractive to retailers is that the rents may be slightly lower than in more established markets, and it’s an opportunity for the retailer to try out their concept at a reduced rate.”
Brenner says retailers looking to lease street space see it as an opportunity to establish their brand on the street; their building and storefront are part of the branding efforts. Also, they can control the entire customer experience, as opposed to in a mall. Great foot traffic is an added benefit. “Stores have more freedom to make their own hours, where in a mall, you are contractually obligated to follow the instructions of management. I advise retailers that they can’t just be open 9-5; whoever lives in the downtown will want to shop after work, and people who work in the area may be drawn to shop after work,” Crowhurst says.
There are downsides too. “Parking is one disadvantage, but it’s an understood evil,” Brenner says. Crowhurst agrees. “Retailers can’t create parking themselves; they need the city or town to be part of the vision. In some downtown success stories, such as in Ottawa, Ontario, an entire area was closed off and only foot traffic is allowed, and cars are parked outside the area,” she says.
“Another disadvantage is that you can’t control who’s next to you. There may be a discounted furniture store next to a luxury brand. In the mall, homogenous or complementary retailers are generally placed in one area,” Brenner says.
Crowhurst says that downtown shopping is on its way back. “There are many young people in their 20s and 30s who want to live in the city, who want to have an easy commute. High-density living is making a comeback. The right location on a main street is the perfect place to set up a business,” she says.