Opening a neighborhood retail store is a common path for immigrant entrepreneurs, and these stores provide needed goods and services for both local and regional immigrant populations. In 2007, the Center for an Urban Future released a report that identified immigrant entrepreneurs as key engines of growth in cities from New York to Los Angeles, where their economic impact can be felt along thriving ethnic commercial districts that feature immigrant-owned restaurants, stores, and professional offices. In New York, vibrant examples of these districts can be seen along 30th Avenue in Astoria (Greek and Eastern European), 74th Street in Jackson Heights (South Asian), and 8th Avenue in Sunset Park (Chinese and Latino).

Some of these commercial districts have developed a popular brand identity around their ethnic retail that allows them to attract a broad range of visitors, while others are less successful in attracting customers of different backgrounds. In some cases, this can be traced to the level of individual business owners, who may need guidance or support to appeal to an expanded customer base. In one such district, a Colombian retail corridor in Elizabeth, NJ is very successful in attracting regional Colombian customers but has not been able to reach the large student population from two nearby colleges. The local merchant association on that corridor is eager to improve this situation and has identified several key steps that businesses should follow to reach a broader audience:

  • Ensure that all stores have English-speaking staff, which could be met by hiring bi-lingual students from the nearby colleges. Restaurant menus should be bi-lingual and include images.
  • Broaden the merchandise mix. For sit-down restaurants near the college, this means offering more take-out options; for clothing stores, this means carrying some mainstream brands.
  • Market your existing merchandise to a broader customer base. Many of the Colombian restaurants specialize in fresh fruit juices and smoothies that could be very popular with college students. A simple A-frame sign to advertise these juices could have a big impact.
  • Be open to trying new business models during traditionally slow hours, such as providing a café atmosphere for students looking for a place to study and have coffee between lunch and dinner. Providing free wi-fi can be another useful addition.
  • Collaborate to organize events that make students more familiar with Colombian Cuisine–a “Taste-Of” tour of different corridor restaurants that shows how to best eat a tamale and find your favorite Colombian baked good.

While these steps are relatively straightforward, they show one way in which district managers can re-position any commercial corridor to increase sales: Define your niche, determine whether this niche could appeal to unmet markets, and identify barriers and opportunities to reach these markets. These steps can be tried with a few willing businesses and then expanded over time–when one store tries a new approach that produces positive results, others will quickly follow suit. As places with unique retail offerings, ethnic retail corridors are particularly well-positioned to follow this model.

If you are interested in these issues, you may want to attend the upcoming Hudson Valley Main Street Summit on Thursday, June 10th, which will feature our colleague Paul Grygiel of Phillips Preiss Grygiel speaking on a panel, “The Role of Colleges & Universities in Redeveloping Diverse Downtowns.” For more information and to register, click here.