This past weekend we had the privilege of attending the National Planning Conference at the Javits Center here in New York City. There were over 600 sessions, discussions, and mobile workshops on topics ranging from retail and downtown revitalization to short term rentals and agricultural tourism. A theme that seemed to permeate many of these discussions was one of continued strength and adaptations in brick-and-mortar retail. City officials, architects, market consultants, and planners at various panels resoundingly agreed that retail was not dead in their communities, or in communities they were working for, and that there are still steps to take to support its growth. We’ve all read the recent reports on large national retailers like Macy’s pulling back on storefronts and abandoning suburban shopping malls. However, this calamitous picture being painted in the media of retail’s impending doom seems to be clouding the realities on the ground. As Steve Dwoskin, Vice President of Callison RTKL, aptly said in his session on The Reality of Planning for Retail, “It’s Fake News”.

Retail Trends
There are so many ways that retailers today are adapting to changing consumer trends and habits in order to sustain growth. At the same session, Kate Coburn a partner at HR&A, explained the importance of understanding the changing shopper demographics across the country and using that to retail’s advantage. Millennials, as many of us know, currently make up the biggest proportion of the population with over 92 million of them here in the U.S. This group, combined with the growing Generation X-ers, are the shoppers that retailers need to watch and adapt accordingly to. More importantly, there is also a growing Hispanic and Asian population here in America that needs to be accounted for in retail market strategies and downtown retail tenant mix. Not to forget the high rates of urbanization that are also forcing retailers to rethink configurations of properties, store formats, and partnerships.

Here are some ways in which retailers, downtown organizations, and developers are adapting to these dynamic consumer trends:

  1. Reconfiguring properties from single purpose malls to mixed use developments in more urban and transit-served areas
  2. Changing store sizes and formats to fit downtown main streets rather than suburbs
  3. Repositioning and retenanting resulting in many developments shifting reliance on department store anchors to entertainment and dining anchors
  4. Focusing on experiential retail as a result of growing e-commerce competition
  5. Targeting localized tenants that cater to diverse demographics in different localities
  6. Using multimedia strategies and moving from traditional media to social media advertising

Ikea was an example of a retailer that has been seen to adapt to its changing consumer habits. Its original 400,000 SF model has since been shrunk to 100,000 SF stores in order to be able to fit into more urban places. Its aim was to “bring the Ikea home furnishing range and expertise closer to customers” who lived in urbanized areas. Although these smaller formats are not able to carry full product rangescustomers are still able to order from the Ikea online range for collection at dedicated collection points of smaller format stores – similar to Target’s fulfillment centers that we wrote about last week. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that furniture is one of few retail categories that has fortunately been less vulnerable to e-commerce. Make-up/ cosmetics, services like hairdressers and laundromats, and restaurants are some other categories that continue to thrive despite the growing shift toward online shopping because they all require in-store product experience and demonstrations before consumers are able to make purchases. Likewise, local businesses that offer authentic experiences are becoming most valuable in today’s retail climate. 

What cities can do to create a supportive system for all types of retail to thrive

  1. Provide appropriate spaces for retail
    • Cities can often provide tax incentives to landlords and property owners so that they may renovate and provide viable retail spaces. In our work, we ‘ve often seen downtowns struggle with high ground floor vacancy rates and yet long lists of potential tenants. This is often the case because tenants and small businesses do not have the capital to rehabilitate and fix up the vacant spaces in order to make them viable for business
  2. Be strategic about co-tenancies
    • A block-by-block tenanting strategy should be developed by merchants associations or downtown organizations in order to effectively cater to communities living in surrounding neighborhoods and also to increase retail diversity
    • Curating retail mix can only be effective when property owners are involved in the strategizing. However, this often requires that cities provide financial incentives for them to be active in such discussions.
  3. Grow customer base close to retail corridors
    • Provide diverse housing options that meet full range of household incomes needed to support a variety of retail
    • Encourage flexible spaces of employment (office and manufacturing) near retail corridors that encourage strong daytime worker populations with a range of income and interests
  4. Right-size parking and vehicular areas
    • With the increasing use of shared car services like Uber and Lyft, and with retail moving to urban places, parking requirements no longer hold the same weight as they did. Retailers in urban areas are instead seeing the need for drop-off areas more so than large swathes of parking. Some downtowns are even revisiting parking requirements for retail uses given the changing environment.

Ways to support small businesses through zoning
More specifically, zoning can be an effective tool in supporting the growth of retailers and small businesses. A panel discussion opened by Arista Strungys, Firm Principal at Camiros, Ltd, dived into some tried and tested zoning modifications and tools that have lowered barriers to entry for businesses. The session cautioned municipalities about out-of-date use structures that were often the biggest barriers to small businesses thriving downtown. According to the panel, building flexibility into zoning and land use ordinances is key to supporting small businesses, including retail. This flexibility can be achieved by establishing a generic use approach rather than specific use approach and also tailoring uses to different districts. The former encourages readability of the ordinance by eliminating pages and pages of descriptions that outline every specific use allowed. Instead of listing retail categories such as ‘Clothing Stores’ or ‘Book Stores’, the ordinance simply says ‘Retail Goods Establishments’ to build in flexibility for allowed uses. Tailoring uses to districts, on the other hand, is best represented in a ‘Uses Matrix’ like the one below. This approach also encourages readability of the ordinance and eliminates the cumulative structure of traditional ordinances.

Eastern Neighborhoods Zoning Guide – Sample Use Matrix

Finally, monitoring new types of uses is also key to being flexible for businesses. Robert Azar, Deputy Director of the Department of Planning and Development for the City of Providence, Rhode Island showed how his City was encouraging small businesses by introducing newer use types in the ordinance including Residential-Commercial/ Residential-Professional uses that encourages live-work spaces downtown. By doing so, the City is using these new permitted types as a calling card for itself – inviting newer types of businesses downtown such as micro craft breweries and specialty food producers and retailers.

For all the news articles and media bombardment of brick-and-mortar retail declining, there is also a strong movement at local levels to grow retail in dense, urban areas through a myriad of financial and regulatory tools. If your town or city is also doing something innovative to adapt to the changing retail trends and consumer habits, let us know! Get in touch at info@larisaortizassociates.com