Most of the communities I work with recoil slightly when I say “chain store” and “retail attraction” in the same sentence. In fact, after CDA’s inaugural ‘Best Chain on Main’ contest was over last year and the winners were announced, I heard from a number of organizations who mentioned that they were reticent to submit a business for consideration because they didn’t think it fit the profile of a chain. The idea that chain stores are bad because they drive out mom-and-pop businesses is unfortunate – and also doesn’t reflect the spectrum of retail as it exists in the marketplace. In fact, many of retail and restaurants that people think of as mom-and-pop stores are in fact defined as “chains”. A “chain” is a business with multiple locations that share a formula for management, merchandise, format and branding that is applied all stores. This definition of chain holds whether you have 3 sites or 3,000 sites. We all know examples of these regional indepedents. In Pittsburgh, Crazy Mocha, owned by Ken Zeff, with more than two dozen locations in the region is a good example. In New York, Gothic Cabinet Craft (a winner from last year’s Best Chain on Main’ contest), has 29 locations in the New York tri-state area.
So perhaps we need to use a new term to describe those in-between retailers, business with 2+ locations that are still under independent ownership. On the Chain Retail Spectrum, these “regional independents” or as my colleague Mike Berne calls them “chain-lets”, are a valuable sweetspot for local retail attraction efforts. Regional indepedents are ideal for district retail attraction because the businesses are typically locally-owned and retain the character of mom-and-pops, yet also carry the experience and management skillset necessary to maintain multiple successful locations. These business owners are savvy, yet don’t have the resources to undertake a formal site selection when they consider expansion. So getting in front of them to make a successful pitch can be critical – because their expansion is often unplanned and done only as opportunities present themselves in great locations. These owners make new location decisions based mostly on ‘gut’ and a deep insider knowledge of the local marketplace. The fact that regional independents are usually locally owned also means that you can find ways to connect with the owner or ultimate decision maker – often by shopping or eating at the restaurant and asking to speak with the owner. Connecting with the right representative from a national chain, on the other hand, can be an inside game. It can be challenging to find the right person to talk to – and sometimes they want you to go through their leasing agent or broker rather than connect directly. Attracting regional independents to your district is not only easier, but it helps your district retain the local character that differentiates itself from other districts as well. So the next time someone says “chain” and “retail attraction” in the same sentence, don’t discount the opportunity!