Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the International Downtown Association Conference entitled The Future of Physical Retail in the Age of Online with colleagues Mike Berne of MJB Consulting and Tony Hernandez, Director of the Ryerson University Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity. I may have been a panelist, but I was as enraptured as the audience by both presentations. Each shared insight into their own research and offered some enlightened perspective on the future of downtown retail for attendees.

Tony Hernandez helped put the changes he has seen in context. Retail is always changing. Consider this – Outlet Centers started making waves in the 1990’s and have only grown in size and scale since then. But if you consider who the major shopping center tenants were in 1996 and now, you will find that the majority of those tenants no longer exist. Hey, no one said retail was an easy business. So when viewed from a historical perspective, today’s concerns about the impact of on-line shopping are part of the normal cycle of “creative destruction” that leads to innovation and improvement, not necessarily the end of the world. And while e-retail may be a small portion of sales at the moment, Tony made the point that on-line influenced sales are what we should really be talking about. Research by the JC Williams group found that 86% of Canadians researched their purchase online before cutting a check.

Mike Berne added that while the news is chock full of an impending “retail apocalypse”, pure play retailers still account for only 4.5% of market share. The future, Mike said, belongs to retailers who pursue omni-channel strategies. He suggested the Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods was because Amazon needed Whole Foods, not the other way around. As he has written for this blog in the past, the Whole Foods acquisition was a response to the “last mile” challenge. The fact that Amazon has yet to turn a profit on e-commerce and makes nearly all of its profit on cloud computing suggests that e-commerce still has a ways to go before dominating the retail landscape. When you consider that the “last mile” challenge – i.e. the ability to get to and from the last point of distribution to someone’s home – is incredibly expensive and that off-price chains like T.J. Maxx have been doing quite well at getting customers to do that for them – Mike thinks the retail apocalypse concerns might be overblown.

My contribution to the conversation was targeted to the practitioner. How do we turn the data into something actionable? What should Business Improvement Districts and Business Improvement Associations (as they are known in Canada) do in light of this information? I suggested a few policy prescriptions and actionable interventions, much of it based on recent work we completed with the City of Cambridge, MA.

The first is to drive experience. It may sound cliche, but people are searching for things they can’t get on-line, so BIDs will increasingly need to activate streets and public spaces with activities that cannot be replicated on-line. That means making sure public spaces are well designed and maintained, and that those spaces allow for public gathering, activities and events. We simply must make our public spaces work harder for us. In San Francisco, the City has spearheaded an effort to engage local non-profits as formal stewards of public plazas, giving them the ability to generate revenue from activities and events. New York City has a similar program. These programs allow for the formal oversight of a public space by an entity that is best positioned to drive pedestrian traffic to an area.

The second is to build capacity of the organizations upon which all of this activity depends. Without organizations with capable staff and sustainable revenue sources, the ability to activate space, build brand recognition, and promote both activities and businesses is seriously hampered. In Cambridge we shared the example of Coro Neighborhood Leadership Program in New York City that trains 20-30 BID leaders every year and has created a network of well-trained advocates for place management. This highly trained network of practitioners now collaborate and cooperate on a regular basis, sharing information about best practices for everything from fundraising to leadership skills.

The third intervention involved taking a deep dive look at the regulatory and zoning barriers that are making innovation by retailers and new business concepts much more difficult and challenging. Consider the small business that wants to start making some of their products on-site and triggers a change in use permit. Or a brewpub for whom there is no retail classification (who had heard of brewpubs forty+ years ago when the regulations were written?). Or the business that wants to offer in store educational classes and is now considered an “educational institution” with higher threshold building code and parking requirements. These rules and regulations are particularly vexing for small businesses with limited capital – precisely the kinds of businesses that many communities want to support. Another issue that falls under this heading is the fact that restaurants and eating establishments, one of the healthiest and growing sectors of the retail economy, are particularly hampered – higher parking regulations for eating establishments are not uncommon and can make opening a location in some cities nearly impossible. Add to this things like sidewalk cafes, which are proven profit drivers, yet these too require another layer of permitting that can be overwhelming for the small business owner. Overcoming these issues is critical to enabling new business ventures that will be so critical if downtown is to sustain a competitive advantage.

As my last point, I discussed the need to fill gaps in the pedestrian experience as the inevitable market corrections will result in vacancies. BIDs are well positioned to ensure that vacancies do not undermine the local pedestrian environment by advocating and supporting pop-up retail or pop-up temporary art installations (like those of New York based non-profit No Longer Empty). These are important stop gap measures that will help existing businesses. In the long term, softening demand for retail spaces may require a wholesale rethinking of how we manage downtown tenant mix. As retail spaces get taken up by less dynamic economic activity, including offices and services, how will we maintain a sufficient concentration of retail in close enough proximity to ensure corridor success?

I want to thank my fellow panelists and the fantastic IDA members who participated in our discussion. Clearly that this issue will not be going away anytime soon!

 

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