In the retail industry, the word anchor is often narrowly defined. For many, an anchor store is a big box tacked on to a mall, filled with general merchandise and the words “Macy’s” on the side. Downtown anchors, on the other hand, are much more diverse and eclectic, and include a slew of uses and activities that may be nontraditional in a typical shopping center, but are just right for the traditional downtown and neighborhood commercial districts.
As you consider ways to drive retail traffic to your downtown – anchors are a critical piece of the puzzle. Like a mall developer, downtown anchors define the downtown brand, so attracting an anchor, or helping to grow an anchor, inevitably becomes part of your district’s strategic positioning. But I encourage you to take a moment to define anchor more broadly. If you do, you’ll begin to understand the variety of ways in which other uses play a role in driving pedestrian traffic to all of the businesses in your district.
I have found that the Urban Land Institute offers a categorization of anchors for retail entertainment destinations that is also applicable to the downtown context:
Activity generators – Traditional theatres, movie theatres, cultural and educational facilities and institutions – these are all anchors that generate activity. Visitors come to your neighborhood specifically to visit these locales. The more unique and interesting the offerings, the further people will travel to experience what your community has to offer. A great library can be a wonderful activity generator. I worked in one community where the library held daily events that drew thousands of visitors a week, both during the day and in the evening. These visitors often left the library looking for a quick bite to eat, and local coffee shops and delis were more than happy to oblige. Under the best of circumstances, activity generators support the growth of complimentary retail in the immediate vicinity (i.e. walking distance) of the activity generator that cater to the same customer. As you think about retail mix in your district, identify these activity generators and think about the kind of retail and services that would compliment the use. Engage your anchor institutions in a conversation about what goods and services they would like to see around them and use this to inform your retail leasing strategies.
Activity extenders – These activities are typically complimentary goods and services that give visitors more of a reason to stay in your district, beyond their original destination. These uses typically include restaurants and eating establishments. Nothing keeps people an extra hour than a tempting place to eat or grab a cup of coffee. I also like to make the argument that public restrooms are an important and sometimes overlooked activity extender as well. If there are no restrooms available when nature calls, a trip or visit to a store will be cut short, perhaps indefinitely. When I was pregnant I distinctly remember being pleasantly surprised that the apparel store Motherhood Maternity had a ladies room on site. “Of course!”, I remember thinking, they want to keep you here as long as possible! Bookstores always have restrooms for the same reason. They know that the second you leave the store, they have lost you as a customer.
Activity inducers – These are those niche and speciality retailers that are destinations in their own right. In New York, these include unique apparel of speciality food stores (Trader Joe’s comes to mind). FAO Schwartz on 5th Avenue. In my Queens neighborhood, the well-known Indian grocery store Patel Brothers serves this function as well. Great commercial districts have at least a few of these activity inducers that in some cases have become synonyms with the district. If you have one of these retailers – be sure to support their efforts to market and promote themselves.
These are but a few examples of nontraditional anchors…